In this series, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay talks about relatively lesser known and yet brilliant films by influential directors which were somehow overshadowed by some of their more popular works.

Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya is widely considered as one of the earliest films to paint a realistic picture of the dark underbelly of the Mumbai underworld. But, in 1996, a couple of years before Varma made waves with his magnum opus, there was another, much lesser known film that truly started it all – with its highly unusual approach, wonderfully written flawed characters and a screenplay that has hardly been matched by any film of the genre in our cinema ever since. This film was directed by Sudhir Mishra and was called Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. Many filmmakers, critics and cinephiles today consider Is Raat… as the original gangster film of modern Indian cinema, one whose parallels can be drawn to the wild madcap films of the Coen brothers in the 80s and the 90s.

Based on a story written by Mishra’s own brother Sudhanshu Mishra, Is Raat… tells the harrowing tale of a young advertising executive named Aditya (Nirmal Pandey), whose wife has just found out that he is having an affair. Aditya tries his best to ‘manage’ the situation by placating the two women but ends up enraging both in the process. Meanwhile, in a parallel track, a feared underworld don named Raman Bhai (Ashish Vidyarthi) is frustrated with his own problems. He has just ended up killing his best friend and partner Vilas’ (Saurabh Shukla) wife – in an accident arising out of a tragic misunderstanding. Vilas is now after his life and will not rest until he avenges his wife’s murder. There is a third man in the scene – a gangster named Praful Kalia (Virendra Saxena), who is trying to take advantage of the situation by fanning the fire between Raman Bhai and Vilas, hoping that one or both of them will be killed in the process, making him the undisputed king of the Mumbai underworld. Under such tense situations, Aditya and Raman Bhai cross paths at a bar, where – thanks to another silly misunderstanding – Aditya ends up slapping Raman Bhai, that too in front of a rival gang. Insulted and furious, Raman Bhai and his gang now hunt Aditya throughout the night, in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Mumbai, with a bunch of other characters – including a corrupt policeman, Aditya’s loyal friend who is secretly in love with his mistress, and a random stranger whose wife has passed away in a ghastly fire accident unwittingly joining the game.

The strength of Is Raat… comes from its script and the slew of fascinating characters that Mishra and his writing team create. There is Aditya who is stuck between a wife and a mistress, neither of whom he can keep happy. There is Raman Bhai (Vidyarthi, in the performance of his career) who despite being Mumbai’s most feared gangster knows that he is inches away from being bumped off, and still has to deal with all the regular household issues of a common man. Murad Ali – a brilliant actor who appeared in very few films before his untimely death, and still left an indelible impression on critics and audiences alike – plays a rookie in Raman Bhai’s gang, and dates his sister in secret. There is Saurabh Shukla’s Vilas, who swears revenge after his wife dies in the hands of a trigger-happy member of Raman Bhai’s gang. There are these two other members of his gang – one whose recently bought shoes is bothering him no end, and the other who always carries a book in his hands but never reads it. I can go on and on, because the list of such interesting characters – each with his or her own motivations, frustrations and agenda – is virtually endless. As they all come together in a rush to find their own ways to survive the night, the results are dark, tragic and hilarious – all at the same time.

Another salient feature of Is Raat… is the absolute unpredictability of the story. Dozens of twists and turns and changes in the plot will ensure that you cannot rest easy. As the events of the film unfold over one night, this gritty thriller will take you on a mad ride through the city. Sharply written dialogues are more satirical than anything you have ever seen or heard before, and several scenes will remind you of Mishra’s guru Kundan Shah’s gallows humour masterpiece Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. With committed performances by even actors playing the tiniest roles that last for seconds, this is a film that has clearly not reached too many Indian audiences, much less been appreciated by them.

Sudhir Mishra could never replicate the magic of Is Raat… ever again in his career, although he did go on to make some good films. But what he did in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin will remain in the annals of Indian film history – albeit as a forgotten chapter.

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