Merry Christmas Review: Katrina Kaif-Vijay Sethupathi Thriller Bewitches Even When It Baffles

Katrina Kaif-Vijay Sethupathi in Merry Christmas.(courtesy: katrinakaif)

Director Sriram Raghavan, Bollywood’s undisputed master of pitch-dark thrillers, takes a bit of a step back from the racy narrative rhythm of Andhadhun and walks a fine line between the unhurried and the urgent, the philosophical and the provocative, and the classy and the kicky in Merry Christmas, a quiet head-scratcher that never lets go of its grip on the audience.

If the black humour-laden 2018 thriller drew inspiration from the French short film L’accordeur (The Piano Tuner) and galloped in an all-new direction, the dual-version Merry Christmas, starring Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi (as odd a screen couple as any in the history of Hindi and (probably) Tamil cinema) crafts a loose adaptation of the Gallic crime fiction writer Frederic Dard’s book, Le Monte-charge.

The title of the French story literally translates as ‘dumbwaiter’. In English, the novel was known as Bird in a Cage. Both a freight elevator and a trapped avian are relevant analogies in the context of the tale that Merry Christmas locates in the Christian community of 1980s Bombay.

In a literal sense, things – and lives – move up and down in Merry Christmas, but the film itself is stupendously even-keeled. Rarely is languor so totally hypnotic. The controlled momentum of the film, and even its occasional lack of pace, is an integral part of the design. Every cut, every camera angle and every bit of blocking enhances anticipation and foreboding without letting on what exactly is to be expected round the corner.

The film opens with a split screen that reveal two mixer-grinders. One reduces chillies and lentils to maligai podi, the other produces a powder from tablets. Both conceal dark secrets. When they are revealed, they unveil two facets of obsessive love gone awry. Isn’t life indeed a grind? What one makes of it depends – as it does in the case of the film’s two protagonists – of what taste it leaves behind.

Filled with stylistic, visual and musical flourishes that significantly enhance the mystery surrounding a Christmas-eve ‘romance’ between an unhappily married mother of a little wide-eyed girl (Pari Maheshwari Sharma) and a mysterious loner who returns to his Mumbai home after a long absence.

Merry Christmas is as Hitchcockian in its unsettling twists and turns as it is Rohmerian in its sustained and piercingly unsentimental moral probe into the dynamics of love, loyalty and betrayal.

The screenplay by Raghavan, Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti (also the film’s editor) and Anukriti Pandey is littered with scattered clues that acquire increasing meaning as the plot unfolds in and around a woman’s home situated above a family bakery that supplies butter biscuits to schools.

Even when there is only talk happening on the screen, or stray glances being exchanged between two strangers or just stretches of awkward silences are resorted to in trying to penetrate the distance that exists between Maria (Katrina Kaif) and Albert (Vijay Sethupathi), the audience has so much to savour – and unpack – in this film that it does not for a moment feel either pretentious or unduly deliberate.

Merry Christmas for the two principal characters as well as the attentive watcher who is given a ringside view of the goings-on without everything being spelt out in black and white. Director of photography Madhu Neelakandan envelopes the residential interiors and the cityscapes with a hint of magic as everything in and around the frames that he composes suggests both festivity and enigma.

Katrina Kaif, in one of most convincing screen performances of her career, conveys, in a strikingly minimalistic manner, confusion and vulnerability cloaked in occasional flashes of steely determination. She is helped a great deal by the contrast that Vijay Sethupathi represents as an actor who relies more on his eyes and facial expressions than on mere words to capture the storm that is raging in his heart and mind and around him.

Merry Christmas is a delightfully inventive cinematic ride that employs a very 1980s Hindi cinema soundscape and an evocative and transportive colour palette to generate a sense of bewilderment as the spectre of loneliness and the repercussions of lost love – both Maria and Albert have back stories that have brought them where they are at the outset of the film before the duo travels through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime in quest of a semblance of deliverance.

Maria and Albert ask questions of each other. The screenplay, on its part, comes up with posers for the audience – is violence indeed better than sacrifice? Are self-inflicted wounds morally more acceptable than seeking closure at the expense of somebody who has caused you pain? Can a brief encounter lead to a life-altering secret covenant between two individuals whose paths never cross until one fine evening?

The two main characters exude a mix of serenity and mischief as they have a drink together in Maria’s home and then go out for a walk, trading snatches of information that are aimed at helping each other break the ice and also at creating a certain degree of clarity for the audience. But the latter effect is selective – it is meant to serve as a combination of obfuscation and revelation.

Merry Christmas is firmly focused on Kaif and Sethupathi, but it does not let the secondary characters drift into any manner of insignificance irrespective of the length of time that they are on the screen. It is nothing short of a marvel that even an actor playing character who has only one almost inaudibly whispered line isn’t just a footnote. He embodies the film’s most significant turning point.

Beginning with Tinnu Anand’s “neighbour uncle” who gifts the prodigal Albert home-made wine on the day of his return and making its way through the appearance of a ‘lifeless’ Luke Kenny and a rakish Sanjay Kapoor as a caterer understandably overly busy on Christmas-eve – he is a ‘caterer’ not an event manager for the latter term hadn’t yet come into the urban lexicon – and ending with Vinay Pathak, Pratima Kannan and Ashwini Kalsekar, Merry Christmas is strewn with characters who leave a mark.

Intriguing, stimulating, gripping and gently challenging, Merry Christmas is everything you would want a thriller to be. It bewitches even when it baffles.


Katrina Kaif, Vijay Sethupathi, Tinnu Anand, Radhika Apte, Sanjay Kapoor, Vinay Pathak, Makkal Selvan, Pratima Kannan, Ashwini Kalsekar


Sriram Raghavan


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