Two Bollywood thrillers bookended my week in cinema: the first (Vasan Bala’s Netflix film Monica, O My Darling) casually brilliant, the other (Abhishek Pathak’s Drishyam 2, now out in theatres) uneven but still compelling.
Monica, O My Darling, starring Huma Qureshi and Rajkummar Rao, represented an exuberant convergence of the very old and the very new; while it referenced movies from the old masters like Hitchcock and De Sica, its chosen voice is gleefully, breathlessly postmodern, switching between ‘sincere’ and ironic modes with practised ease. Almost every character in the film (a lot of whom work at a robotics firm) has zero moral compunctions. In the best noir tradition, they are ruthlessly focused on achieving their chosen objectives, and the audience’s allegiance is tested throughout.
Drishyam 2, on the other hand (like the first part, a remake of the Malayalam movie starring Mohanlal) starts off sedately before picking up momentum just before the halfway mark and finishing on a triumphant note. Ajay Devgn’s Vijay Salgaonkar, the man who defended his family successfully against murder charges the last time around, is now older, a little world-weary, perhaps. But the mixture of his deceptive simplicity, coupled with single-minded focus on the details, remains as entertaining as ever. And the film even finds a way to add new dimensions to Salgaonkar’s cinephile hijinks, which was such an important part of the puzzle in the original movie.
Readers of mystery fiction will recognise the connection between Monica, O My Darling and the 2015 Drishyam — they are both based on stories by Keigo Higashino, the prolific 64-year-old Japanese writer. Drishyam is loosely based on the novel The Devotion of Suspect X (translated by Alexander O. Smith, 2011).
Jeethu Joseph, the director and writer of the Malayalam original has denied the link in the past but the similarities in the core concept — one man’s ‘devotion’ leading to the creation of an impossibly elaborate alibi — are undeniable. Similarly, Monica, O My Darling is based on Higashino’s Burūtasu no Shinzō, an as-yet-untranslated novel (the title means ‘The Heart of Brutus’).
Higashino’s books have become globally popular over the last decade or so, selling millions of copies. Not only is he one of the most popular writers in Japan (as well as Korea, where he’s perhaps the single most-read foreign author), the English translations have amplified his celebrity status around the world. His books are noted for their psychological acuity, informed by old-school Japanese values of honour and bravery, especially when these come into conflict with the motivations of the contemporary world.
Inside the mystery
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Higashino’s world is the fact that most of his culprits are regular people who end up committing acts of shocking violence. They are by no means hardened criminals or sociopaths with an array of neuroses and insecurities. Higashino is invested, instead, in precise sets of circumstances that back ordinary people up against the wall, until they feel like murder is their only path to salvation.
Like Agatha Christie, Higashino is perpetually interested in the “constraints” of a given mystery: the locked room, the shared password, the closed information loops presented by small groups of friends and family. This gives his novels that additional edge of tension because the reader is constantly eyeballing each of the characters.
Both Monica, O My Darling and the Drishyam films are based on stories that have also been adapted into Japanese films; clearly, the source material is irresistible for creators around the world.
Earlier this year, Netflix India announced that Kareena Kapoor Khan would lead its official adaptation of The Devotion of Suspect X. With the likes of Jaideep Ahlawat joining her, this could be another Higashino winner come 2023.
The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.