Raat Akeli Hai on Netflix, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte: A classy murder mystery that works well despite some stumbles

Posted on August 1, 2020

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Smita Singh’s screenplay takes on a lot, which is probably a good thing because the layers remain interesting even when the whodunit begins to sag.

Spoilers ahead…

This is the season of casting directors turned film directors. After Mukesh Chhabra’s Dil Bechara, we get Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai. The title took me back to two songs. The first, of course, is the shimmery number from Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief, which opens with these exact words. But there, the woman had agency. She was the seductress. But this is a very different world. The women are victims. The second song — inveterate eighties’ creature that I am — is Air Supply’s Lonely is the night. (In Hindi, that would translate to… Raat Akeli Hai.) The lyrics go: “Now you’re not here and now I know / Lonely is the night when I’m not with you”. The sentiment could have been written for the magnificent Ila Arun. The character she plays wants  her son — a cop named Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) — to get married soon. At first, we think she’s just a typically pushy desi mother. But later we see how alone she is after her husband died. Jatil is rarely at home, and even when he is, they bicker more than they talk. Like every other woman in Raat Akeli Hai, there’s a small sadness inside her.

The film, set in “hardcore” UP, is ostensibly a whodunit, but it’s also about women in a male-dominated society. After the end, you may find yourself thinking back — as I did — if a single one of them cracked a smile. They’re sad because (like the Ila Arun character), they’re alone. They’re sad because they’ve been abused, sexually and emotionally and physically. They’re sad because they make horrifying discoveries about their men. And someone like Radha (Radhika Apte) is sad — at least, seems sad —  because her husband has been brutally killed on the night of their wedding. The blood has turned his body as bright-red as her lehenga. Whodunit? Part of Raat Akeli Hai reminds you of the classic Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, seen on screen most recently in Knives Out: one house, many suspects, many motives. Part of the film reminds you of Chinatown: you think you’ve scratched the surface, but murk runs deep down a labyrinth.

Before getting to the rest of the film, let’s drool a bit about the craft, starting with Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography. The opening is right out of the title: a lonely night, with a lonely road. The headlights of an approaching car look like needlepoints. They get bigger and bigger, and suddenly, the headlights of a truck are switched on. I was reminded of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and sure enough, the truck’s driver doesn’t seem to be up to any good. If this stretch doesn’t make you ache for a big screen, nothing will. Elsewhere, Pankaj emphasises formally framed, gorgeously geometric compositions — it’s as though someone felt this unrelentingly ugly world should at least be filmed beautifully. Every time we see red (even in a sordid polaroid photo), the colour pops. And Sreekar Prasad’s editing ensures that this really overlong (some two-and-a-half hours) narrative rarely overstays its welcome. Many scenes keep cutting between multiple characters — but it doesn’t feel frantic. There’s a sense of “pace” due to the constant cuts, but this pace doesn’t look artificially induced. We look at the characters like we’d look around a room.

Smita Singh’s screenplay takes on a lot, which is probably a good thing because the layers remain interesting even when the whodunit begins to sag. I liked the fact that even the “hero” is dark, like the night. He keeps trying to lighten his complexion with fairness creams (and how nice it is to see a man obsessing about skin colour), but his regressive attitudes towards women can’t be fixed with cosmetics. The narrative is, in a way, Jatil’s journey: from darkness to light. From a man who comments on women’s character based on their clothes, he becomes a man who accepts someone he formerly labelled as “characterless”. Nawazuddin plays Jatil surprisingly straight. (I mean this in a good way.) I kept thinking he’d break into some signature quirks, but that might have broken the “design” of this carefully composed film, where even a fight in a train is classy. Typically, you’d see the bad guy being kicked out of the compartment. Here, you just see the open door, and beyond that, the night.

There are other genre must-haves, but they are subverted in equally classy ways. Take Karan Kulkarni’s music during a shootout staged around two vehicles. (Again, it’s night). It underlines the thrills, sure. But the low-register strings also underline the dread. The action scenes unfold a notch or three below the nail-biting levels we are used to. (This isn’t to say they are more “realistic”, necessarily; more that they are in sync with the overall vision.) The cast of suspects and heavies — including Tigmanshu Dhulia as Jatil’s boss, and Aditya Srivastava as an MLA who discreetly runs a tannery in a Muslim neighbourhood — is tops. The dialogues and the detailing make even the smaller characters memorable. I loved how Jatil’s colleague keeps getting cut off every time he brings up the topic of his “Mrs”.

If there’s one big problem in Raat Akeli Hai, it’s the murdered man’s “Mrs”. Radha, who’s from the Chambal region, gets the hardboiled lines of a femme fatale. (“You don’t need status to love me. You need guts.”) But the character is written unconvincingly. We can’t get a hold of her, and neither can Radhika Apte, who plays her as such an open-faced “victim” that she seems to be reading those hardboiled lines off an entirely different script. The character sounds better as a construct than how she comes across on screen — but it’s nice to see this ambition in the writing. Can a genre film also offer social commentary? Many directors have taken a stab in this direction. Raat Akeli Hai is a solid addition to this list. The reveals may not turn out to be entirely surprising, but you feel good when another victim finds a sense of closure. It’s not about who dies. It’s about who lives.

Copyright ©2020 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.