Merry Christmas review: Vijay Sethupathi, Katrina star in a slow-burn, rewarding mystery
Merry Christmas (Hindi/Tamil)(3.5 / 5)
Murder in mainstream Indian cinema is often defined by endless bullets, rivers of blood, and a macho hero at its centre. The masculinity that oozes out of him is cause enough for his crimes. But, in real life, murder is less dramatic and more cerebral, and the perpetrator could be just about anyone as long as they have the means and opportunity. In real life, murder can be quite mundane.
This understanding is at the heart of the neo-noir murder mystery Merry Christmas, where ordinary lives are torn apart by violence and the focus is on human behaviour in such circumstances — where the lines between good and bad blur, and the immoral or the amoral may be rewarded for bending the rules. This is the genre of which director Sriram Raghavan has been crowned king, whether he desires that title or not, following the stupendous success of Andhadhun (2018).
Shot simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil, Merry Christmas is a loose adaptation of the French novel Le Monte-charge. The filmopens with a split screen — two mixie jars, one with dal, red chillies, and a diamond ring, and another with pills. One suggests romance, the other suggests death. But they both lead to crimes, as we will eventually discover. We then meet a man, woman, and child walking down the streets of Bombay (the film makes it a point to tell us that it’s set in a time when Mumbai was still Bombay) on Christmas eve. At first glance, they look like a happy family. Only a few moments later, we find that they’re strangers who just happened to meet that night. It’s a fair warning to the audience not to jump to conclusions, not to fall back on conventions.
We rewind to how they met. Maria (Katrina Kaif) and her daughter Annie (Pari Sharma) are at a restaurant. Albert (Vijay Sethupathi) runs into Maria’s fleeing date who entrusts him with the task of telling Maria that he had to leave. One thing leads to another, as is often the case in cinema where interesting people strike a conversation and the hours fly. They watch a film together – it’s Pinnochio for a reason – and it all seems magical until a point when a body is discovered.
Vijay Sethupathi plays the awkward Albert with his trademark charm. The accented Hindi, the goofy dancing, the spontaneous gestures. He’s as adorable as the giant teddy bear that Annie lugs around. But, there is more to him. And of course, to Maria too. Katrina doesn’t have the acting range of Tabu who slipped into the role of the femme fatale with such panache in Andhadhun. She’s also saddled with a moral reason that somewhat dilutes the wickedness of the character. In that sense, she’s a mix of the female stock characters in neo-noir cinema — the girl-next-door and the femme fatale. Still, she makes Maria work, especially towards the end of the second act when we discover more layers to her character.
Up until the discovery of the body, Merry Christmas feels like a relaxed romance where information is exchanged only for the purpose of two strangers getting to know each other. Maria points to a photograph where she’s holding a marlin and tells Albert that she insisted on the giant fish being released to the sea after the picture was taken. At this point, we think, “Oh Maria is so kind.” Later, the same Maria smashes a fishbowl with sudden ferocity — do the fish die?
What’s fascinating about a Sriram Raghavan film is that the screenplay (written by Sriram, Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti, Anukriti Pandey) is peppered with several of these mini mysteries. It’s never just about the big picture. So you are constantly having aha! moments, connecting the dots, spotting the Chekov’s gun, forming the jigsaw. Ultimately, no detail is extraneous. Not the choice of dance music, not the architecture of Maria’s house, not Albert’s love for origami swans, nothing at all. Just as the background score begins innocuously, slowly builds up and hits a crescendo, the facts line up one after the other, until you are whopped in the face with the truth.
The second half is when the film really picks up pace, with a police investigation that prods the loose ends and ties them up nicely, even if wrongly. Sanjay Kapoor plays the flirtatious gent to great hilarity, and his wide-eyed wife is equally good. Radhika Apte appears in a brief but memorable role.
The final act, however, comes off as abrupt and a tad unconvincing. Why do the characters fold so quickly? You’re waiting for a caper again, but suddenly, that’s not what you get. Earlier in the film, Albert tells Maria that sometimes, violence is better than sacrifice. Perhaps that is the Christmas miracle? That the characters who inhabit the grey choose to embrace the white? After all, Christmas celebrates the birth of a man who died on the cross for the sins of humanity. In choosing sacrifice and contradicting himself, perhaps Albert sets himself – and Maria – free at last. It’s a meditative ending, and not one that leaves you on a high. But I suspect that on second viewing, it will fall in place and prove to be satisfying after all.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.