The knives are out in Raat Akeli Hai, a homegrown murder mystery on Netflix that doubles as an impressive directorial debut for Bollywood casting director Honey Trehan. It’s the rare mainstream Indian film that doesn’t seem to be in a rush to tell its story, and earns its daunting two-and-a-half hour runtime — deviating from the primary plot when it wants to, and fleshing out its archetypal characters with care.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Inspector Jatil Yadav, would be glad to ditch the gangster garb for a cop’s khaki, if only to reprimand journalists who keep asking him if he’s been typecast.
When Raghuveer Singh, the rich patriarch of a landowning Uttar Pradesh family is found dead in his bedroom, Jatil is sent to investigate. Affecting the dignified manner of Hercule Poirot and Benoit Blanc, he paces about the house, observing the crime scene with clinical passivity and sizing up each member of the family. It is soon clear to Jatil (and us) that they are all hiding something; they all have reasons to kill the old man.
Having understood this, Jatil gathers the family in the courtyard and says, almost as a threat, “Aap sabko hum ek baat bata rahe hain. Yahan jo kaand hue hai na, hum karenge uski jaanch.” And once again, Nawazuddin rises above his diminutive physical stature to deliver a performance that positively demands attention.
Jatil is an interesting character, given a chip on his shoulder by Nawaz. In the tradition of fine fictional detectives, he is quite the blank canvas. His sincerity is unquestionable, even in the face of corruption and red-tape. At every turn, he is met with hurdles, sometimes in the form of his uncooperative superior, and on other occasions a local politician known as Munna Raja. Like the recent series Paatal Lok, Raat Akeli Hai also subscribes to the age-old cinematic trope that for a crime to be solved, the detective must first be suspended from duty.
As fun as the film is, it can’t help but come across as a wasted opportunity in this regard. Singh’s screenplay sets the stage for subversion, but concludes rather clumsily. A romantic subplot involving Jatil and the old man’s mistress feels tangential, and serves only as additional motivation for a man who doesn’t really need any. Played by Radhika Apte, Radha, the ‘rakhael’, is an enigma of a character, no doubt modelled after classic film noir femme fatales, but regrettably reduced to nothing more than a damsel in distress.
As a first film, however, Raat Akeli Hai is quite the achievement. Trehan not only has a skill for directing actors, but also displays a command over tone and visual texture. Surely this is the beginning of a bright new franchise?