Raat Akeli Hai is a Hindi film noir that follows a police investigation after the brutal murder of a rich patriarch on his wedding night. A local cop must overcome one hurdle after the other to unearth a ghastly truth that will shake the foundation of trust and morality amongst the deceased’s family members. Directed by debutant director Honey Trehan, Raat Akeli Hai features a cast of internationally acclaimed actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, amongst others. I recently interviewed the screenwriter of the Netflix film, Smita Singh.
Dipankar Sarkar: Why did you decide to title the film as “Raat Akeli Hai,” which is a line from the lyrics of a popular Hindi film that can be broadly categorized as a noir caper?
Smita Singh: The title of the film is a reference to the noir genre. When I was writing the film, I realised that it combines the format of the literary genre of murder mysteries with the themes of noir. I was looking to layer the whodunnit with thematic and visual elements of film noir. Also, I loved Hindi films like Teesri Mazil (1966) and Jewel Thief (1967) while growing up, especially Teesri Manzil — the scene when Jatil discovers the dupatta with a missing pearl is a homage to it.
DS: Tell me about the journey of the film from the scripting stage to filming.
SS: I had taken a break from working in television. I had applied to the Film and Television Institute of India in 2012 and was awaiting the results when I got the idea of turning the story, that was primarily about Radha, into a suspense thriller led by this UP cop. It was the story of a young girl who gets trafficked to a landlord, and ends up as the main suspect after he is killed. When I was writing the scene where a cop enters the house, I started to think a lot more about the cop — I wanted to know where he is coming from, what he would make of Radha, the bride. And it occurred to me that he would be just perfect as the protagonist of this story which now looked more like a whodunnit.
In 2013, I developed the screenplay in FTII. Once in Mumbai, it helped me get a lot of work, including Sacred Games, as the team there had read Raat Akeli Hai.
The screenplay got selected by a script lab, Mumbai Mantra Cinerise, and I noted how the complexity and detailing of the family were making it difficult for readers to get into the story. So, I wrote a version with the highway killings, and it immediately gave the mood and urgency to the story.
When Honey read it, he found it very engaging and decided to make the film.
From the beginning, Honey and I realized that the screenplay’s third act was not working at all, and that is the first thing we tackled. I did two drafts, where a subplot was removed, detailing the climax was done and the sharpening of the overall story was done ’til the final shooting draft in 2018. The film was shot in January 2019.
DS: Adhering to the noir aspect of the whodunit genre, how did you decide upon the milieu of the film in your script?
SS: As PD James once said, 25 percent of a whodunnit is a character, 25 percent the puzzle of who did it, and the rest is what the writer knows.
Also, advice often passed down to all beginners is to write what you know, and the most accessible of the worlds I had interacted with was where the story is set.
Large parts of India remain oppressive and dangerous for all kinds of minorities and genders. When one experiences the stories, the regressive attitude, the conflicts of these regions first hand, one realizes that no story would be complete without addressing the challenges that come with this milieu.
DS: The film explores the themes of female oppression, child sexual abuse and objectification of women — elements that are not usually found not found in mainstream thrillers?
SS: Mainstream cinema is as much about the treatment of the stories as about the content, and I am sure these themes have been addressed before, perhaps the cinematic language was more accessible.
Of course, having Jatil Yadav as the protagonist, and all that he comes with, is different from our expectations of mainstream cinema, but I don’t think the characterization of mainstream cinema as limiting or unable to deal with issues of oppression and serious topics are fair.
Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand (1997), for example, was also a reference for Raat Akeli Hai and its world, some of the film’s themes and boldness had a great impact on me.
DS: Except for the scene towards the climax, the protagonist Jatil Yadav and his mother are constantly bickering with one another. What was the idea behind such characterizations?
SS: Sarita Yadav represents the idea of change and courage, Jatil stands out in the muck of this world because of the values she has instilled in him, that of fairness and fearlessness.
At the same time, the world he inhabits, it is male power that rules — the worth of a man is much higher than that of a woman. It is so seductive to have that power — not only is he a man in this patriarchal society, he is a man in uniform. The minute he comes home, though, all of it means nothing. That is one reason they bicker.
The other is also that he is lonely and desperately looking for a mate. Somewhere, his false prestige, his complexes, have left him isolated and angry. The growing resentment and frustration he feels, he targets it at the mother, who knows how much he needs it.
It is not because of societal pressure that Sarita wants a companion for her son, it is because she realizes he is looking for one. But his traditional, unyielding world view has made it impossible for him to go and find a partner on his own. Like millions of men in India who rely on families to find them a suitable spouse, Jatil too may be a grown-up independent adult but remains frustratingly dependent on his mother for this.
DS: Jatil is well aware of the fact that he is neither young nor fair-skinned and hence devalued in the marriage market. He uses a fairness cream that he hides behind the mirror. But towards the end of the film, he throws the cream tube into the dustbin. Why did you include the fairness factor within the narrative?
SS: Fair skin is associated with a certain class, with certain values, with ideas of beauty. It is something we fight endlessly to rub out, to conceal, to change. It is something we must “accept,”resign ourselves to. There is something deeply disconcerting about the idea of fairness as beauty, about rejecting yourself because of pigmentation! And it is so common and endemic to our culture — it is almost normal, and expected for a dark-skinned person to worry about it.
I knew it before I knew anything about him, that when he stands in front of Radha, in that house of the rich and powerful, all his complexes will come to the fore. What that society values — from lineage to caste to looks — it is Vikram Singh who has it, not Jatil Yadav.
Jatil has to journey to the sordid core of this upper caste, a prestigious family, to see the values that he is running after are not organically his. The ideas of purity, worth, lineage are passed down — and unchecked, they make their way in our world where what enriches our society is lost in a haze of shallow, empty ideals.
DS: The supporting characters in the story — Pramila and Vasudha, Karuna and Ravi, Chunni and her grandmother, even Vikram and Radha — always appear in scenes whenever Jatil makes an appearance. These characters are not shown to have their own space. Why is it so?
SS: Very early on after the first rough draft, it became apparent to me this must be Jatil’s perspective. Perhaps we could have cut to the mansion at some point, but we decided to see only what Jatil does.
He sees Vasudha and Pramila together, almost as a unit all the time. He sees a vulnerable and cowed down Karuna around Ravi — Ravi himself as the blustering, crude son in law brought the male aggression and danger ever present to these woman to the fore.
The challenge was to create characterizations that would serve the purpose of showing the many layers of the family in which this crime happened, not the motives of individual characters.
DS: During the first few minutes into the film, Jatil tells his mother that he wants a girl, with decency and an unblemished character, who knows her limit at the house and outside. But later in the film, he develops an attraction for a woman whose character is doubtful?
SS: His understanding of what constitutes a person’s character is what I wanted to broaden. So the fact that she is honest to him — her fiery moral center, both her emotional and mental courage — all of it makes who she is, not just how many sexual partners she has had. Besides, he understands his complicity in handing her over to her father because the idea of a man’s proprietorship over his women is something he has never questioned until now.
Is home safer and more sacred than the outside world he has warned her about? Is Vasudha’s abuser brought to justice by a loving powerful family? No, so he knows what is real and what is hollow — he has always known, I suspect, but never had that moment in his life where the façade was shattered quite so effectively.
DS: Does this kind of fatal attraction towards Radha oscillate Jatil’s role as an honest cop?
SS: He is not being dishonest, he is trying to crack the case. But he is aware that the case is far more complex, and that he is being nudged in a particular direction. He is not going to accept things at face value but look deeper.
Also, Vikram, who he sees as his opponent in some ways, is the one he is after. He may be blindsided because of his savior complex and self -righteousness, but he is certainly not going to let a culprit getaway.
DS: Was the character of Radha written as someone with a mysterious and beautiful woman whose charms ensnare males, often leading them into traps?
SS: The femme fatale is more or less a part of hard-boiled fiction, and perhaps embodies the anxiety around female sexuality that is not controlled by men, but used by women. So in that way, Jatil may see her as one, but she is not the one sending these signals out. She is not seducing him a bit.
I did not write Radha as a femme fatale and am glad Honey saw it the same way.
She is a victim, as maligned as the word is — she is a victim if there was one. She is heartbroken, and she is numb. She is also angry at the world, and at her unending misery that she feels she can never get away from.
She watches Jatil struggle with her — the hateful male gaze, the authority, the tone that he uses on her is what she is used to.
But then he just doesn’t let go, he keeps trying to do the right thing, and in the world that she has seen, it is a surprise. It is something she has no idea how to deal with.
It would be great to see where they go from here. She is going onward on a journey, to someplace safe and free hopefully.
DS: What was the purpose of using the songs within the structure of the screenplay? How did it help in the progression of the narrative?
SS: Songs were not written into the screenplay. But when they do come in the film, it is over a montage of action important to the story.
I understand it may have slowed the narrative down a bit, but with the length and the mood of the film so unrelenting for so long, I did not mind the change of tone much.
DS: Could you share your thoughts on the dialogue of the film that has a distinctive regional tonality?
SS: Since I am from the region, the vocabulary and dialect were not that difficult for me to write. What was challenging and always doubtful was how they would sound in this setup.
The dialogues, especially the exchanges between Jatil and Radha, needed to be played with a certain rhythm. Jatil’s dialogues were also very different from the realism of the place and treatment. They were stylized for him especially. He is, after all, a post — Dabangg (fearless) cop –and he certainly plays that up.
But I was conscious that it could go either way. Thankfully, they carried to a certain extent.
DS: The grandmother takes her revenge on one of the antagonists of the film. Is it a cathartic experience you wanted to give to the character who has undergone a terrible phase in her life?
SS: Yes, in fact, the initial drafts had a lot more of Kalavati’s story — the script started with her and ended with her. But it was not working at the scripting stage itself, and I am glad this is the only bit that remained. It was Chunni’s death that spurs Jatil to act completely out of character, to tell his superior that he will not quit because that girl has been killed and he needs justice for her. But Kalavati’s rage is what I liked better than Jatil’s sense of justice. It had been festering for far too long, and it felt nice to give her a moment.
DS: The film ends with a ray of hope despite having a dark theme. What are your thoughts regarding the climax?
SS: I liked it on paper, but there are always doubts about how it would look. But I loved the way that scene was directed. It is my favorite scene in the whole film.
It is not so much a happy ending as two people realizing they are utterly alone and stepping into a new phase in their lives.
The fact that Jatil tells his mother that he has made sure that Radha has legally got her due — that she is independent and moving on, and he has been meeting her for days — is enough to know that he has no hold over her. And that she would get to make a choice — is he beyond redemption or not?
DS: As a screenwriter, are you interested in the crime genre? What sort of materials do you read and watch to nourish your writing skills?
SS: Yes, since I felt quite at home both during Sacred Games and this, I can say with some conviction I enjoy writing about it a lot more than other genres.
I spent many years in Kanpur during summer vacations reading Agatha Christie during school, and then so many other crime writers later from Ruth Rendell to Tana French. I read more books in a week before starting to write than I do now for the whole year. That is the beginning of the writing process for me.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.