Raat Akeli Hai begins as the classic whodunit –one murder, many suspects. Thakur Raghubeer Singh,a powerful Lucknow businessman, has been murdered in his sprawling kothion his wedding night. He has been murdered and bludgeoned so viciously, that a character remarks: “Lagta hai koi bohot naraz tha is aadmi se”. It was the Thakur’s second marriage and there are as many suspects, as there are family members. This is the classic upper-class dysfunctional khaandan.
Enter the stubborn and spirited cop Jatil Yadav,who insists on pursuing every lead to its logical end. I settled in, thinking we were going to see a Hindi version of Knives Out. But, debutant director Honey Trehan and writer Smita Singh, use genre conventions to create a horrifying portrait of patriarchy. The men in the film range from being merely entitled and sanctimonious, to being sexual perverts, rapists and killers. The women, irrespective of their status –from the wealthy matriarch to maid to prostitute – are collateral, to be used, abused, traded as the men wish.
It reminded me of a terrific scene in Sonchiriya,directed by Abhishek Chaubey, who’s also the supervising producer on this film. A female daku Phulia, modeled on Phoolan Devi,tells Indu, played by Bhumi Pednekar, that women are such second-class citizens, that they aren’t even deserving of the cruel caste system. They are the lowest of the low. This expansion of a murder mystery layers the narrative, but it also makes the screenplay unwieldy.
The bodies pile up. There’s greed, police corruption, family politics, servants who know too much and powerful benefactors trying to sway the investigation. For the first hour or so, Honey keeps the storytelling twisty and taut. We are introduced to the feral characters, all of whom seem to be hiding something. The Thakur’s sprawling home,with long corridors, backdoor stairways and expensive-looking decorations and wallpaper,is a character itself. The women, especially Radha, who is the new mistress of the house, seem trapped within these walls,which reek of the rot within. Jatil, who must wade through this muck, refuses to do it politely.
Jatil means complex. We are told that his name was Jatin, but his mother changed it, perhaps in anticipation of exactly this case. The relationship between Jatil and his mother, played wonderfully by Ila Arun, provides the few tinges of humor in the film.
All she wants is for him to marry. He’s fixated on finding a decent girl, but his mother, who is far wiser, tells him: “Bahar ki cheezen dekhoge toh dhoka hi khaoge”. Of course through the course of the investigation, Jatil’s idea of what constitutes decent, takes a U-turn. Honey, whose worked extensivelywith Vishal Bhardwaj and Abhishek, isn’t afraid of peering into thedarkest recesses of human nature. The violence in the film is both psychological and literal. Honey and DoP Pankaj Kumar, who also shot the stunning Tumbbad, skilfully stage scenes of lawlessness. A stand-out is one toward the end,when several characters meet under a bridge at night. The frantic, incessant traffic overhead, doesn’t interrupt the bullets underneath. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is almost in every frame of this film, shoulders the weight admirably.
He manages to find the sweet spot between the flamboyant Dabangg UP cop and an insecure, irritable man who demands justice. Radhika Apte matches him with her fiery presence and conviction – her eyes blaze with fury at her circumstances. Honey, who is also a respected casting director,fills the frame with solid actors – among them, Shweta Tripathi, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Aditya Srivastavaand Tigmanshu Dhulia as Jatil’s superior. Each one contributes to buildingthis claustrophobic world. Raat Akeli Hai has atwo-hour twenty-nine minute run time, which dissipates some of the tension of the film. The songs by Sneha Khanwalkar dilute the suspense further. Moments in the film feel rushed, like Honey and Smita just wanted to tie up the loose ends. I’ll also admit that I’m getting weary of watching women being brutalized on streaming platforms – from Mrs. Serial Killer to Paatal Lok to Bulbbul to Raat Akeli Hai.
Why is there such a consistent strain of violence against women? But if you can make your peace with that,Raat Akeli Hai is a gripping tale of murder and revenge. And I must mention Honey’s sly sense of humor. He finds the inherent absurdity in the visual of a bride sitting in all her finery on the nuptial bed, while the groom has been murdered. He also lingers for the briefestmoment on a sign that reads: UP Police. Always at your Service. It’s at once, funny and chilling. The title Raat Akeli Hai comes from the classics. D. Burman song from Jewel Thief. You remember the glorious Tanuja,in this figure-hugging gown, with Asha Bhonsle’s velvet voice, inviting the dashing Dev Anandto whisper something in her ear? It’s flirtatious and fun and playfully seductive. This film is the exact opposite of that. You can watch Raat Akeli Hai on Netflix.