In Raat Akeli Hai, how Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Honey Trehan transcend the whodunit to critique patriarchy
Director Honey Trehan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays a policeman in Raat Akeli Hai, talk about why the film is more than just a thriller
A well-crafted whodunit is a rarity, but ones that weave in nuances of feminism and disruption of the status quo are even harder to come by. Veteran casting-director-turned-filmmaker Honey Trehan undertakes this challenge in his debut directorial venture, Raat Akeli Hai, which premiered on Netflix on Friday. The film stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the role of an Uttar Pradesh cop investigating a high profile murder in Kanpur, along with Radhika Apte in the lead. The film also features Aditya Srivastava (of CID fame), Ila Arun, Shweta Tripathi, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Tigmanshu Dhulia in supporting acts.
In a Zoom conference with Firstpost, Honey Trehan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui open up about Raat Akeli Hai, its delicately hidden metaphors, and why the grand haveli in the film was more than just a regal piece of architecture.
Besides being a thriller and whodunit, what are the themes that Raat Akeli Hai tries to explore?
Honey Trehan: This film might come across as a whodunit, a murder mystery, or a crime drama, but I think that these are all backdrops for the film. What I mainly wanted to talk about through this film and its journey is patriarchy, which is a curse on society, and something we all are a part of and still continue to live with. Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is also a big part of this patriarchal machine, and when you see the film, you understand that he does not inherit this from his mother (played by Ila Arun), because she is very progressive in her thought. He is seen carrying the burden of patriarchy, which he believes in. It is the journey of a man who behaves like a patriarch, and how, while solving a case, comes out on the other side ridding himself of patriarchy. You see, it is just another case in this cop's life, but while going through that case, he goes so deep into it that he emerges by discarding the patriarch in him. So this is what I essentially wanted to address through the journey of this film.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Honey and I had discussed how to approach the role of Jatil Yadav before we started shooting. And as Honey mentioned this rather interesting thing about the character — through his investigation of this one particular case, he begins to struggle with his inner self that is rooted in patriarchy, and his transformation begins thereafter. There are certain elements in the film that you can connect with through observations and experiences in your real life, which is when it becomes easier to gauge the character, because even I come from a similar patriarchal world, with identical hierarchies. So, one later realises how out of the myriad experiences one has, some are good, while others are bad. It is then up to you to decide how you want to perceive these experiences, learn from them, progress in life, and move on. I believe these are some of the issues the film tries to deal with.
Nawazuddin, you have played several 'intense' characters before in projects that belong to similar genres. How do you change your approach every time to ensure that your act does not seem repetitive?
You see, a lot of these factors depend on the director. When a 'hero' approaches a director, the latter usually makes him do exactly the things he is popular for, because that is what sells in his case. However, I believe there's one good thing associated with my name now, which is versatility. Filmmakers expect something new from me each time. Now, this brings with it a set of difficulties as well as room for innovation. In a lot of films, when you are put outside your comfort zone, you tend to feel insecure. But at the same time, it is an incredibly fascinating zone to inhabit. You do not have the chance to get bored easily. If I was always offered the role of the run-of-the-mill hero, I think I would have quit long back, because I would be asked to do the exact same thing every single time. I am sure I would have quit in that case. Where is the scope to innovate there? In order to engage your mind, you have to innovate. I feel incredibly lucky that with each project I do — whether it's Thackeray, Manto, Ganesh Gaitonde in Sacred Games, or even Jatil Yadav in Raat Akeli Hai — I get to try something completely new every time. These characters have their own set of complexities and thoughts, and exploring them brings me a lot of satisfaction and joy.
Without giving out any spoilers, I would like to go back to the point about how Raat Akeli Hai deals with patriarchy at its core, and how the character of Jatil Yadav goes through a major transformation in the film. The graph of his character is rather interesting, and is played out with a lot of nuance, through small, delicate gestures, instead of ones that are glaringly obvious. Was this approach taken deliberately right from the beginning? How were these nuances woven into the script?
Honey Trehan: We were very clear about this right from the beginning. We did a lot of homework, and I took my entire cast to the haveli two days before we began shooting. I wanted them to live there, and find out for themselves as to which room belongs to whom. I wanted them to figure out who lives where, and what is the kind of chemistry between each character. We also discussed the characters in depth, and did not just go by what was written in the script, because the script goes from one scene to the next, and then to another. We always liked to discuss — and this is a part of my process — what was happening in between the scenes, and what was happening in the moments that were not written in the script. We said, let's talk about those scenes, and let's discuss the journey of the characters in those moments. These things came in very handy in the process.
And then, one had to understand the needs of the characters when they were being performed. In Raat Akeli Hai, every character is complex. And it is not just Jatil Yadav's character that makes peace with himself; by the end of the film, every character comes out of their shells and makes peace with themselves. Whether it's Radha (Radhika Apte), Vasudha (Shivani Raghuvanshi), Karuna (Shweta Tripathi), or whether it's Padmavati Rao's character, everybody makes peace with themselves. So while directing such complex characters, you have to remind yourself again and again as to what is the need of a character, what does a character want in a particular moment, and what is the motivation behind it. These were the three main things I was focusing on majorly while directing the film.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: It's amazing how a big change is often brought about quietly through smaller changes. For example, suppose you were a rich person once, and now you are completely devastated after an unfortunate incident, and are extremely troubled; your life has turned hellish. Then, when you are on the road one day, passing by pavements that often house poor children and their families, you spot them enjoying a bout of rain, perhaps. At this moment, a profound speech does not play in the back of your head, telling you about seeking pleasure from the little things in life. The thought quietly creeps into your head, rather instinctively, and brings about a subtle change in your outlook. One does not need words to express these changes. If the thought occurs to you, change is inevitable. I am really glad you noticed these nuances in the film, because that transformation in Jatil was brought about deliberately.
Honey: That transformation had to happen from within.
Nawazuddin: Absolutely. The transformation had to be a deeply internal one.
There was another intriguing detail in the film, where Jatil Yadav is seen using a beauty product that he ultimately discards by the end of the movie...
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Yes! He decides it is absolutely pointless, and it is not worth using anymore (laughs).
Nawazuddin, this happens to be your fourth project with Radhika Apte...
Yes. We have been paired opposite each other in two of them — one in Raat Akeli Hai, and another in Manjhi - The Mountain Man. In Sacred Games and Badlapur, we did not have any scenes together.
From Manjhi to Raat Akeli Hai, have you noticed any changes in the way you or Radhika approach your craft, your methods, or your chemistry?
Nawazuddin Siddiqui: Of course, there have been a lot of changes. We go through several experiences in our everyday lives as well. So it's important that we change. If I said something about an issue in an interview three years ago, I am sure I will say something completely different about it today. And this change is very important, because back then, I was drawing from my experience at that moment.
Once, a student of Konstantin Stanislavski's had complained to him, saying that he seemed to have changed his views on a subject overnight, to which Stanislavski said that he was a fool the day before, but had now turned into a wise man. So this change is necessary. When Radhika and I are doing a scene together, we both lend each other a lot of support unknowingly. She brings in a lot of nuance to the scene instinctively, to which one has to respond. I absolutely love working with her; she is a brilliant actor. I wish the camera would just keep rolling, and we would keep acting, but alas! The director ends up saying cut.
Honey Trehan: What do I do? All the blame will fall on me at the end of the day (laughs).
Honey, this is your directorial debut, after you've spent so many years as a casting director, working with some of the biggest names in Hindi cinema. When you got to know that Raat Akeli Hai will not have a theatrical release, and instead, will be released on an OTT platform like Netflix, did your strategy of making or editing the film change in any way, considering certification and censorship stopped being a concern?
Yes, you're right. This film was originally made for the theatres, but because of the pandemic, Netflix was graceful enough to come on board. They even loved the film a lot, and chose to release it across the world. This makes me really happy, because now the film will reach 190 countries at the same time, and the film will be watched by a much larger audience. And the benefits of coming on-board with an OTT platform is that they have erased the lines between big films, small films, and star-driven films. Now, only films that have good content will do well. So in a way, OTT platforms have rescued filmmakers from discrimination.
So censorship and certification do have an impact on the work of directors, writers and editors of cinema. But do they affect the craft of an actor, Nawazuddin? When you realise that your work will be exclusively released on an OTT platform, which is not governed by any rules of censorship, do you pursue your act any differently?
Not really. Just because OTT platforms are not governed by a censor board does not mean we can take undue advantage of that freedom. One should perform according to the demands of the script only. And while performing in front of the camera, I never think about whether the film will be released on an OTT platform or in the theatres. I approach my work the normal way; to me, the platform does not make a lot of difference to my craft. The work of an actor is to perform with honesty, and do justice to his/her character. That is literally all I think about. And if a platform like Netflix allows you to showcase your work to people in 190 countries, what more could you possibly ask for? If the film had a theatrical release, it would probably make it to 1,000-1,200 screens, because films starring 'heroes' or big stars are released on roughly 4,500 screens. Over here, it's a level playing field. So let's see who wins.
Honey, why did you think a story like Raat Akeli Hai, which is so pregnant with myriad themes and motifs, would be the best bet for your first film?
The thing is, I have been a huge fan of crime thrillers, so films by Alfred Hitchcock, stories by Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich, even Jewel Thief and Teesri Manzil by Vijay Anand are some of my favourites. I also love North by Northwest, Notorious, Gone Girl by David Fincher. So, when this story came to me and I read it, I felt like I knew these characters and I knew this world. My writer Smita Singh [of Sacred Games] also comes from this belt, Bundelkhand, and she too was very closely associated with these people and this kind of a world. I have spent a major part of my life in Allahabad, so picking up this script felt very natural to me. But being from Allahabad was not really the reason; it was the beauty of the script that moved me enough to make me want to debut with this film as a director.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as a first-time director?
In my head, I was feeling quite challenged thinking about how I had to make a film with all these actors who were playing such complex characters. But the kind of love and affection I got from everyone, especially from my cast...the kind of faith they showed in me was amazing. So the moment we went on set, it felt like cakewalk to me. Thanks to my actors and technicians for having such faith in me, and a special thanks to my producer, Ronnie Screwvala. He has been an incredible support through this journey.
Finally, Nawazuddin, what is your most favourite and least favourite thing about Jatil Yadav, and what have you learned from him?
The answer is hidden in your question itself. I especially love a person when he/she has equal amounts of qualities and flaws — that is what makes them human. I think the characters that are out-and-out evil are very flat and boring, like the yesteryear villains. Or even the heroes who were only pure and good, and had no flaws whatsoever. These characters are flat — they are not really human, they are either demons or gods. Human beings should be like themselves, which is what I enjoy about Jatil Yadav's character. His qualities and flaws go hand in hand, and that is how he progresses in life. His life transforms silently, and without him being aware of it, Jatil reaches a point of profound acceptance. We too should aim for such an attitude of flexibility and acceptance of circumstances in our lives, instead of being rigid about our morals. We should learn to let go, and in order to be progressive, we should be open to accepting the good things in life much like Jatil does. This is certainly something that I have learned from him.
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