Director: Honey Trehan
Writer: Smita Singh
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Shweta Tripathi, Aditya Srivastava, Shivani Raghuvanshi,
Cinematographer: Pankaj Kumar
Editor: A. Sreekar Prasad
Streaming on: Netflix
Raat Akeli Hai, like the recent Gulabo Sitabo, is what one might call a "pull-focus" movie. Two distinct genres – one visible, one less so – silently feed off one another. How effective the film is then depends on the (narrative) lens we choose to look at it through.
The simpler way is to look at the foreground: a Kanpur cop investigates the brutal murder of a politician from an upper-class but suspenseful family. For a change, this cop isn't sullen and washed-out. As a slow-burning whodunnit, Raat Akeli Hai blows hot and cold. It's exquisitely shot (by Pankaj Kumar) and evokes the cryptic atmosphere of Manorama Six Feet Under, but it's also overlong and difficult to track. Even during the grand revelation scene, I was still trying to figure out how every family member of the Knives-Out-style household is related to each other. And at two-and-a-half hours, the rhythm of what is essentially an old-school murder mystery feels compromised. Conspiracy replaces conspiracy, the system stifles the individual, and the "who" becomes an afterthought.
But the smarter way is to switch gaze and focus on the background. The 'thriller' finds purpose only if we look at Raat Akeli Hai, beneath its cinematic exterior, as the coming-of-age portrait of an unlikely protagonist. The writing, by Smita Singh, makes up with perspective what it lacks in sharpness. Inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), like his name, is a bit of a typo. He feels like a Rohit Shetty cop stuck in an Anurag Kashyap universe. He is introduced in a scene at a friend's wedding that most movies would play for laughs. His mother (Ila Arun), a widow desperate for a daughter-in-law, parades his photograph around a group of single girls. One of them is put off by his "dark complexion". Back at home, while applying skin-whitening creams, Jatil chastises his mother for embarrassing him: "Why that girl? Did you see the clothes she was wearing?". Like the environment he occupies, Jatil is superficial, small-minded and a contributor to the cement of the country's gender and class walls. This is further evidenced in lunch scenes with his sub-inspector (a solid Shreedhar Dubey), where Jatil orders fried rice and not chowmein because noodles make the messy eaters look like "animals". Even during the investigation, only the men are on his radar. He develops an attraction towards the prime suspect, Radha (a mercurial Radhika Apte) – the mysterious bride of the deceased – not just due to his kinship with her dusky-skinned 'outsider' status, but also because the man in him doesn't expect a fragile woman to execute a murder.
As a result, the entire plot is designed as a transformative experience for Jatil. It unfurls in a way that forces his gaze to evolve. Everything about the premise is supposed to affect his reading of power and masculinity. The film opens with a flashback of a lady being butchered on the Gwalior-Kanpur highway. The other women of the house, too, are in dire form: one is pregnant, two of them have twisted histories, another is bumped off. Even the colours of the mansion – emerald-blue walls – hint at the virility at play. Slowly but steadily, despite a convoluted smokescreen of hinterland politics and generational secrets, we sense the broadening of Jatil's mental bandwidth. The way Jatil sees justice becomes inextricably linked to the way he sees women. He wants to fight a system, but for that he has to first defy a culture that breeds men like himself.
Jatil is one of Nawazuddin Siddiqui's better performances in recent years. There's a duality to him – insecure male, righteous officer – that Siddique nails without exaggerating either vibe. He also resists the temptation of extending his frustrated-son persona into that of a 'bumbling detective'. For example, when he enters the crime scene with self-important swag, one can almost hear him think: "the game is afoot, Watson". Yet, the subtle change in body language on duty – the way he rocks his Singham shades, rides his bike or slaps a hot-headed suspect – expresses the awareness of a man who keeps checking himself, lest he hijacks a story that he needs more than it needs him. Honey Trehan directs his actors well. He also has an eye for the way characters occupy space – the women are almost always symmetrically behind the men. But it's strange that Trehan, a veteran casting director in his filmmaking debut, drops the ball with the casting of the ensemble. It's often a dead giveaway when relatively known faces appear in tiny roles. No director wastes fine actors on a handful of scenes, which automatically implies that their purpose is not limited to screen-time but screen-effect. Raat Akeli Hai isn't clever with its cameos, even if the all-around talent is attractive to watch.
Honey Trehan directs his actors well. He also has an eye for the way characters occupy space – the women are almost always symmetrically behind the men
Yet it's also Trehan's pedigree – he's cast for all Vishal Bhardwaj and Abhishek Chaubey films – that influences the central arc of Raat Akeli Hai. The remote love story between Jatil and Radha evokes shades of the Shahid-Alia equation of Udta Punjab. Radha, too, is a survivor of spoken atrocities, and Jatil's fondness for her stems more from personal vacuum than professional identity. Their broken pieces fit together; they meet in hopeless circumstances, unsure of who is rescuing whom. It's just that their Indian matchmaking device, a murky whodunnit, is a bit of a slog. But perhaps it's fitting that Hindi cinema's favourite romantic trope – a train – becomes a recurring motif of their partnership.
A train is a symbol of displacement, but it is also a medium that transports stories from one phase to another. From one place to the next. From one genre to the next. Like Raat Akeli Hai, the train, too, represents the art of narrative subterfuge: The passengers in it are at once static and moving. They're both sitting and flying. At times, the mere existence of a destination makes it worth this extensive journey.