Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Khalid Tyabji, Padmavati Rao, Gyanendra Tripathi, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Nishant Dahiya, Swanand Kirkire
Director: Honey Trehan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
A car - seen in a long shot - tears along a highway, its headlights piercing the darkness. The vehicle stops at an interstate border checkpost. The barrier is manually raised. The Ambassador drives through. A truck waiting further up the road revs up and tails the car. This, the opening sequence of Raat Akeli Hai, A Netflix original film directed by debutant Honey Trehan, culminates in a double murder. The stage is set for a killer thriller.
Five years on, the action shifts to a sprawling mansion on the outskirts of Kanpur. Rocked by another murder, the abode is fraught with intrigue of Shakespearean proportions. An assiduous police investigator digs his heels in with the aim of unearthing secrets that lie buried with the dead and in the hearts of the survivors - deviants, accomplices and victims alike.
Raat Akeli Hai, understated and compelling, is a meticulously crafted whodunnit cast in the classic mould. It deals with shocking acts of moral depravity, but the film steers clear of exploitative sleaze, graphic violence and foul language. It is a genre film about a cop out to nail a murderer but it keeps worn out conventions down to the minimum.
It unfolds in darkness visible and felt. The raat in the title refers not only to the hours between sunset and sunrise - they play an important part in film's key sequences and in its visual ambience - but also to the corrosive murkiness of the setting.
Working with a screenplay by Sacred Games co-writer Smita Singh, Trehan crafts a taut, gripping murder mystery that probes the hideous repercussions of patriarchy in a severely dysfunctional family.
A line spouted frequently in Raat Akeli Hai goes: "Bahaar ki duniya bahut kharaab hain" (the world outside is very cruel). It most definitely is. But the mansion's inner chambers, passages, balconies, terraces, courtyards and staircases are no safer.
Thakur Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji), owner of the house, is found with a bullet in the heart hours after his second marriage. A police inspector, Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) - the strange first name, we learn later, is the result of a clerical error - is sent to investigate the crime. He quickly figures out that he has stepped into a pit of venomous vipers.
Radha (Radhika Apte), mistress-turned-bride of the deceased, is a key suspect. But no family member is above suspicion. Radha's elevation - she is now first in line to inherit the dead Thakur's property - has made her a thorn in the flesh of the rest of the squabbling clan.
The hot-headed husband (Gyanendra Tripathi) of the slain patriarch's pregnant daughter (Shweta Tripathi) hopes to lay claims to his father-in-law's assets because his young brother-in-law is a junkie barely in control of his mental faculties.
The family has another branch - a stern widow (Padmavati Rao) and her son (Nishant Dahiya) and daughter (Shivani Raghuvanshi). Also in the house are the brother (Swanand Kirkire) of Raghubeer's departed first wife and a young housemaid (Riya Shukla), a girl who knows too much for her own good.
The widow, who is still in bridal attire but visibly shaken, is a sitting duck. The family is itching to send her to the gallows. Jatil is drawn towards her, attracted as much by her vulnerabilities as her spunk. But can the policeman save her if she is actually guilty and averse to doing his bidding?
Radha has had a traumatic past. The hard knocks of life have only sharpened her survival instincts. Her intransigence isn't the only challenge Jatil faces. He also has to reckon with the unholy nexus between his boss, Senior Superintendent of Police Lalji Shukla (Tigmanshu Dhulia), and an Independent MLA Munna Raja (Aditya Srivastava).
"I suspect everyone," Radha says when Jatil asks her who might be the killer. "Koi bhi ho sakta hai - humse zyada himmatwala, humse zyada trast. Par aise kisi ko hum toh nahi jaante, (It could be anybody, someone braver and more tortured than me, but I don't know any such person)," she adds suggestively.
Jatil Yadav can act tough when he wants, but he is generally humourless and usually undemonstrative. As his obsession with the mysterious Radha deepens, he transitions indiscernibly from a man merely discharging his duty to a crusader of sorts who hunkers down to an intensely personal mission.
There is action in his life. He resorts to a slap or two, punches a man in the face (off-camera) on one occasion, dodges a murderous attack, and is dragged into a gunfight. But he does not brandish his service revolver, swear under his breath or make grand declamations about his intent. All he allows himself to occasionally declare is that he will get to the bottom of the truth come what may.
Jatil's own life isn't all sorted. He is getting on in years. His widowed mother (Ila Arun) constantly badgers him to get married. He feigns annoyance, asserting that he will settle for nothing less than a "well-behaved and decent looking" girl.
In an early sequence, Jatil is at the wedding of a junior colleague. While he is busy with his friends, his mother shows a female guest her son's photograph. Inspector hai, kitna handsome hai, she preens. "Rang saaf nahi hai," the girl responds dismissively.
Jatil admonishes his mother for showing his picture around. Didn't you see how she was dressed, she isn't my type, he says, going on to assert that I want someone charitravaan "jo ghar aur baahar ki seema jaanti ho".
This sequence, besides gender-reversing the fairness fixation debate, instantly establishes Jatil's social antecedents. His palpably regressive ideas are also underlined by his misgivings about his complexion. He hides a tube of Fair & Lovely behind the bathroom mirror and uses the cream every morning before he leaves for work.
Substance and technique come together seamlessly in the gently simmering Raat Akeli Hai. The whip-smart screenplay is bolstered by strong performances. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte deliver bravura star turns that are perfectly in sync with the restrained tone of the storytelling.
The other members of the cast are just as good. Tigmanshu Dhulia and Swanand Kirkire (who has penned two of the songs composed by Sneha Khanwalkar, besides singing one of them) sail through with impressive ease. Aditya Srivastava, Nishant Dahiya and Shreedhar Dubey (in the role of a policeman who is often at odds with Jatil) deliver the goods.
The women of Raat Akeli Hai are at the receiving end, victims of masculinity at its worst. While they often hang back and seem to convey no more than just silent agony, the actors, with their subtle articulation of bewilderment, calculated complicity and helplessness, suffuse the film with deep melancholy.
Padmavati Rao, Shweta Tripathi, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Riya Shukla make a tremendous quartet. Each adds a distinct, definable shade to the distressing composite portrait of pain and perfidy. Ila Arun is marvellous as the cop's garrulous mother.
For sure, Raat Akeli Hai isn't only about the writing and the acting. The other inputs, too, are of the highest order. The film is lit and lensed with exceptional skill by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar. Every frame, composed with precise purpose, serves to accentuate or regulate the moment and its defining mood. And the editing by A. Sreekar Prasad is so masterful that not a minute of the two-and-a-half-hour film feels expendable.
Raat Akeli Hai, does to the crime and punishment genre what Bulbbul did to the supernatural revenge fantasy - lifts it many notches above the ordinary.