An aged aristocrat dies mysteriously in the night of a life event. Under the lens of suspicion are his prospective heirs and a woman who is not a part of the family. These aren’t the lines for Knives Out in the ‘describe the synopsis of your favourite film badly’ challenge. It is just that the premise of Honey Trehan’s debut film Raat Akeli Hai germinates from the very same outline. It would be impossible to believe if the filmmaker declares he hasn’t watched the 2019 Hollywood biggie. But, in his defence, the Nawazuddin Siddiqui – Radhika Apte’s film with great title value is not entirely a rip-off.
A whodunit set in Uttar Pradesh, Raat Akeli Hai is mindful of its roots. Tough cop Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is piqued by his mother (Ila Arun; Welcome To Sajjanpur’s Ramsakhi Pannavali is reborn here) for his disinterest in marriage. When she suggests a modern girl they spot at a wedding, Jatil hints how his woman ought to be virtuous and homely. Fair enough, considering how his choice is a result of ingrained misogyny. Not being ‘fair’ is also what prevents him from landing great matches. The remedy is a tube of ‘Fair and Lovely Fairness Cream’ his mom wants him to apply. Oh wait, isn’t this is a whodunit? Why so much detail about the investigator’s personal life? Raat Akeli Hai reveals it eventually.
Cut to the murder scene, the members are near replicas of those in Knives Out – including two teenagers, a housekeeper and an impossibly good-looking suspect who reminded me of Ransom (Chris Evans). The family is a lot more disjointed in Raat Akeli Hai. At no point are we told about their relationships with the victim and with each other. There is no will to fight over. The deceased himself gets very few scenes to perform. Luckily for us, Trehan’s film unfolds conventionally through the investigator’s eyes. This way, Raat Akeli Hai avoids needless mind games.
When patriarch Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji) dies in his wedding night, the spotlight understandably falls on his bride Radha (Radhika Apte). The film is quick to tell us that Singh’s mistress-turned-wife Radha had a secret affair with his nephew Vikram (Nishant Dahiya). Following a common murder mystery trail, the investigator smells something fishy. The deed is done by someone in the family, he is certain. Jatil’s race from there on is to pin down the killer whereas the obvious suspect becomes the catalyst who helps him.
First up, I will talk about the writing (Smita Singh) which ranges from cutting-edge to mediocre. My favourite character would be the family housekeeper Chunni (Ria Shukla, who is superb). Her name (which translates to a scarf in Hindi) is also a hint to the garment which plays a role in the unravelling the mystery. When Jatil steps foot in Raghubeer’s chamber for the first time, he spots a pearl that had fallen off Radha’s wedding veil. Another ‘chunni’ in the plot is one that links back to Jatil and Radha’s first encounter in a train. For a trick from the writer to keep us amused, the ‘chunni’ reference is stellar.
The second notable element is an item of clothing too – leather. Jatil loves his leather jackets. His close aid Nandu prefers wool. For what should ideally have been a Sherlock-Watson pair, the duo surprises us with a public brawl. In a scene where Nandu seems to have assumed power, we see him don leather for the first time. Soon, Raat Akeli Hai shows Nandu his place. Talking of leather, we also get a visual of Jatil in a tannery. He is wearing his favourite jacket while covering his face with a kerchief. That’s the writer’s way of throwing some glorious shade at us. The screenplay pays attention to simple moments such as drinking water. Some of them recur, making us ponder over a possible connection or a metaphor.
The screenplay, for most parts of it, does not commit the whodunit compromises – of cutting right before a character is about to open up. In ordinary films, these are instances that we wait for the film to rewind only to have people speak. In Raat Akeli Hai, the brittle family ties stand established but are not-overexposed. There is a similar yet different lingo being used by people who live in the same region but are of different social statuses. In an impressive sub-plot, we get a grandmother who does a chilling rejig of Ajji. That said, the writing does succumb to a whodunit stereotype – the existence of excess characters, some eccentric for no reason. It is as if the film wanted fancier options to choose the culprit from. Finally, the political linkage to the whole mayhem is a byproduct of the same tendency and it falls flat.
There is also a lot to like in Raat Akeli Hai, especially with its Kanpur-Gwalior sensibilities and atmospherics. DOP Pankaj Kumar’s work is exemplary. He captures the gloom and panic of interior spaces while also capturing the mood of the region pretty well. The crime scene is lit in an eerie, faint fashion which triggers fear and suspense. Karan Kulkarni’s original score is very much in the cliffhanger space which is accentuated by the sound design (Shajith Koyeri, Kingshuk Moran) which, even though conventional, works wonders. As is imperative for the genre, editing (A. Sreekar Prasad) is extraordinary in Raat Akeli Hai. The sequences are crisply sliced without ever feeling overlong. The frame selection, especially during dramatic disclosures is mind-blowing. The editor’s work is also a prominent reason why Jatil’s personal-professional spaces integrate smoothly into a central murder mystery.
Performances are thorough by an excellent cast which seems to be handpicked by Honey Trehan, an erstwhile casting director. Nawazuddin Siddiqui does what he excels at. Jatil is an easy role for Siddiqui. He seldom sleepwalks, he rather smooth-walks. Radhika Apte is adequate as Radha but after a point, her character stops adding any value to the film. Once mysterious, Radha turns into a routine Bollywood damsel in distress. Nishant Dahiya looks intense whereas Shweta Tripathi remains underused. Tripathi gets one scene to perform which is cut short as Padmavati Rao and Shivani Raghuvanshi enter – who are very good themselves even though some of their behavioural quirks distract. The otherwise dependable Aditya Srivastava and Tigmanshu Dhulia are saddled with characters that do not mix well with the plot. While their performances are good, they belong to the ‘also there’ bracket.
The big suspense emerges from a very Indian mould. The motive behind the murder and the way it is executed infuriate us but is still not convincing. The twist exists only so that it contains the heat to boil our blood. Trehan spends no thought on why it takes place at that very hour. The murder scene is staged just for the heck of it as if they needed someone to close to story with thereby making it the film’s biggest drawback. The only good thing it does is to expose the aftermath of deep-seated patriarchy. It calls out how women see themselves as inferior beings. The reveal also calls for a change in the way Jatil looks at life. With his name translating to ‘complex’, we observe how Jatil is, in fact, a simple man. He should just have been Jatin which signifies Lord Shiva – disciplined, impartial and intolerant to injustice. And yes, the screenplay throws a fleeting mention of this Jatil-Jatin angle too.
Coming back to its similarities with Knives Out, I personally enjoyed Honey Trehan’s film just as much. The latter emerges from an earthier space and there are fewer genre tropes in use. I didn’t mind the showiness of Rian Johnson’s film but its final reveal was filled with clichés and loopholes. Knives Out makes better use of its characters whereas Raat Akeli Hai wastes so many. Having said that, neither of these films are entirely original. The world has seen umpteen murder mysteries staged in a family framework and there will be many to follow. As of today, I would call Raat Akeli Hai an engaging feat for Hindi cinema to have pulled off. It’s a technically brilliant film with a familiar story and some woke elements thrown in to please the hoi polloi. No, I ain’t complaining here.