When the trailer of popular casting director Honey Trehan's directorial debut Raat Akeli Hai released, it drew instant comparisons to Rian Johnson's whodunit from last year, Knives Out. But these comparisons were dismissed by the film's makers, who argued that the structure and mood of two whodunits can be similar.
But the parallel goes beyond just the whodunit template, extending to underlying sociopolitical commentary as well. Both Knives Out and Raat Akeli Hai feature the bond between a rich patriarch and a much younger woman, who is considered an outcast by the rest of the family. While Knives Out used this premise to comment on Americans' prejudice against immigrants (Ana de Armas' character is an immigrant in the US), Raat Akeli Hai chooses the patriarchy and the feudal mindset as its targets, and the viewer's bias as its weapon of choice.
Writer Smita Singh's narrative always sides with its women, even though they are constantly suspected of murder and foul play by the authorities and other men in the film. The narrative is not interested in counting her as a suspect because a presumption of that sort is far too convenient. The only element that works against Radha's (Radhika Apte) 'innocence' is her identity as the mistress of a man who has been murdered. Her lineage can be traced to Chambal dacoits, and she was sold by her father to Raghubeer Singh, the Kanpur-based MLA she was married to the night he was murdered.
The title of the film is telling, for it not only establishes the intrigue of a whodunit, but also serves as a comment on sexual abuse within the home and how dealing with it can be an excruciatingly lonely journey.
Though Radha is given the most screen time in the film, towards the end, all the other women in the household too gain significant roles. Radha, who assumes that the sexual abuse she is subjected to is a one-off affair and that she has been wronged singularly because of her background, discovers that all the other women have been spending the night crying in their respective corners of the ancestral haveli.
In the end, all the female characters come to terms with this common reality of womanhood, probably gaining a sense of coming together in their suffering. Here is a look at the story of each woman in Raat Akeli Hai " divided by their position in the family, yet tied together by the misery they suffer. >Some spoilers follow.
Radhika Apte as Radha
Radha is introduced in Raat Akeli Hai decked up in a shadi ka joda, sitting quietly on the bed in her room situated in one corner of the haveli. Her appearance is not very dissimilar to the sprawling yet murky haveli, located in an isolated corner of Kanpur, which has been lit up on the day of the wedding " and the day of the murder.
Inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who is smitten by the 'decently-clad' Radha right at the onset, cannot help but flirt with the suspicion that Radha must have plotted the killing of her husband with her lover. He assumes she is yet another femme fatale, a co-conspirator in her rich husband's premeditated murder. This perception, rather being dangerously presumptuous, is interesting, given director Honey Trehan's background.
Trehan has been as assistant director in several of Vishal Bhardwaj's films, who first introduced Tabu as a modern-day Indian version of Lady Macbeth in his 2003 crime drama Maqbool. She joins forces with her much older husband's (Pankaj Kapur) Man Friday Maqbool (Irrfan Khan), to assassinate him. Her character tread a similar path in Bhardwaj's 2014 Hamlet adaptation Haider, and followed it up with yet another husband-killing act in Sriram Raghavan's 2018 black comedy, Andhadhun.
But Apte here, unlike Tabu, is not interested in posing as a seductress who could double-cross her husband. She is too resigned to her fate as a woman born into a lower caste, but also asserts her innocence when family members point fingers at her. She does not give in to their perception of her completely, and refuses to dance to the tune of 'Raat Akeli Hai,' the popular seduction song from Vijay Anand's 1967 spy thriller Jewel Thief, that inspired the title of the film.
Shivani Raghuvanshi as Vasudha
Raghuvanshi plays the paternal niece of the murdered MLA. She is often seen lurking inside the haveli with her mother, their prying eyes set on the investigative proceedings. Otherwise, like most other women in the film, she remains absent throughout the story. Only the last half-an-hour explains why her presence is indispensable.
It is revealed towards the end that Vasudha, a victim of serial sexual assault by her uncle, was expelled from her school because she became pregnant. When investigated by Yadav, Vasudha casually claims she was not really close to her murdered uncle because she was never at home. But the fact is that their pasts are inextricable. She suffers alone for years, as even her mother refuses to support her in order to secure the future of her brother.
When Radha discovers that like her, Vasudha was also a victim of ceaseless sexual assault, she asks her to never forgive her mother for staying mum. At one point during the investigation, Radha tells Yadav that she does not know anyone more tortured and desperate than herself, only to eventually discover how wrong she was. She realises that the patriarchy and sexual exploitation of women is not confined to one caste, class or social background, but rather is pervasive and can plague even an MLA's educated, urban, upper-caste family.
Padmavati Rao as Pramila chachi
Rao plays Vasudha's mother, and Singh's sister-in-law. When Yadav interrogates her, she says the motive behind murder is not always hatred, but often jealousy. While that may give viewers the impression that she was jealous of Singh's wealth and political standing, her role in the murder turns out to be quite different.
She is revealed to not only be involved in murdering Singh's former wife, her bhabhi (sister-in-law married to an older brother) out of jealousy, but also in curbing his sexual crimes against her daughter. When her crime is caught, she argues that she did so in order to maintain a 'clean reputation' for their family, and to ensure the wedding of her son Vikram to a politician's daughter happens smoothly. To this, Radha responds, "But what about my future? What about your daughter's future?"
After Vikram asks his mother to go away, she locks herself in a room and contemplates suicide. She is about to shoot herself in the head when she hears a knock on the door. "Who is it? Vikram?" she asks with a sign of hope in her quivering voice. "It's me," her daughter responds. Disappointed that she is abandoned by her son, she shoots herself. Even unconditional love from her daughter could not save her from deep-rooted patriarchy.
Shweta Tripathi as Karuna
Karuna is Singh's daughter, who is pregnant at the time of his murder. Her husband, like most other men in the film, is convinced that Radha is the culprit. Karuna, however, has not ruled out any family member, and tells Yadav that she has often seen Pramila chachi keep an eye on the proceedings.
Throughout the film, as a result of her pregnancy, Karuna looks exhausted all the time. But it feels like a lot of the exhaustion also stems from living in a family as toxic as hers. When she finds out towards the end that her father was assaulting her cousin, and that her aunt brushed this under the carpet, she cannot help but let out a helpless, frustrated scream.
As a woman who is about to bring a child into a world that she is exhausted of, Karuna seems to fervently hope that she can raise her/him in a better world, irrespective of gender.
Chunni and her dadi
Chunni is the young girl who works as a house help at the haveli. She tells Yadav during the investigation that her dadi (paternal grandmother), who lives with her, could not get over her father's demise. Her father was a driver in Singh's household, who went missing five years ago. When Chunni tried to file an FIR, the case was rejected, as the police was loyal to Singh. Chunni's grandmother was a loyalist too. She had been working at the haveli for generations, and yet, her son never got a fair judgment, or even a missing person's report.
When Yadav suspects Chunni is an eyewitness to Singh's murder, he probes her on the details. But she is scared that she will be killed like her father. Her name is quite interesting with respect to her role in the case. She, like a chunni, is used as a cover-up to protect the 'ghar ki izzat' that the family often mentions to mask their guilt.
When her grandmother is questioned by the police about Chunni's suspected murderer, she recognises the man shown to her in the pictures, but never acknowledges this to the police. She seems to have lost faith in the system and decides to avenge the death herself. Later, we see her hunt the man down and burn him alive, in order to exact revenge for her granddaughter's death, in what seems to be straight out of Devashish Makhija's 2017 thriller Ajji.
Ila Arun as Yadav's mother
It is interesting to watch Arun's character as she remains completely removed from the events unfolding at the haveli. Her single-minded agenda is to get her son married. She seems to be on the lookout for a prospective daughter-in-law, but Yadav rebukes her for even considering skimpily-dressed women. She explains to him, "Shaadi usse karo jiske sath zindagi kaatne mei mazza aaye" (marry the one with whom you are likely to enjoy your life).
Despite her liberal approach towards choosing a partner, Arun claims she is compelled to demand dowry, as otherwise, the bride's family assumes there is some khot (hitch) in the groom. Yadav is also not immune to this bias, even though he objects to his mother's demand for dowry. Every morning, before he steps out of the house, he takes out a tube of fairness cream stashed behind the mirror, to make sure he looks 'fair and handsome' even during the investigation of a murder case. The character undergoes a journey in the film before he eventually dumps the tube, and decides to reclaim his lost confidence.
Arun's banter with Yadav shows how it is not particularly a decent world for men either. But even though Siddiqui is the protagonist here, the latent idea behind Smita Singh's script is to express the deep ache for the women of her story. It is a rare whodunit where the 'murderer' is actually a victim in every sense. Sure, every criminal paints themselves as a victim of their circumstances. But in this case, with the absence of any support from even the women around her, Vasudha had no option but to fight a lonely battle that night, like she did every other night.
All images from Netflix.