By now, it’s established that Hindi film writers have cracked the hinterland drama, more specifically films set against the UP-MP belt. You often see different iterations of the same: a washed out cop (preferably suspended, definitely righteous), corrupt politicians (for some reason, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s face has come to become the stand-in for that part) and a compromised system that exists in the service of the government, not the governed. Violent crimes happen, often directed at women, and the holy trifecta collides in an attempt to distill a disturbing portrait of a deeply stratified nation.
Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai, a film that borrows its title from an Asha Bhosle track in Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief, dropped on Netflix earlier today, broadly fits into this mould but it has bigger ambitions and often, they aren’t accomplished in the manner you’d expect them to. The cop here, Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) isn’t a wounded man battling domestic issues (Sartaj Singh, Hathi Ram Chaudhary). In fact, he exhibits a disbelieving amount of confidence in the system, inverting the oft-repeated trope.
His personal issues go to the extent of not being able to find a suitable girl. He’s dark (dabbe rang ka, as a character says, a very specific way to allude dark skin in the North), but is bothered about it only because he’s reminded of it. It’s no surprise then that he attaches his identity entirely to his uniform: it’s a legitimate outlet for him to exert power, a theme that the film will wrestle with for the rest of its 150-minute running time.
Raat Akeli Hai begins with two murders that take place on the belt connecting UP and MP. Pankaj Kumar’s camera captures the eeriness of night with the unsettling stillness of a cat’s gaze. Frames are entirely engulfed in darkness barring the capsule of lights beaming out of cars. It’s a very effective beginning that sucks you into the neo noir world previously mastered by Sudip Sharma, Navdeep Singh, Abhishek Chaubey, all of whom Trehan has worked with.
Five years go by and there’s one more murder. A seemingly lubricious family patriarch, Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji), is killed right after his second marriage, this time with his mistress, the much-younger Radha (Radhika Apte) who becomes the prime suspect.
The mansion, as mansions must, hides secrets. It’s a complicated family. There’s Singh’s hotheaded son (Nitesh Tiwari), his pregnant daughter (Shweta Tripathi) her husband (Gyanendra Tripathi), the nephew (Nishant Dahiya), the niece (Shivani Raghuvanshi), their mother (Singh’s sister, Padmavati Rao) and the house-help (Riya Shukla), all of whom are suspects.
Why suspect Radha? Because she’s the outsider who was perhaps eyeing Singh’s vast trenches of wealth. Early on, Siddiqui’s Jatil Yadav is told by his mother (a delightful Illa Arun) - in a different context - baahar ki cheezein dekhoge, to dhokha hi khaoge - an aphorism that will become his guiding light as he investigates the murder of Singh.
The mother says the line in context of finding a bride. He wants a woman who understands the lines between ‘home and outside’ who’s a ‘decent girl’ with a ‘good character.’ The mother, as mothers do, knows better. “Love cannot be planned” she says, illustrating her son’s narrow worldview and rigidity, both of which will be challenged and dismantled through the course of the film.
Trehan and screenwriter Smita Singh (Sacred Games) spend the film’s first hour building up the film’s murky universe as Yadav goes about his investigations, connecting dots, and gathering more intel about the family. He is, however, interested more in rescuing Radha than in solving the crime and operates under the assumption of her innocence, a blindspot that’s weaponized against him eventually. They share something, their past and future connected by a train. Two outsiders, who exist on the margins, against a house that’s not just a stand-in for the morally-bankrupt upper-class elites, but also a symbol of everything that keeps them on the margins in the first place.
Despite a wildly promising setup and Kumar’s evocative cinematography that illuminates the house as much as it shrouds it, Raat Akeli Hai struggles to sustain interest. It ditches narrative momentum in favour of slow burn but slow burns work well only when they carry a hint of urgency. Paatal Lok is a good example of balancing the two. There are a motley bunch of characters, each of who could offer a fascinating window into the roles they are reduced to in a rigid social order, and yet Trehan doesn’t go beyond the surface, looking at them as props, not people.
We learn very little about the family’s interpersonal dynamics and more importantly, the reasons that shaped those dynamics. There are scenes, especially the end, that feel extremely staged - almost like a theatre production - which interferes with the film’s otherwise cinematic experience. It’s almost as if you can see the cue marks where a character was assigned to stand, under strict orders to not move from the nominated spot.
It’s clear that Trehan wants the film to be more than just a regular whodunnit but its broader exploration of patriarchy and masculinity comes at the cost of one not caring about who-has-actually-done it. Interest levels dip and the film begins to feel tedious and exhausting as you’re strained, trying to keep a track of the convoluted connections.
It’s the kind of film you desperately want to like. And yet the initial hype, the atmospheric built-up, the tense background score and the consistently outstanding camera work, which snakes into a cramped train compartment one moment and captures the vacant vastness of the Northern hinterland next, betrays the final reveal, that’s darker than any of our guesses, yet lacks the punch-in-the-gut feeling.
Which isn’t to say Raat Akeli Hai is a bad film by any measure. It is taut and stylishly mounted and excellently performed. Siddiqui and Apte are predictably great, but Apte’s arc feels flat. “Jung khaya hai hamara dil ” she tells Nawaz in one of the film’s more powerful moments.
It’s a great line in a film filled with great lines, said with a lot of heart, but that alone feels insufficient an explanation for their undercooked dynamic, which falls dangerously in the saviour-victim narrative. It’d be interesting to see where their stories go next because even towards the end, there’s never a sense of union between them, but that of incompleteness.
It’s almost as if Apte’s Radha knows that a woman rescued by a man can never be truly free.
(Raat Akeli Hai is now streaming on Netflix)
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.