Warning: Spoilers Ahead
The long-anticipated Sriram Raghavan romance-thriller Merry Christmas finally hit theatres recently. The Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi starrer was welcomed with positive reception with particular praise for the duo’s performance. Merry Christmas charts the adventures that take place on the night of Christmas eve after two strangers, Albert (Sethupathi) and Maria (Kaif) converge paths and the whirlwind of consequences that follows the morning after. Set in the 80s, the film carries an old-world charm and pays tribute to the noir genre. While it does not live up to Raghavan’s last hit Andhadhun and occasionally drags, it makes for a fun and nail-biting theatre experience, best enjoyed on the big screen.
Slow burn too slow?
The story of Merry Christmas unfolds quite gradually over the nearly two and half hour runtime, the length of which feels further prolonged due to the atmosphere of complete mystery created by the incredibly ambiguous trailer. We learn in parts about the past and present lives of our two protagonists at the same pace at which they get to know each other. Albert and Maria set out to experience a rather lonely Christmas Eve until they keep crossing paths– primarily due to the fact that Albert follows Maria around– and they eventually decide to spend the night in each other’s company.
The simple-hearted Albert, who is spending his first night back home in ‘Bombay’, offers Maria, a single-mother of a child who is unable to speak, a helping hand and instantly forms a bond with the two. The dynamic between Sethupathi’s Albert and Kaif’s Maria, while initially slightly forced, eventually grows on the audience. The dialogues also fall slightly flat in the beginning due to their lacklustre delivery but become more natural after the one-hour mark.
What starts off as a fairly normal night of unexpected romance turns to be a lot more unexpected than imagined when Maria and Albert return to her apartment from a walk to find the body of her estranged husband, Jerome (Luke Kenny), assumed to be dead by suicide. Albert, who, in an unexpected twist, reveals he was convicted for murder and thus should not be around a possible crime scene, reluctantly leaves Maria alone to deal with this death only to see her and her daughter outside on the streets of Mumbai, looking completely normal, just a few minutes later.
Confused, he follows them to the church, where they are headed to attend midnight mass, and witnesses a strange scene. Maria faints and is escorted back home by Ronnie (Sanjay Kapoor), another church-goer, whom Albert joins so as to help out. Making things stranger, Maria acts out more or less the same scenario that played out between her and Albert when he escorted her home earlier in the night– followed, again, by the discovery of Jerome’s body.
We are left just as confused as Albert who has silently and unknowingly stood witness to all that has happened and this perhaps is the peak of the mystery presented to us during the film. As the police arrive at the crime scene, anxieties are high especially because of how the event has played out and also since Albert, back at this crime-scene, needs to flee once again to not be wrongly suspected of having killed Jerome. After the police leave and after Albert comes across something that answers the mystery of the strange happenings of the night, he confronts Maria about it who then confides in him and confesses to the murder.
The two bond over their peculiar experience and also over their past dealings of love and loss. The next morning, the pace picks back up again when the parties involved are called to the police station to be confronted– however, by now the film feels a little dragged out. After prolonged anxiety and the characters’ stories beginning to seem like they are falling apart, the film ends in a strange and unexpected way, leaving the audience to wonder if love trumps all.
Grief and love (and the lack of nuance) in Merry Christmas
Although we mostly see the events that transpire through Albert’s lens, Maria is arguably the main protagonist of Merry Christmas. And while the lives, backstories and personalities of the two converge quite convincingly, Albert does come off as the more nuanced character. Both characters carry some form of trauma and pain from their previous relationships as well as their general feeling of isolation which is something their bond over. But Maria comes off rather as a damsel in distress, especially since Albert is always more than happy to lend a hand. In the attempts to make viewers sympathise with her character and empathise for her, the audience rather ends up feeling pity towards her. Her story revolves mostly around the men she is attached to as well as her daughter. The blow of this is attempted to be lightened when she takes more autonomy towards the latter half of the film.
The problem however remains that her character does come off as slightly underdeveloped since the depth of her life experiences do not translate in her personhood due to a lack of nuance. And while there is a brief attempt to explore gender dynamics in public interactions and interactions that may potentially turn romantic, it is shut down too soon because of the everturning nature of the plot.
Raghavan’s attempt with the plot is to carry on his signature neo-noir style while incorporating elements of romance into the story. For the most part, this works out well aside from the fact that there is too much going on, especially in terms of the messaging of the film. While primarily a crime-thriller, the underlying themes of Merry Christmas are that of love and togetherness, which is an interesting mixture. There is a jarring dichotomy between love and violence taken up in the film which may even be slightly too much to swallow. The violence that takes place in the film is directed quite strangely towards the visible death of a romance, posing the two routes to be taken as either violence or sacrifice.
It brings up the question of justice within its own murky morals and in doing so, it joins the long list of films that co opt social commentary into their story, sadly falling a little flat. That being said, it still, compared to several other films of similar themes, addresses grief well as it acknowledges the different kinds of griefs and people’s very personal relationship with it.
The main pitfall of Merry Christmas is perhaps that there was too much going on, not only in terms of events unfolding but in terms of the many things the film was trying to say. It leaves you heavier than you would expect but still makes for a fun watch. The visuals, especially in terms of the colours and the set design, are something to marvel at. The film’s smaller characters played by Radhika Apte, Tinnu Anand and Ashwini Kalsekar deliver memorable performances. The songs capture the era it is set in very aptly and the score sets in an anxious mood for the film alongside being used as a surprising plot device.
Merry Christmas could have either been treated more lightly, without attempting to approach serious topics or discussions, or the unnecessary plot complications could have been put to a back burner, with the filmmaker focussing on its messaging about relationships and justice instead. Had it chosen one route of the two, it would have made for a much tighter, more appreciable film.