Written by Smita Singh and directed by Honey Trehan, the film weaves in several hallmarks of the whodunit genre (the climactic sequence in which the officer neatly presents his case before the family is peak Agatha Christie), and stacks the cast with fine actors (Shweta Tripathi, Radhika Apte, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Aditya Srivastava) who lend plausibility to their characters' guilt. It also layers in deft references to sexism, classism and colourism. The dark-skinned Jatil applies Fair and Lovely before setting out for the day, and this is a world in which women shut themselves in literally and metaphorically.
Singh and Trehan talk about balancing social commentary with genre thrills, the film's long development journey and shooting that lengthy shootout scene towards the end:
It's been a long development journey. Smita, you wrote the film before Sacred Games, Anurag Kashyap was eyeing it at one point. How did Honey come on board and what changed after?
Smita Singh: I'd written this in 2012, when I joined FTII. I was the oldest kid in class there, I was 35. They give you two ideas to work on. You work on one till the treatment note, then you abandon it and start writing one more seriously. This is what my mentor picked up to develop. I wrote a very rough draft of it, which got circulated and a bit of that is what Honey saw and got excited by.
The initial draft began with the family before the murder happens. You saw the young people as children, you saw how the servants were the extensions of this family, how the women were in the kitchen and how it was a man's world. But (film production company) Mumbai Mantra picked it up in 2015 for a screenwriters' lab, they had people from abroad, who got a little lost in a all the characters. The feedback that I kept getting from a lot people within and outside the industry was that it should be one person's perspective. So I removed all of that and started with the headlights and the murder on the highway. I think that beginning caught Honey's attention.
Honey Trehan: I was looking for a writer and I used to get sent sample scripts. When Smita's script came to me, it was just the first 35 or 40 pages. I read it and was instinctively blown away by the writing and the characters. I wanted to read the rest of the script. I was like, 'Okay, this is it. I no longer need to look for a writer, I've got a writer and a script.'
That opening accident scene really sets the tone for the rest of the film. How hard was it to crack the writing and then the shooting of that?
Smita Singh: Initially, this murder did happen and Jatil did understand some of how these two people got killed but that was coming in the middle of the film. While writing, when nothing was working for me, I finally realized that people were finding it difficult to enter the story. They needed someone to follow. I initially wanted to start with the family and then bring in Jatil and I kept thinking: What's the harm in that? But the moment I jettisoned that and brought the murder up front, it fell into place.
Honey Trehan: When I read the scene, I immediately got excited. This is the only scene for which I did a storyboard, an elaborate storyboard. But we couldn't achieve 80% of those shots. (Cinematographer) Pankaj Kumar wanted to shoot this sequence when the full moon was out, but we had to finish it in two nights. It sounds easy but these production vehicles — no matter how big your budget is, they won't work when the time comes. Gears fail, all these things happen. So we used a drone shot for the bird's eye view. That took us two to three hours. First we were going to show the truck driving through some fields and then you see the jeep and then it reverses, but after the first day of shooting this, I just decided to keep it simple. I wanted there to be that impact when you see the truck behind the car, that was important. I wanted you to feel the urgency so I cut to the close-up of the driver and the lady.
Sriram Raghavan once said that audiences couldn't put two and two together while watching Badlapur. They wondered how Varun Dhawan could've known Radhika Apte's car was going to break down instead of realizing that he punctured her tyre. Was that ever a concern here?
Smita Singh: Oh my god, all the time. All the time. It wasn't the nuts and bolts of the mystery as such, all the puzzles, that was a separate thing. Raat Akeli Hai's setting doesn't let you do that 'English manor' murder mystery, in which people give you information about their whereabouts, there are forensic teams involved, there are people who will help out the detective. Here, I couldn't do that. That's why there's that scene in which Jatil gets told, 'Yeh tumhara zyaada din chal nahi payega.' When I started to write the interrogation scenes, I couldn't see these people helping him out. I couldn't see them cooperating with this guy. They'd be like, 'Here's this vague cop Yadav, and we're Thakurs, we don't answer to this him. Why should we tell him where we were and what we were doing?'
One of the things I was really worried about was whether people would get Jatil, where he was coming from, his ideas, his dilemmas, his hollow morality, the fact that he's repressed and repressive. What really surprised me was that people, even those who didn't like the film, got that and that makes me very happy.
Let's talk about that shootout scene towards the end, it's shot in darkness and ends with a man being set on fire. How hard was that to execute?
Honey Trehan: That scene was always there in the script, but after a few days of shooting, I just felt that it wasn't elaborate enough. It was a small shootout. This scene comes right before the climax, which is very subtle. It all happens in one room. There was already this mental fear because I'm putting nine people in one room for a good 20 to 25 minutes of footage for the climax so I was clear I didn't want it to look like a TV show. So to balance that, I wanted something impactful before reaching the climax, which is this place of calmness. That's when we made the shootout more elaborate. We were looking for locations over the bridge, some corner we could find a road because the dialogue in the script was, 'Bridge ke upar bulaya humein.' But when we were crossing the bridge, I thought it would work better if we did it bridge ke neeche instead.
If you look at the film, we aren't exploring Kanpur that much. So I thought that while the shootout is happening on that lower level, I can show how the entire world is moving overhead. At the same time, the whole story is about this girl and guy below. The Ganga flows nearby and script mentioned that it's Holi, so to light that scene, I thought that there would be an effigy of of Holika burning across. There are people across dancing, beating drums and enjoying the bonfire and here there's a shootout being lit by that backlight. It's an exciting visual. It came out really well. I had no money left to shoot, but we stretched it for another day. The whole thing ends with the man being set on fire. That was a big setpiece — you have two options, either the climax can be a setpiece, very engaging and rhythmic, or it can be calm, which means the scene before has to set the tone.
Raat Akeli Hai talks about colourism, sexism and the patriarchy without making its messaging too on-the-nose. Is it easier to work social commentary into a genre film?
Smita Singh: The idea was always to explore all of that. I was writing this at FTII, which also influenced that a lot because I was the only person writing a genre film. Genre films aren't looked up to at FTII. Genre cinema isn't considered very highbrow. At FTII, to attempt genre cinema and a whodunit was met with like, 'Really?' I was very conscious of that, but I also believe that genre cinema can be extremely transgressive. There's this artist and critic, Manny Farber, who wrote this amazing essay about White Elephant art vs Termite art. In Indian cinema too, you have these white elephant films that announce their grand ambitions and have these noble intentions and are politically correct. And then there are those small genre films that are termite art, they're quietly chewing on the boundaries of what is acceptable and not. I always believed that genre cinema can reach more people and have these subtle messages.
Raat Akeli Hai is a Gothic suspense thriller and in that genre you have Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) and Rebecca (1940), which have similar themes. It's about repression, about entering a new world that's a closed-off space. What I found interesting was that this is Radha's story, but the minute Jatil comes in, I knew I needed to concentrate on him because he has the power do do right, or wrong. He has the power to let oppression happen or to do something about it. I concentrated on the cop and then the genre revolved around him.