Vasan Bala on Monica, darling fight scene: “Rajkumar Rao, Huma Qureshi nailed that line well”
Noir pulp crime Monica, darling, directed by Vasan Bala, has emerged as something the doctor recommends for those who crave old Hindi cinema. Adapted from Keigo Higashino’s Japanese novel Burutasu No Shinzou (1989), this Netflix version is about a robotics expert, from a small town with a big dream, who gets involved in a botched murder plan. Some might even call it a diabolical game of snakes and ladders where players are sneaky and desperate to grab a bigger slice of the pie.
After his latest feature film Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018), the bizarre action movie Bala, 45, cemented his reputation as a maker of unique and fun tales with the success of Monica… In this interview, he talks about his large cast, the music in his film and working with Sriram Raghavan . Excerpts:
What was your reaction when you first read Monica’s script, My Love?
When it was narrated to me by Yogesh Chandekar, who wrote the screenplay, I was hooked for all his twists; I knew I wanted to direct this movie. The book by Sriram Raghavan has been picked up for adaptation and that is another reason why I was drawn to it.
She wrote two previous features, Peddlers (2012) and Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. How was the experience of working with a screenwriter?
There is only a slight difference in the initial stage because I did not work on it from the beginning. While reading, one can discover what is not working. With each reading, we tweak something. I’m glad I took it on because this experience gave me the confidence to work with other like-minded people.
What was challenging working with the cast?
Because of the second wave, our schedule fell apart. Huma (Qureshi) had to shoot several days before leaving the city. Radhika (Apte) can only travel from London after a certain time. It just so happened that all the big scenes, in the second half of the movie, were shot first. We didn’t have the luxury of shooting in chronological order.
Was Radhika Apte’s character as a corrupt cop supposed to be female from the start?
Yes, I really wanted Radhika to play ACP Naidu. So, I modified it a bit to suit her.
All of the female characters in the film have strong personalities.
Monica, Baby is my hardest movie, in that sense. Traditionally, noir is firmly rooted in misogyny. Where do terms like femme fatale and gold digger come from? From a deeply rooted patriarchal system. I wanted the characters to be interesting, intricate, and complex. Huma has an amazing personality that flows on screen. Likewise, I wanted the characters written by Zain Mari Khan and Akansha Ranjan Kapoor to speak to the audience.
With Qureshi’s character as Monica, are you trying to undermine the idea of a femme fatale?
Vandalism can, at times, seem patronizing. In fact, the noir women in certain films – for example Gilda (1946) – were fighting misogyny in their own way. Huma’s character thinks she’s absolutely right to do what she wants. The idea was to really express her personality — we’re not judging her. She’s been through hardships. Only she knows what is right for her.
Tell us about the retro feel of the music of composer Akhint Thakkar, which plays an important role in the film.
For the film’s music, I wanted to go back to the era of Shankar-Jaikishan and R. D. Burman. While Burman is celebrated, Shankar-Jaikishan is somewhat forgotten even though it has an amazing collection. We wanted to create music that modern listeners would also enjoy.
For Monica…we used orchestra singers, who often try to sound like established singers. Anupama Srivastava, who sang Yeh ek zindagi, is not a snob though she is a fan of Asha Bhosle. She lives this way. Similarly, for Farsh pe khade, we found Sagnik Sen, who performs ‘Hemant Kumar nights’ in Kolkata.
There is an appearance of Johnny Gadar (2007) evident in some scenes.
I absolutely love Sriram and this movie’s phrasing, dialogue and music. He has dedicated his life to producing films of a certain genre. There is no one like him. He is an absolute master. I’m glad we can be in the same room as him and be privy to his operation.
The fight scene between Qureshi and Rajkumar Rao is one of the highlights of Monica Oh Baby.
For Raj’s character, killing someone isn’t easy, especially when it’s Monica. I wanted Monica to be physically strong. So, it’s an equals contest. The challenge was to start out lighter and keep amplifying the intensity. Raj and Huma walk the line well. They never made it sound like slapstick.
You once said that producers find your writing strange and don’t know what to do with it. Has that changed?
It is a slow and steady process. People like Sanjay Rotteri (producer of Monica…) have warmly embraced my work and given me complete freedom. They gave me a script that they developed and let me make it myself. People come back to projects these days, not vision. But Rotray and Netflix extended this kind of support to me.
Since the release of the movie, people have been discovering and sharing many movie references and homages in it.
We were sure during pre-production that we were going to put it in the background. Some of the saluting skits were improvised. For example, Huma asked Raj to say: “Monica, jane meri” (a homage to the famous scene from the 2004 film Maqbool featuring Irrfan and Tabu). Discovering these references can go on forever. People can make their own assumptions. This is how I consumed cinema, like many others.
The film reminded many ancient Indian artists. Do you think we got away from them?
I am an old film producer. I don’t think we’ve gone away from that. Each generation will come with its own voice. There was a time when every movie had songs. Then there was a time when we didn’t see the songs. It’s my turn in that sense. However, filmmakers should not fall into the trap of what the market needs.
You’ve had some strong reactions to your interpretation of Satyajit Ray’s story in the Netflix series Ray. How do you process that?
If you touch Ray, you should expect those bricks. I didn’t want to make it honest, intro. It was always a fraudulent explanation. But she has found love from some unexpected quarters. I can not touch Ray films. But if I have to adapt his stories, then I have to make it my way. If I try to be like him, I will stumble. Despite the criticism, I appreciated the childlike love people had for Ray. It is the child in them who makes them hate this interpretation. Because their childhood memory has been tampered with. If I edited his story again, I would probably make it the same way or even more intense.
What movies do you wish you had made?
Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t recreate what the gentlemen did. For example, the songs in Johny Mera Naam (1970) are very perfect. For my generation, Mr India (1987) would be the film one aspires to recreate. He made a very different palette. Until then, we had the drama and the angry Amitabh Bachchan. By mixing Brahmachari (1968) with Star Wars (1977-), Shekhar Kapoor created something we haven’t seen. India has room for reinterpretation although hardcore fans may not agree.
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