Has any Indian film used celebratory gunfire at a wedding as a cover for murder? The victim in Raat Akeli Hai is Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji), aged patriarch of a wealthy Kanpur family. On the night of his wedding—his second, to his former mistress—he’s found dead in his bedroom, with a gunshot wound and multiple stab marks. The case falls to inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who tells the family members firmly, “Yeh jo kaand hua hai na, hum karenge uski jaanch (this incident that has taken place, I’m going to investigate it)."
Siddiqui's slight emphasis on the last word is key: jaanch, process, the chase, is everything here. Jatil may be a cop, but he has a sleuth’s heart. “Naam yaad rakhiyega (remember the name)," he tells Radha (Radhika Apte), Raghubeer’s widow, as he's leaving. It’s the sort of pronouncement you’d expect from Byomkesh Bakshi, arguably India’s most famous fictional detective. Later, Yadav tells powerful local politician Munna Raja (Aditya Srivastava) that he will dig out the truth come what may. Satyanweshi—seeker of truth—was also Byomkesh’s preferred term for himself.
The film itself nods to a classic crime fiction staple: the locked-room mystery. There are shades of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), in that the suspects are all family members, and are all in the house at the time of the murder: Raghubeer’s druggie son (Nitesh Tiwari); his pregnant daughter (Shweta Tripathi) and her husband (Gyanendra Tripathi); Raghubeer’s brother-in-law (Swanand Kirkire, very droll); his nephew (Nishant Dahiya), niece (Shivani Raghuvanshi) and their formidable mother (Padmavati Rao), in addition to the young domestic worker (Riya Shukla). It’s not a pleasant bunch of people—and Raghubeer is soon shown to be a terrible man. Yet the needle of suspicion keeps pointing towards the most sympathetic character, Radha, whom everyone in the family is awful to.
Through a brief flashback, we learn that Jatil and Radha had met five years ago, as strangers on a train; she might have jumped to her death, but he pulled her back. Five years ago is also when Raghubeer’s first wife was killed in a hit-and-run incident (from the film’s opening sequence, we know it was murder). The train sequence, though not strictly necessary from a narrative point of view, tells us that Radha was presumably on her way to being sold to Raghubeer by her father when Jatil met her, and that she was as miserable then as she is now. It also suggests the dynamic that’ll persist between Radha and Jatil, where she keeps giving up on life and he’s determined to save her.
This is the first film directed by Honey Trehan, one of Hindi cinema’s leading casting directors. Shot with customary grit by Pankaj Kumar and smartly scored by Karan Kulkarni, it’s a cousin to neo-noirs like Manorama Six Feet Under and loquacious Hindi-belt films like Omkara and Ishqiya (the latter’s director, Abhishek Chaubey, is a producer here). Screenwriter Smita Singh, who co-wrote Sacred Games, comes up with wonderful turns of phrase. Jatil’s superior officer (Tigmanshu Dhulia) raps him for working “ekdum vivek shoonya kar ke (reducing reason to zero)". “Tiraskaar karte hain humara (he has contempt for me)," his junior complains. Jatil’s mother (Ila Arun, delightful) reminisces about his deceased father, saying he always spoke lovingly, as if sugar were dissolving on his tongue. “He was a cook," her son retorts. “His job was dissolving sugar."
As Jatil goes to Gwalior to pursue a lead, gruffly mentors his junior officer, and fends off pressure from his superiors and Munna Raja, you might be reminded of Paatal Lok. Raat Akeli Hai does resemble the Amazon series in its bleak outlook and attention to granular detail, though Yadav is a more conventional protagonist than Jaideep Ahlawat’s dogged cop. He’s a creature of habit (another classic sleuth trait), so unreceptive to change that an order of chowmein instead of his regular fried rice provokes a violent reaction. Yet Siddiqui, as only he can, turns this cop without humour or charm, whose defining trait is fixity of purpose, into something attractive and heroic.
Halfway through, I thought the film was making its antagonists too obvious. But Trehan and Singh methodically introduce layers to the case, and the reveal, when it finally comes, is a gut punch. I do wish the build-up hadn’t been so similar to the scene in the Chinatown-inspired Manorama Six Feet Under: Siddiqui rummaging around for clues in an unfamiliar room, finding old photographs, having to wash his face after, just like Abhay Deol in the 2007 film. Chinatown has been a source of inspiration for several fine recent Hindi films, but film-makers perhaps forget that it’s also in the DNA of viewers.
There are things you can do as a writer, a director, when Siddiqui is your lead, which wouldn’t be possible with a traditional hero. Before we even see him, Jatil is rejected because of his dark complexion by a girl his mother presses his photograph on at a wedding (Ila Arun having to hear “rang saaf nahi hai" about her son and replying “par mann saaf hai" would have killed in a theatre). Raghubeer's nephew, meanwhile, is described as a hero-type. With no other major actor would this have been possible, but Siddiqui’s charisma has never obscured his characters’ ordinariness. When Radha rejects Jatil’s romantic overtures, he says, “Hum toh tumhare saamne ekdum saade hain (I’m too simple for you)." Apte soft reply is the film's best line: “Jung khaya hai hamara dil (my heart is rusted)."
Raat Akeli Hai is streaming on Netflix.