I really cannot make sense of critics, including me, always trying to box a film in a typical genre. This is the result of our ‘intellectual’ schooling in reading and writing on cinema, which limits the film and also our reviews and critiques of a film.

Sriram Raghavan is boxed as one of the best, or the best director of noir films in Bollywood cinema today. This, somehow, tends to limit the creative versatility of the director. It is a bit confusing for the director himself who is forever trying to discover new avenues, new genres, new places and new characters to position his ‘new’ cinema in.

But, one must concede that considering his oeuvre in films, Raghavan is truly the master of noir though the definition of ‘noir’ is “a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace.”

Let us correct this and say that he is perhaps, the master of the romantic thriller where the romance is restrained, while the thriller element comes across sharply halfway through the film with its many twists and turns without intruding into the romantic element in this film.

His latest film ‘Merry Christmas’ has the most unlikely lead pair of actors Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi, starring opposite each other. The film is quite distanced from being “a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace”.

It is none of these. It is a beautiful, lyrical journey into nostalgia of a Christmas celebrated in the 1980s in Bombay. It sustains itself in locations of the city close to Regal Cinema, when streets were lit by beautifully coloured, tissue paper-star lanterns outside every house. Where streets were lonely, but alive with Christmas music, crackers bursting and strangers' greetings of “Merry Christmas” floating across the streets, suffusing the air with the cheer of the festive night.

Right in the midst of this festive evening, we are introduced to two characters, Maria (Katrina Kaif) and Albert (Vijay Sethupati), two lonely young souls with dark pasts, trying to bring some cheer into their lives. Maria is married with a daughter, Annie, who has lost her speech. Albert has come back to Bombay to his lonely flat next to a fire brigade after seven long years within which, his mother passed away.

Maria meets Albert almost by happenstance in a bar-cum-restaurant where she has gone with a date who ditches her and runs away, leaving her to pick the bill.

When Albert helps Maria walk into a cinema theatre to catch the film ‘Pinnochio’ at the Regal on their way home, little Annie, her pretty face forever sporting a look of surprise and questioning, falls asleep during the show. Albert, sitting in the row ahead, again walks her home and is welcomed into her beautifully decorated apartment.

Maria talks a lot and confides in Albert, a stranger, unfolding her story of an unhappy marriage filled with violence and adultery without an iota of sentimentalism or self-pity. She adds that the violence has robbed little Annie of her speech.

But Albert holds his cards close to his chest and introduces himself as an architect who worked in Dubai for seven years. The slow but sure bonding between these two dissimilar souls brings across a beautiful, layered relationship that defies labelling, and suffuses the environment with an air of suspense about what is going to happen next.

The production design is sharply conceived to mark the differences in the characters and lifestyles of Maria on the one hand and Albert on the other. Maria’s apartment has a very clear “Christian” atmosphere. We see a large, decorated Christmas tree as the centrepiece of the rather cluttered living room with a sofa, an old gramophone with 78 rpm records, lots of books and a well-stocked bar which Maria generously dips into to entertain Albert with a drink and some music.

Albert’s apartment, a rented one with an affable landlord (Tinnu Anand) is sparsely furnished with a single bed, a simple kitchen and his mother’s photograph resting on a side table.

The thriller element is thrust on us like an electric current when Maria’s husband Jerome’s body is discovered on the sofa in Maria’s living room. One may add, however, that at times, the ‘body’ looks more like a plastic dummy than a real body.

Maria and Albert had just come back from a Christmas jaunt waiting for the chimes of 12.00 midnight and both claim that they are going to ‘time travel.’ While Maria goes to a Christmas dance where the two enjoy themselves, Albert takes her on a stroll through a graveyard telling her to wait for the right moment to strike and then catch it. A beautiful touch, this.

The décor says a lot about the characters and the imaginative production design says it all. A beautiful touch, both aesthetic and emotional, is Albert’s skill in creating animals and birds out of paper called the Japanese art of Origami which has a significant role to play as the story moves on.

He uses this skill to create a bond of friendship with people, be it Maria or Annie. One more is the birdie-toy-in-a-cage Albert buys on the spur of the moment and this serves as an important key to the solving of Jerome’s death.

Is it murder or is it suicide? If murder, then who committed it? Skillfully and aesthetically, Raghavan steers the story to a different dimension altogether, without taking away from the strange bonding between the lead pair, Maria and Albert which sustains and evolves slowly to an open closure.

Maria steps out again after discovering her husband’s body after an angry tiff with Albert when he lets her into his secret. She throws him out.

She goes to attend midnight mass at the local church but faints during the mass and is brought home by Ronnie (Sanjay Kapoor), a successful caterer with a glad eye for beautiful ladies. By some strange coincidence, Albert is roped back in and this time, Albert and Maria behave as if they are meeting for the first time and the dead body is absent.

As the narrative moves to the local police station, the story takes several twists and closes on a rather open note, inviting the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Edit-wise, the film has an intriguing opening. We see a split screen with close-ups of two mixer-grinders grinding two completely different things. While one mixer is being filled with medical capsules of different colours, the other is grinding hot chutney to go with a dosa or an idli, adding a bit of drama to it by showing part of a hand putting on a diamond ring.

Considering the narrative flow, this scene is never explained verbally nor hinted at but becomes clear indirectly through the stories of these two lost souls.

This is a character-driven story as much as it is an atmosphere-driven film, a magical combination that strikes right home. Katrina Kaif, in a simple dress from her young age, adds a strange, feminine grace to an otherwise strong character and perhaps gives the best performance of her career.

Vijay Sethupati is brilliant in his dark silences, the brooding, uncertain expression in his eyes and his natural ability to bond with the little girl. She calls him “Uncle Santa” in the last scene which, as the last word in the film, is brilliant especially because he is distanced from the macho, muscled, big-body heroes we are being thrust with every day.

And we really like him. He cannot dance but is ready to support Maria. Radhika Apte in a cameo as Albert’s girlfriend is a winner with her natural charm while Tinnu Anand is great as Albert’s landlord.

Poor Vinay Shukla has become the inevitable choice while casting a police chief. Sanjay Kapoor is truly good and one wishes we saw more of him in similar roles. The riff-raff in the police station and Ronnie’s wife’s apologies on his behalf might have been introduced to add some humour and satire but they simply do not belong.

The music and the songs hark back to a Christian ambience in Bombay when it had not yet become Mumbai. A time when Christmas songs filled the air with joy and camaraderie, where policemen on guard stopped by for a cup of coffee at a corner stall and helped Maria get into a taxi in the middle of the night when she walks out with little Annie after Jerome’s body has been discovered.

One song less would not have cut into the mood of the film as it has too long a footage for the needs of the drama in the end. The ambient sound varies according to the changes in the narrative. Bottles are opened, drinks poured into wine glasses, music danced on gracefully, crackers burst on the streets. These turn to fearful sounds of everything being thrown into the flames of Maria’s bakery, including the huge teddy bear on the ground floor of the building.

The cinematography has made the most ideal use possible of the opportunity of capturing dark and empty streets in the middle of the night, to the bright lights of a bar-cum-restaurant with a beautiful crooner holding forth. Street lights fit the festive night.

There is a tender kiss that Maria and Albert exchange in the lift, and the camera closes in on little Annie’s sleeping face peeking out of the covers. There is a little cutting of a tiny red paper duck resting on the police officer’s desk spelling out that Albert has already arrived to face the questioning.

Suggestions, hints, understatements are the hallmarks of Sriram’s masterful direction. Merry Christmas is no exception.