Raat Akeli Hai is as much a film about a murder as it is about the omnipresence of patriarchy
The investigation that Raat Akeli Hai is more interested in is the one where Jatil Yadav, a dissatisfied man with a diminished self-worth, is forced to examine the hold that patriarchy has over him during the course of solving a murder.
The biggest deceit of Honey Trehan’s top-notch Raat Akeli Hai is that it manages to sell the idea that the film is primarily a whodunit.
All the narrative clues certainly seem to point that way: Within the first ten minutes of the film, two murders, committed five years apart, have already taken place and there is considerable mystery surrounding the deaths. Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in fine form), a swashbuckling police-officer is soon brought in to investigate the case and ends up uncovering the truth behind both these killings. But the identity of the killer is neither Raat Akeli Hai’s central preoccupation nor its only destination. It is merely a ruse to command the viewer’s attention only to direct them toward the bigger picture: the state of the society that breeds toxic masculinity. Raat Akeli Hai then, is as much a movie about a murder as it is about the omnipresence of patriarchy.
The real film is hidden under plain sight – it unfolds during Yadav’s cross-city chase for the killer. Embedded in the journey that he undertakes to reach from victim to killer is the distance his own psyche charts from internalising a patriarchal way of living to eschewing it. It’s a sneaky, clever setup that ensures that Raat Akeli Hai doesn’t eulogise the male saviour whose very existence denotes a power hierarchy between him and the people – usually women – he saves.
Here, Yadav is as vulnerable as the woman he falls for; as powerless as the family he investigates, whose prestige is nothing but an illusion. Working on a script by Smita Singh, Trehan, making his directorial debut, makes the distinction early on: that even when Yadav displays dogged heroism in leading the investigation, he isn’t necessarily heroic. If patriarchy is the product of the system that Yadav has subscribed to, then his heroism is merely a byproduct.
Set in Kanpur, Raat Akeli Hai revolves around the excavation of secrets in the wake of a familial tragedy. The aged patriarch of an affluent, dysfunctional family, Raghuveer Singh, is murdered on the night of his wedding to Radha (Radhika Apte), his much younger mistress. The family he leaves behind is made up of a sympathetic brother-in-law, an indifferent teenage son, a pregnant daughter married to an ill-tempered man, a secretive nephew, a submissive niece, and their mother.
The men outweigh the women in the house, not only in sheer number but also in terms of exerting dominance. The women speak only when it is utmost necessary, almost always retreating into the background with their heads permanently bowed down, their bodies shrinking so as to take up the least amount of space possible. Even a local politician has more of a say in family matters than any of them.
There are tangible manifestations of toxic masculinity in every corner of the household.
Take for instance, the fact that the film mines the practice of celebratory gun-firing at weddings widely regarded as a physical display of Indian masculinity as a cover for the murderer being able to commit the crime undetected. The noise of gunshots outside draws out the one that results in Raghuveer Singh’s death inside the house. It’s a fetching line of inquiry, the extent of how self-destructive the shackles of patriarchy can be even for men, that continues throughout the film. Similarly, we view the women as much as the men in the house allow us to see them, that is to say, they appear during times of duress. For instance, the family’s heavily pregnant daughter is always seen shadowing her violent husband, tending to him whenever he gets into impromptu brawls even though she is the one in need of nursing. The expectation from these women who don’t live a life as much as tolerate it, is utter subservience, the kind that places their fate in the hands of men, almost like cattle. Even the dead patriarch is revealed to be an abusive man who liked to relish his power by wielding it on young women.
Yadav too is cut from the same cloth as these men, prone to equating oppression with obedience. When Raat Akeli Hai opens, his mother (Ila Arun) is trying to set him up with a prospective match at a neighbourhood wedding. When she shows her his picture, the girl is visibly unimpressed, most notably at his dark complexion. Once he comes to know about the rejection, he responds with judgement about the girl’s clothes. According to him, the fact that she wore an outfit that revealed skin is enough indication that her character is tainted. But what really stings Yadav is that she demanded more from a man, displaying an agency that inevitably threatens men of a certain patriarchal disposition. It comes as no surprise that Yadav admits that his ideal life partner would be someone who is keenly aware of her limits both inside and outside the house. It’s a worldview that is inherently suspicious of seeing women as equals and probably why Yadav harbours a regressive outlook despite living with a seemingly progressive mother.
Raat Akeli Hai etches out his distrust of women in an efficient flashback scene when Radha reminds Yadav that they had met five years ago. He had stopped her from taking her own life by jumping off a moving train. In that moment when Yadav found her, he didn’t deem it necessary to ask her the reason for taking such a steps; instead he relied on her father’s version of events that implied that she might be a difficult woman. It’s here that Yadav utters the film’s defining line of dialogue, warning Radha that the world outside isn’t safe for her (“Baahar duniya bahut kharaab hai, police waley hain, isiliye bata rahein hai”).
There’s a tinge of condescension in the way he says it to her that betrays an assumption that women are eternal damsels-in-distress, incapable of existence without round-the-clock male surveillance. To him, he must have looked like a saviour but as the film divulges, it was the opposite: Radha was trying to escape the possibility of being sold off by her father and by rescuing her, Yadav ended up enabling the exchange. That also means that he is partly responsible for the torture that she withstood at the hands of Raghubeer Singh who is the man she was sold off to.
Five years later as he investigates the murder, the guilt weighs heavy on him. Yet even then, he blames her for choosing to be a victim. Why couldn’t she have run away? In reply, Radha puts a spin on that same line of warning that he had told her five years ago: The world outside isn’t safe for me, (“Baahar duniya bahut kharaab hai, police wale hain, aap toh jaante hi hongey”) acknowledging that the odds are in fact stacked against her. Men, whether it is strangers or family, will keep turning on her.
It’s here that it dawns on Yadav that women continue to be victims only because men don’t seem to have it in them to stop being perpetrators, passing on a cycle of oppression to future generations as inheritance.
In that sense, the investigation that Raat Akeli Hai is more interested in is the one where Yadav, a dissatisfied man with a diminished self-worth, is forced to examine the hold that patriarchy has over him during the course of solving a murder. Like the other men in the house, his relationship with Radha is built on judgement. “I don’t let women like you come near me,” he tells her initially but soon comes to realise the hypocrisy of wanting to hold the oppressed accountable while letting their oppressor roam scott-free.
These men and their violent overtures serve as a mirror for Yadav: they embody the definition of masculinity that he has spent a lifetime championing. But knee-deep in a murder case that is littered with undercurrents of female abuse and silence, Yadav is perhaps for the first time also confronting the consequences that accompanies perpetuating this dangeorous display of masculinity. Little by little, he starts dismantling his conservatism, whether it is in admonishing a junior police officer to remind him that they’re meant to investigate a murder, not a woman’s character or in refusing to make a scapegoat out of Radha.
It’s a tricky choice to centre an entire film around a man’s evolution from the clutches of regressive masculinity to shedding it like dead skin. But Trehan and Singh are smart storytellers who position Raat Akeli Hai not as a story of a man saving a woman but of a man rescuing himself. It’s precisely this grasp over the material which like the protagonists hides more than it reveals, that elevates Raat Akeli Hai’s gut-punch of a reveal from standard rape-revenge fare. Trehan and Singh’s empathetic filmmaking understands the difference between a film’s payoff existing at the expense of women and underlining the expense that most women have to pay to just exist in a society that turns their safety into a game of convenience for men.
The device that Trehan and Singh choose to locate the social thriller in Raat Akeli Hai is an unlikely romance. As Yadav finds himself falling for Radha, a woman who doesn't exactly fulfill the ask of deference, a quality that he had earlier insisted on seeing in a life-partner, he comes to terms with his own complicity. What was once pity for someone wronged by circumstances beyond her control steadily turns into admiration and ultimately respect for her courage to stand up for herself. In a scene midway through the film, Radha tells Yadav that a man needs a degree of pluck to fall in love with her, foreshadowing the film’s ending. Look closely and you’ll realise that Raat Akeli Hai isn’t over when the killer is finally uncloaked. Instead, it reaches its conclusion when Yadav figures out how to transform into that man.
There's a train, signifying yet another journey, this time around as well except there's a remarkable volte-face in the dynamics between Radha and Yadav. "The world outside isn't safe. I won't be able to face it alone," (“Baahar duniya bahut kharab hai. Humse akele nahi ho paayega") Yadav tells her. Uttered the third time around, the line is neither a warning nor a shrug of resignation but a pointed act of vulnerability as well as course-correction.
Even though Raat Akeli Hai’s reveal does an admirable job of emphasising that even female rebellion is invariably rooted in a history of unspeakable violence, it is this exact moment that ultimately becomes emblematic of its larger message, a resounding confession that patriarchy has no room for saviours – dead or alive, it makes victims out of all of us.