Netflix’s “Raat Akeli Hai” is a classic whodunit tale where the murder of Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji), the patriarch of a dysfunctional feudal family on the night of his wedding to a much younger girl Radha (Radhika Apte), brings police officer Jatil Yadav (played brilliantly by the intense Nawazudin Siddiqui) to their haveli where everyone, from the bride to the relatives, is object of his suspicion.
Casting director Honey Trehan’s first directorial venture exploits its feudal backdrop to highlight patriarchal mindsets, female exploitation — physical and emotional and other socio-political compositions of Indian society.
Siddiqui’s Jatil Yadav is quite unlike a hero one is used to — he is imperfect, is not beyond reproach and expects women to adhere to the standards set by society. For him, his prospective wife should be ‘susheel’ or cultured, a word stretched to its limit when talking about women. He is quick to comment on the character of a girl by a mere reference to her clothes.
There is a scene where he confronts Radha (Apte) who is trying to run away from her father on a moving train. His assumption that it is she who must be at fault, with no attempt to understand her reasons for doing so reeks of patriarchy. The girl has to be at fault, doesn’t she?
The narrative, apart from being that of a mystery, traces his evolution from this parochial attitude via the murder investigation.
When he says, “Baahar duniya bahut kharab hai. Humse akele nahi ho paayega” (the outside world is very dangerous. I can’t do it by myself), one might regard it as a proposal to Apte, if you will, but it does show a kind of vulnerability that his character develops through the story. He finally seeks refuge in the same girl he thought he was protecting all through. Apte is everything he does not want in his wife, and yet he falls for her at the end.
It isn’t very often that a male character is shown so conflicted with his own self esteem. As a cop, Siddiqui is the no nonsense guy, but fights his own insecurities of being dark skinned and unmarried. Interesting to note is his use of the last vestiges of the Fair and Lovely cream, now changed to ‘Glow and Lovely.’ With the colorism debate growing so vociferous, this slight reference also becomes more noticeable.
Every thread of the movie is bound by patriarchal references, sketched through what the characters do or greater still, do not do. Female characters are crucial to not just carrying the plot forward, but also as a mirror to the society that we are.
The mother (Padmavati Rao), who turns a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of her own daughter to protect and promote her son and family name is the silence that fuels misogyny.
The pregnant wife (Shweta Tripathi), who quietly endures humiliation at the hands of her abusive husband is also a tale told too many times for comfort.
The underage girl (Shivani Raghuvanshi), exploited and shunned by the patriarch himself is not a mere illusion, is she?
The little maid servant Chunni is used as a ‘chunni’ (veil) by the rich to hide their misdoings.
Jatil Yadav’s mother (Ila Arun) comes with a breath of fresh air with her modern outlook towards marriage but is again shown to fall into the quicksand of societal expectations when she says ‘not demanding dowry’ will show them in poor light.
Radhika Apte, the femme fatale of this noir, is a lower caste girl, sold by her own father to Raghubeer Singh. She is a victim of physical oppression, resigned to her fate. She understands her position in society but knows when to draw her claws out.
Writer Smita Singh’s (“Sacred Games”) narrative is a rumination of the world we live in. Yes, the movie is a dark, murder mystery that waxes and wanes in its thrill quotient and the 2 hours 29 minutes seem draining, but its commentary on our social prejudices is what catches the eye.
Nupur Bhatnagar is a lawyer by training, an entrepreneur and a storyteller. She is rationalist and an art enthusiast who is fascinated by history. She loves to read and watch historical dramas — sometimes even sees herself in them. Nupur lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.