Sister Midnight (2024)

Sister Midnight Review

Sister Midnight


A strange couple is forced into a small Mumbai apartment with walls so thin you can hear them. They’re alone, and they’re awkward. Cranky Uma tries to cope with the heat, her ineptitude at cooking anything (even toast), nosy neighbors and her bumbling husband until one night she discovers new feral cravings.

‘Sister Midnight’ Review: Surreal Indian Comedy Swerves Into Genre Excess

Karan Kandhari’s clockwork satire on modern arranged marriage is filled with bold promises it can’t keep.

There’s an old storytelling trope that says all you have to do is keep running keep running no matter what because if you stop, they’ve got you. This idea forms the basis of Karan Kandhari‘s “Sister Midnight,” a surreal Mumbai fable whose comedy has more to do with rhythm (near-aggressive in its timing), than jokes. It plays the same notes for longer than expected before fizzling out entirely but those few notes are struck very well indeed. All the while, though his protagonist blinks into an unexpected hauntedness, Kandhari takes a new visual tack on arranged marriage which he sets in a strange world of psychosis; it’s better than it should have been allowed to be but not as good as it might have been hoped for.

Uma (Radhika Apte) is brash, acerbic and vulgar this last quality chiefly evidenced by her repeated use of a particularly choice Hindi expletive that Shilpa Shetty recently reintroduced into public discourse. She can’t cook or look after money or particularly care about whether she meets any of these expectations of her role as new wife in India; unable to conceive children through no fault of his own, Gopal (Ashok Pathak) marries again without telling his first wife about it. When post-wedding-night he brings Uma to his one-room apartment a cramped space that for Manhattanites would only just be a single the awkwardness between them is so thick you can see it from space. She wants to sleep with him, or thinks she should, but he can’t take his shirt off.

Kandhari’s snappy comedy is established quickly, with all the calculated framing and editing and choreography of a Wes Anderson action scene (I’m thinking of the wake in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which was basically just a fight scene made entirely out of well-timed punches). However, first-time feature director Kandhari also dances to his own tune; he has neither genre nor tone expectation to stick to. His music choices range from Bengali folk through American punk and blues; he’s London-based but draws on various cultural influences from an Indian origin. There’s nothing forced about his depiction of working class Mumbai either; its authenticity is never more apparent than in the movie’s quieter low-lit moments when shadowy visual contrast throws up against Uma face after face after face.

When Gopal goes off to work Uma tries to establish some sort of domestic routine; this involves everything from learning how to chop vegetables properly all the way up figuring what on Earth she might do with herself during her many hours free in a busy neighborhood where every time she closes her eyes someone drives past outside laying on their horn so that even if she had been able to get any sleep at all it would have been utterly impossible. The happily married woman next door, Sheetal (Chhaya Kadam), takes pity on Uma who is like an alien child dropped into this world and delivers even her most impassioned and welcoming lines with wry impenetrable wit. It’s a role Kadam plays perfectly, finding variation even within monotony not least because Apte tends towards fiery unpredictability while Kadam herself channels more deadpan insanity.

Uma’s mind starts unraveling at the edges, torn between her gossiping neighbors and society’s expectations of her until she finds a macabre outlet for her frustration. When Kandhari begins to manifest her anxieties into the world around her, it is in the form of wildly imaginative stop-motion elements that rupture his world-building, revealing images that have been blended together seamlessly but aren’t quite logical or like Uma herself don’t feel as if they belong.

But the more sudden genre swerves “Sister Midnight” takes, the less control Kandhari seems to have over what he may or may not be making up about his own movie. His story holds Indian patriarchal norms up to scrutiny and through its tender portrayal of Gopal as a nervous wreck equally victimized by circumstance as Uma (if not more) whose subgenres it ultimately leans into would be best left unspoiled by this review, though some of its genre hallmarks do suggest it could be a film about love’s devouring nature. Yet still: The indignities Gopal eventually suffers due to Uma’s deteriorating state of mind yield too perversely mean-spirited results that feel wrong.

Kandhari has a clear and twisted vision, but he is also very good at making us care about these people (maybe too good). The punk-feminist parable he tries to construct with “Sister Midnight,” using phantasmagoric imagery throughout, veers too heavily toward the truly disturbing both emotionally and viscerally for its intentions always come off cleanly enough with an audience.

This dissonance also contributes to (or perhaps collides with) the clockwork rhythm of the film becoming too mechanical to handle; past a certain point, visual gags stop being unpredictable within it and everything that was initially right about its off-kilter sensibilities starts feeling like dead weight which keeps “Sister Midnight” from being able to go on the transformative journey required in order for it to chase its initial Surrealist high.

The movie slips away from Kandhari somewhere after its first hour, resulting in an enrapturing and delightful enough first two-thirds but one that becomes so married to a singular approach during its back half that it ultimately ends up eating itself alive style-wise leaving too little room at the table for what could have been bold ideas about identity and performance.

Watch Sister Midnight For Free On Gomovies.

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