Credit: Pen Studios/Netflix
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Streaming Scene

Merry Christmas — Sriram Raghavan

March 11, 2024

Cinephilia is a dangerous game. Follow the director’s rules closely, and you are, more often than not, rewarded with insider access. These are reference points that the filmmaker usually calls attention to by placing them on the same (fore)ground as the film’s narrative; it’s their way of honoring the significant aesthetic or narrative influence someone has had on their film. This can be fun, original, and daring: Humphrey Bogart’s larger-than-life Hollywood image overwhelms Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), but not the film itself; Godard uses his reference point to make or support his point about, among many other things, the death of originality. The flip side of this is the citation for the sake of it: a glorified in-joke between indulgent filmmaker and “follower” that serves no other purpose than stroking their respective cinephilic egos for knowing something that others unfamiliar with the filmmaker’s work may not. It’s no different from the Pavlovian response generated by franchise fandom: the sight of something, anything exclusively familiar, is, in and of itself, a cause for celebration. Followers not on the same page, be damned!

Sriram Raghavan’s cinema is remarkable precisely because it never falls into this trap. He takes immense pleasure in foregrounding his cinephilia, but never at the cost of narrative engagement, casting him as somewhat of a less flashy and indulgent Quentin Tarantino — or, better still, an Indian counterpart to the Coen brothers. All five of his previous directorial features — Ek Hasina Thi (2004), Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Agent Vinod (2012), Badlapur (2015), and Andhadhun (2018) — are pastiches of classic film noirs, murder mysteries, or spy thrillers, but with varying shades: if Johnny Gaddaar is a gloriously pulpy riff on Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Badlapur is one part adaptation of Daphne Du Maurrier’s deeply remorseful “Don’t Look Now” (1971) and another part study of toxic masculinity in the same vein as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Whenever these books, film posters, or films appear in his filmic narratives, they inform its narrative or characters, but never exclusively so: you can still get his films if you are unfamiliar with his references. Familiarity only enhances appreciation for his meaningful deployment of them, not their pointless insularity.

The same applies to his latest film, Merry Christmas, recently released on Netflix. Adapted from Frédéric Dard’s novel Le-Monte Charge, Raghavan’s film is not a remake of the 1962 French noir film Paris Pick-Up, which also takes inspiration from the same novel. It does, however, claim to pick up cues from other similarly noirish films: Raghavan dedicates Merry Christmas to producer-director Shakti Samanta, responsible for making Bollywood crime thrillers released in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Other filmic signifiers — the poster of Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic romantic mystery Rebecca (1940) and the murderer’s infamous whistling tune from Fritz Lang’s M (1931) — also pop up in the film’s first half. So, we expect the expected: a twisty Sriram Raghavan neo-noir crime thriller filled with secrets, lies, and, perhaps, a side serving of romance.

But Raghavan foregrounds the romance, not the crime in Merry Christmas. In cinephilic terms, he’s tipping his hat more to Eric Rohmer, another filmmaker he “thanks” in the opening credits, than to Hitchcock or Lang. And the result is sublime: the film’s first half features one of the most beguiling Bollywood romances in recent memory because it gives both its mysterious, lonely strangers — Maria (Katrina Kaif) and Albert (Vijay Sethupathi) — the time and space to get to know each other. The initial awkwardness, accentuated by Kaif’s slightly anglicized pronunciation of Hindi words and Sethupathi’s noticeably South Indian inflection of them, slips into casual flirtation, before erupting into a joyous dance that then settles back into a moment of comfortable calm. There’s an ease and flow to their conversations despite, or perhaps because of, both actors’ unease in speaking Hindi: a connection formed between broken people through broken enunciations.

Raghavan, however, is equally adept at consistently breaking up this romantic spell. The yellowish golden glow of Christmas Eve lighting that makes the night appear the brightest before dawn finds shades of blood-reds and high-contrast shadows consistently dimming its luminosity, especially whenever we enter Maria’s apartment building; a walk down the bustling streets of Bombay also means having to walk down Albert’s “memory lane” of a decrepit cemetery; the playfully innocent bits of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” initially played at a low volume to set a romantic mood, quickly escalate in pitch and volume to become a declarative symbol of murder, as in Lang’s M.

Because crime, backgrounded for nearly an entire hour in the film, has to take over the romance in Merry Christmas. The film’s second half features everything one has come to expect from a Raghavan film: a litany of colorful supporting characters, including a hilariously horny caterer (Sanjay Kapoor), his wife who thinks he’s a saint (Ashwini Kalsekar), and a dryly comedic police officer and his sub-inspector (Vinay Pathak and Pratima Kazi) getting caught up in a murder investigation whose prime suspect appears to be Maria. Cinephilia abounds purposefully (Kapoor’s character invokes Ernst Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow, whose central protagonist is, like Kapoor’s, a playboy), awkward black comedy undermines innocent romance successfully, and the over-convoluted narrative untangles itself beautifully. But there remains a glaring absence: the film keeps Albert and Maria apart from each other for a sizeable chunk of this half, and that threatens, ever so slightly, to make Raghavan’s film feel somewhat derivative to other elaborate and expertly constructed Knives Out-style mysteries.

But Merry Christmas realizes this and snaps right back into its delicately (if now somewhat perverse) romantic groove during its final 25 minutes. Raghavan stages the film’s extended climax, set inside a police station, like a grand opera, with every incidental set-up — from the Christmas “birdie” that Albert buys at the film’s beginning to the origami swans that he and Maria build and burn together to the proposal ring that he has been holding onto forever — getting a payoff one after the other, an approach that builds the film to its peak and thrillingly cathartic emotional crescendo. It all, of course, ties back to their relationship, but it also, surprisingly, builds on the film’s Christmas (and Christian) setting that had, before this, felt nothing more than window dressing. Merry Christmas, in these final moments, almost stealthily, becomes a moving fairytale about rebirth and redemption: an emphatically bittersweet play on Robert Bresson’s brilliantly paradoxical Pickpocket (1959) ending that’s on par with, if not superior to, most of Paul Schrader’s iterations of the same. (Sorry, Paul).

DIRECTOR: Sriram Raghavan;  CAST: Vijay Sethupathi, Katrina Kaif, Ashwini Kalsekar, Radhika Apte;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  STREAMINGMarch 8;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 35 min.