Despite uneven edges, realistic 'Monica' worth a watch (Movie Review)

By Subhash K. Jha (12:32)

Film: "Monica"; Cast: Divya Dutta, Ashutosh Rana, Dadhi Pandey, Rajit Kapur; Writer-Director: Sushen Bhatnagar; Rating: ***

One doesn't know if the real-life journalist Shivani Bhatnagar was meant to be a kind of promiscuous enigma. But that's how she is purported to be portrayed by writer-director Sushen Bhatnagar. A kind of Madame Bovary (a novel by French writer Gustave Flaubert) of the fringe world. A cryptic woman and a mystery to others and to herself whose story is pieced together after her death through the wonderfully nimble vision of the movie camera.

Alas, the camera, contrary to belief, does lie quite often.

In this interesting though flawed film about a deeply flawed woman who knows not what her body or mind wants, director Sushen Bhatnagar takes a real-life incident from the newspapers and converts it into a well-meaning cinematic treatise. It's done with much restraint but not enough of a grip to keep the slippery characters from slipping off the story board.

Frequently the characters appear on screen with very little to recommend them as mere human beings or even as flawed character-studies. Bhatnagar's world of politicians and media persons in and around Lucknow and Delhi appears to be colonised by self-serving stereotypes, trying hard to appear subtle in their devious machinations. Failing in that endeavour, they appear more sinful than sinned against.

Frequently in the course of the narration we feel the characters are being let down more by a lack of creative and financial resources than by destiny.

The saga of the small-town girl's ambitious rise from salwar-kameez to skimpy skirts and tops has been done with far more grace in the past. Madhur Bhandarkar's "Fashion" created both the fury and passion of that journey into a hurling doom that small-town girls often undertake in implementing their big-time dreams.

Monica Jaitley, as played by Divya Dutta, comes across as a vulnerable vixen. Manipulated and manipulative Monica epitomises the strenuous gracelessness of over-pushy small-towners who topple over the brink in their pursuit of the designer-dream.

The nexus between Monica's world of journalism and the murkier milieu of politics and politicians, as represented by Ashutosh Rana's quietly conniving character, doesn't quite become the heady mix of art and 'vulture' that such cinema has often become in the past (in Ramesh Sharma's "New Delhi" and Rajkumar Gupta's "No One Killed Jessica").

The edges in this hard-hitting story of sex and politics are raw and uneven. The tone doesn't quite catch on the immediacy and urgency required of a docu-drama. The narrative pace sometimes slackens to a slow trot taking away considerably from the why-dunnit's cutting edge.

But the effort to recreate the life of a journalist who dared to dream is sincere. Monica is the kind of won't-tell-a-lie cinema that gets trapped in the labyrinth which separates the search for the truth from the truth itself. But the film does create an aura of doomed sensuality around the protagonist without resorting to lengthy cheesy shots of her journey into the bedroom.

The dialogues suggest deeper thrusts of anguish in Monica's life than the ones that she was apparently resorting to for self-enhancement. At the end one isn't sure what killed Monica - her ambitions or their inherently absurd nature.

For being able to bring out the contradictions in Monica Jaitley's personality, this film deserves some words of praise. The performances of Divya and Ashutosh are tuned well to the theme. But the gifted Rajit as Divya's reprehensible husband is uncharacteristically hammy.

The rest of the cast is stiff, self-conscious and unremarkable.

The authentic locations add a hue of familiar discomfort to the film's politics of sexuality. With better production values and more space for the characters to breed credibility, this could've been a remarkable political thriller rather than a film that gets lost in a maze of possibilities.

Nonetheless worth a watch for recreating an event from the proximate past that showed how closely and precariously politics is related to journalism. And sex.

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