Honey Trehan is nervous and excited ahead of the release of his directorial debut, Raat Akeli Hai on Netflix.
The whodunnit stars Nawaazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte and Tigmanshu Dhulia, among others. It follows a small-town cop who is summoned to investigate the murder of a powerful local politician. Trehan has worked in the industry as a casting director for almost two decades on films such as Tumbbad, Udta Punjab, Hindi Medium and Dedh Ishqiya. In recent years he's also produced highly acclaimed films such as Talvar, A Death In The Gunj and last year's Sonchiriya.
Trehan was initially set to make his directorial debut in 2017 with Sapna Didi, a crime drama starring Deepika Padukone and Irrfan Khan. He parted ways with the project citing creative differences with producer Vishal Bhardwaj. But he says Raat Akeli Hai was in the pipeline well before that. He read writer Smita Singh's script during the making of A Death In The Gunj and felt immediately drawn to it. "I instinctively enjoyed it because I've spent a large portion of my life in Allahabad and I knew this kind of world and these people, and I knew this could be my first film", he says.
Ahead of the release of Raat Akeli Hai, Trehan spoke to me about why whodunnits are so rare in Hindi cinema and the art of casting.
Raat Akeli Hai is packaged as a whodunnit, a genre rarely explored in Hindi Cinema. Why do you think we make so few of these?
As far as India is concerned, often we want to make a noir film but end up making just another thriller. This kind of film demands a certain pace and mood for which you have to be very patient to get to the end result.
I really don't know why we don't see more of this genre here, but I'm a big fan of it and I want to continue making these films. I've been a huge admirer of John Michael Hays who wrote Rear Window for Hitchcock, who also opened up an entire world through his films, and the same goes for David Fincher. All of their films hook you until the end and you never lose patience. That's one part I really wanted to focus on while making this film. I wanted to make the audience unsettled throughout.
A lot of debut filmmakers dream of seeing their first film on the big screen. Was that the same for you, or was this film always planned for streaming?
Obviously, I dreamt of a theatrical release. I won't lie about that. I made this film for the big screen. But because of the pandemic, it wasn't possible. But I'm so glad that it's finally releasing on Netflix. I believe it's a blessing in disguise and now a larger audience will see the film.
You've worked as a casting director for a long time. Is there one film you're the proudest of?
There are a couple of films that I really enjoyed casting for, but I won't take credit for those films. I'd rather give the credit to the directors because they believed in those projects. For instance, in Kaminey, we are telling a story of Guddu, Charlie and Sweety. But for an audience, regardless of how much we try to sell these characters, for them, it's Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra. The story is about how Guddu and Sweety enter an unknown world full of dangers. So my idea was to create that unknown world using new faces that aren't known to the audience. If I had a Gulshan Grover or Nana Patekar play those roles it wouldn't work because the audience will know they are the bad people.
But the approach changes from film to film. With Byomkesh Bakshy, in the opening scene, we see 5-7 people sitting in 1942 Calcutta. But if those people were known actors who we often see in 2020, then the 1942 Calcutta world would fall flat. But sometimes great casting comes from someone else. A great example is when Vishal sir cast Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi in Omkara. So you learn things from others as well.
When a director approaches you to cast for their film, what are you looking for most? Is trust the most important thing?
Well, the fact that the director has come to me to do the casting implies that they have trust in me. But I never want a narration by the director. I like to read the script 2-3 times first and have the characters talk to me so I can completely understand them. Once that's clear in my mind, then I ask for a narration.
If I listen to the narration first I'd get bound by the director's interpretation. This way, I have a certain idea and can make suggestions. And I never look for actors. Instead, I try to find the characters in the script. I firmly believe that these characters on paper exist in real life and I don't care if that person is an actor or not.
What is the strangest place that you have discovered someone for a role?
Amol Gupte in Kaminey for sure. We were looking for Bhope Bhau but couldn't find him anywhere. One day I was reading the Mid-Day newspaper, and there used to be a section where celebrities talk about making their favourite dish. In that there was a picture of Amol Gupte sitting on a swing talking about his favourite dish and I just knew. I called him immediately and he freaked out. I had to really pursue him and finally he met me and we spoke for over 3 hours.
When I told Vishal sir he was shocked because he knew Amol Gupte as a reputed writer and director and he was worried this would take the film in the wrong direction. But when Amol came into the office looking like Bhope Bhau, wearing white pants, a white shirt and a red tika, Vishal sir was sold on the spot.
A similar thing happened with Gurdas Maan on Manto. It was 3 days before the shoot and the father's role hadn't been cast. I knew any great actor could play that part and that all of them would do justice to it, but I was looking for those specific eyes – of a father looking for his daughter. While driving back home it hit me and I told Nandita Das that Gurdas Maan was the right person. She thought I'd lost it. But I contacted him and we met him for breakfast the next day. Nandita was almost in tears after, because she could see what I meant about those eyes.