The Hindi-language Mili will feel like déjà vu if you’re at least mildly into Indian cinema, even if you never saw the original Malayalam-language film Helen, also directed by Mathukutty Xavier. The new remake will play better for those uninitiated to the Indian-cinematic world, with its three-hour-plus runtimes, genre bashings, galvanic visuals, and recurring plot tropes. Unfortunately, great films rarely require a mental separation from tropes and isolation from expectations to succeed. Mili, to speak plainly, is just another middling Bollywood remake of an innovative hit in a smaller Indian language film industry.
A nursing student and soon to be expatriate to Canada, Mili’s (Janhvi Kapoor) defining trait is loving her father, the nicotine-addicted Mr. Naudiyal (played by the jolly and lovable Manoj Pahwa). She loves him so dearly that she calls him to verify he has properly taken his nightly meds and hides her boyfriend, Sameer (Sunny Kaushal), until the latter is responsible enough to secure a steady job. Working for the Mr. Krabs of the Pacific Mall (Sudheer Malkoti, played by Vikram Kochhar) at the fast-food restaurant Doom’s Kitchen, Mili works a late second shift to save up for Canada, where she hopes to find work as a doctor. One night she has an altercation with Sameer, catalyzed by his irresponsibility, that poisons her relationship with her father—and just as she feels frozen in place, the conditions of careless capitalism make arrangements for her to get locked in the walk-in freezer at Doom’s Kitchen, with no phone and no coat, for five hours.
In some ways, Mili is a better version of Fall (2022): an almost-but-not-quite-one-location thriller with external relational drama to supplement the dangerous situation. The capitalism-critical elements add a stronger thematic backing than anything in Scott Mann’s climbing thriller. Mili succeeds better than Fall by fattening the thin characters through an hour of background and set-up before the ensuing event. But the dangerous situation is significantly less stressful than its American peer: Mili cuts between the father and boyfriend’s rescue attempts and the shivering Mili, an editing decision that allows too great of respite from the primary stressor. Nonetheless, Mili is the better film.
The time actually spent in the freezer is remarkably chilling. (I’m not sorry.) In an effort to retain body heat, several problems create interesting situations, although Mili is remarkably slow to realize the scenarios. It takes her a few hours of being stuck to even attempt to hinder the air conditioning fans. In all, a devilish sound design with well-executed special effects (specifically, on her skin) and a few cute sequences involving an unfortunate mouse (an unlikely friend to Mili in what could have proved her dying hours), the individual beats and scenes all work viewed separately from the distracting editing.
At the movie’s end, the whole affair glaciates Mili’s self-ambition to a standstill. She’s had enough of the cold and remains in India, doomed to make less money as an Indian nurse. The decision, of course, is meant to promote Indian economic self-sufficiency (and anything that counters colonial dependency is by very nature well-intended), but, in actuality, the decision to stay home feels like nothing more than the usual socio-conservative “family values” shtick. The filmmakers condemn Mili’s ability to remain a good, loving daughter from the other side of the ocean—and that just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
dir. Mathukutty Xavier
Now playing at Apple Cinemas in Cambridge