‘Raat Akeli Hai’ Lacks Thrill, But Is Still A Good Mystery And A Commentary On How Patriarchy Breeds Toxic Femininity
What makes a good whodunnit? Despite reading and watching a lot of them, it took me a while to arrive on an answer that I deemed satisfactory. For me, it was all about the journey rather than the destination. I mean, yes, I’d definitely want the answer to not be as basic as ‘The butler did it’, but I’d probably buy it as long as the journey to get to that answer was through a quagmire full of interesting characters and complex emotional, psychological and socio-political layers. In Netflix’s newest release, Raat Akeli Hai, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Shweta Tripathi, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Nishant Dahiya, Padmavati Rao, Ila Arun, Swanand Kirkire and Aditya Srivastava, first-time director Honey Trehan manages to satiate my basic demands from the genre.
A smart UP cop, Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui; the story behind his name is a funny one) is unmarried and helpless in the face of his unrelenting mother (a hilarious and perfectly cast Ila Arun) who wants to find him a bride. His is the issue of dark skin and average looks, which are only remedied when he puts on his uniform and black sunglasses, and a fair-and-lovely variant that boosts only his morale, not his complexion. Ironically, he gets called in to investigate the murder of an elderly politician (Khalid Tyabji) who also happens to have been killed on his wedding night. His mistress-turned-bride Radha (Radhika Apte) is, again ironically, dusky too, and you instantly feel them drawn to each other. She’s so perfect for him, if only she weren’t a murder suspect.
But that’s not the only reason (before you think I am being racist, it was satirical). Apparently, they have a history, which makes him a little more pliant to the possibility that the young bride didn’t kill her much older groom for the money. The rest of the Thakur’s family—his sister-in-law (Padmavati Rao), niece Vasudha (Shivani Raghuvanshi) and nephew Vikram (Nishant Dahiya), daughter Karuna (Shweta Tripathi) and son-in-law, and his first wife’s brother (Swanand Kirkire)—all think she did it. But, of course, they all have their own secrets and motives that could mean any of them could’ve done it.
Cop Yadav must now deal with his biased feelings for Radha, the facts and evidence of the case, the manipulations of the victim’s family members and pressure from a local politician (Aditya Srivastava) and his own superior, the SSP (Tigmanshu Dhulia), while he cracks this twisted case. Oh wait, there’s also a double cold-blooded murder from five years ago and the victim’s track record of sexually abusing women that has deep connections with the case.
Also Read: 5 Thoughts I Had While Watching Netflix’s ‘Raat Akeli Hai’ Trailer. Mainly Ki, Those Are Some Fabulously Complex Female Suspects
Turns out, director Honey Trehan was a casting director for films like Maqbool, Omkara, Ishqiya, and has assisted directors like Vishal Bhardwaj and Abhishek Chaubey (Sonchiriya). The screenplay is by Smita Singh, whose work you might have seen in Sacred Games. Raat Akeli Hai has influences of all these styles and movies in a good way.
It did become difficult at a point to separate the art from the artist for Nawazuddin’s cop, considering the IRL issues dogging the actor. Especially because his cop is so likeable and a welcome change from the criminals he has been playing. His chemistry with Netflix bae Radhika Apte is pretty good, and watching Faisal and Ramadhir Singh reunite as boss and junior was also fun. The little traits that have been carefully added in his character make for a good protagonist.
Apte pulls off a great act yet again; she looks the part of a woman who has given up but still has some fight in her, only if she finds someone in her corner who believes in her. You kinda understand why Netflix loves her; it’s nice to have her back! As for the other characters, they do their parts well, but none really stick in your head for too long. Although, I was a little glad to see Aditya Srivastava be on the other side of the law this time!
What does stick is the mystery, which though feels drawn long, keeps you hooked. The culprit isn’t someone you instantly expected to be, but there’s also a negative point about that.
For a debut film, Raat Akeli Hai is actually pretty good. But that’s not always enough, is it? The trailer immediately had people comparing the film to Rian Johnson’s perfectly crafted Knives Out which works so well because the audience isn’t just interested in finding out who-dun-it but finds themselves on the edge of their seats at regular intervals as the cop’s investigation progresses. Everyone is a suspect, and this statement can be made with enough conviction, not just matter-of-factly.
It is here that Raat Akeli Hai, with a runtime that is only 19 minutes longer than Knives Out, feels a little tedious and drawn out. Where’s the adrenaline rush of discovering a clue? Where’s the nervous excitement of having your deduction, as an actively participating audience, face its moment of truth? The thrill of a character’s truth being exposed, of all the dots that were carefully scattered throughout the plot finally connecting together! It’s missing profoundly.Netflix
In fact, Nawaz’s cop, who has until now shown some amateur Sherlockian powers of observation, only catches the proverbial smoking gun in the very end. And the thrill of this discovery is stifled because it is part of a montage, with a song playing in the background. When the killer is finally revealed, it does come as a surprise. In upholding that mystery, the story does not falter one bit. But the smarter members in the audience might feel cheated because there were no subtle hints about this answer peppered anywhere in the film.
The whole thing then feels rushed, and does not give genre buffs the payoff they deserve for sticking with the film for over 2 hours. What I also thought was missing was a certain grittiness of small-town India.
The Female Characters Of Raat Akeli Hai Are Worth A Deeper Analysis
I have to say though, that what Raat Akeli Hai lacks in thrill, it makes up for (a little) in the complex female characters and the socio-political setting of the show. One of the biggest takeaways from the film is a topic I have lately become obsessed with, which might explain why I loved the film for it—toxic masculinity breeds toxic femininity. And the latter can be more harmful than the former in destroying its own kind.
Take, for example, the women of Thakur Raghubir Singh’s household, who were, for years, aware of his horrific sexual proclivities. And yet, they remained mum, letting him exploit and abuse Radha, and even marry her. It could be reasoned that they did this because, as Jatil Yadav put it, the outside world is a bad place, and the Thakur patriarch offered these women shelter and respect, making them nigh untouchable. But none of them showed the slightest sympathy towards Radha and her plight.
In a sense, these women were pitted against each other in a race for their survival by the men in their lives. Each of them played their own game shrewdly—Vasudha and her mother preferred to seize their rule with manipulation and fear because if they didn’t, they’d be quashed under the whims of other men waiting to take over Thakur’s legacy of subjugation. The house-help, Chhutki, and Thakur’s daughter Karuna kept mum and looked the other way because that was the only way to protect their lives. They had zero power plays here.
As for Radha and Chhutki’s grandmother, both wrong by the society and those more powerful than them, they both endured and gave up, only to throw all their spirit into one last battle.
The end of Raat Akeli Hai reminded me a lot of Voot Select’s The Raikar Case, which is yet another example of how women can sometimes play a much deadlier game than men, that they’re capable of the same (if not higher) degree of evil as men. And that there’s a very thin line between being oppressed and internalising that oppression to an extent that you become the oppressor.