Note: Mild spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warnings (since Netflix won’t provide any): Raat Akeli Hai contains mentions of child sexual abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking, though thankfully there are no over extended gratuitous scenes and the film sticks to showing only as much is necessary to convey the point.
Inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), your typical ‘sakht launda’ bachelor, is assigned to investigate the murder of newly-wed Thakur Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji) on his nuptial night. The prime suspects are Singh’s nephew Vikram (Nishant Dahiya) and the now widowed Radha (Netflix fav Radhika Apte, back to the streaming platform after a hiatus of 2 years). Singh’s dysfunctional family (which includes the stellar combination of Shivani Raghuvanshi, Shweta Tripathi and Padmavati Rao), local MLA Munna Raja (Aditya Srivastava aka Abhijeet from CID) and Yadav’s boss SSP Lalji Shukla (Tigmanshu Dhulia) complicate things.
The biggest weakness of Raat Akeli Hai is its pace. The film is a slowburn thriller—everything is revealed in its own sweet time. Though the climax is definitely unpredictable, one should not go into the movie expecting jaw-dropping dramatic twists. The movie also features too many red herring characters and sub-plots, which means that apart from the lead pair, everyone else’s character brief is quite weak—particular injustice is done to the lovely Shweta Tripathi, who plays Raghubeer Singh’s long suffering daughter Karuna.
In terms of positives, Nawazuddin and Radhika are at the top of their game. The supporting cast also shines in spite of the limited screen time available to each character. It is primarily their acting that keeps you glued on, to find out what happens next. As mentioned earlier, though the film condemns violence against women, there are no gratuitous or over-extended sexual assault scenes—unlike other recent releases, the director and the writers in this case know that the audience is smart enough to infer what is going on without requiring exploitation porn to corroborate the same. Prima facie, the film is a good critique of upper caste feudal patriarchy and the corrupt police-politician nexus.
However the film’s critique of patriarchy belies the fact that Jatil Yadav himself is a flawed hero in this respect. We see in the beginning of the film that Jatil is unable to find a bride on account of his dark complexion and his refusal to ask for dowry, the latter leading prospective in-laws to suspect that there is something ‘defective’ with him. Though he shies from openly admitting it to his mother, he regularly applies Fair and Lovely—a telling commentary on how men in India are also victims of colorism when it comes to social perceptions of ‘attractiveness’.
At the same time, Jatil has his own expectations—he makes it clear to his mother that he wants a wife who is ‘susheel‘, i.e., well-behaved and who understands the boundaries between the public and home/the private. He castigates a girl who had rejected him earlier as she was wearing a *gasp* spaghetti strap blouse, and was hence not dressed as per his norms of a ‘good woman’.
As one would expect, in spite of his sexist notions, Jatil gets enamoured with a girl who is precisely the opposite of his ideal—someone who is called a ‘keep’ by various characters, including her in-laws, and who herself thinks that she is a ‘bazaaru aurat’/whore. When Jatil first meets Radha, she is trying to escape her father, who is taking her to be sold to the Thakur. Jatil prevents Radha from jumping off of the train they are travelling in, giving her a patronizing warning about how ‘the world outside is a bad place.’ When Jatil realizes his actions enabled Radha to be sold into sexual slavery, he is consumed by guilt and feels responsible for protecting her.
Throughout the film Jatil is torn between infatuation and contempt for Radha, whom he often treats with violence and coarseness every time he suspects that she is hiding something. His feelings for her mirror that of Othello for Desdemona—as much as he likes her, he can’t help but think that the aspersions cast on her character are true. Therefore, Raat Akeli Hai is not so much about finding the killer as much as it is about Jatil’s struggle to ‘save’ Radha, who is both an innocent victim and a sexual fantasy in his eyes.
Radha’s refusal to fit into a clean Madonna-Whore binary is a source of considerable emotional upheaval for his inner patriarch. However, the focus of the film is solely on Jatil’s psychological turmoil—Radha has little agency in determining the course of events and we never see things from her point of view. She just allows things to happen to her and for Jatil to lead the way, though Radhika Apte tries to give her some semblance of strength through her performance.
I found the romanticisation of their dynamic quite disconcerting and ironical given that the overall theme of the film is that, Violence Against Women Is Bad. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that the theme is Violence Against Women is Bad, except when the Hero Does It. Of course, since the film is packaged as more of a murder mystery than a romance, Raat Akeli Hai is unlikely to attract the same amount of criticism as say, Kabir Singh, for normalizing the male lead’s attempts to control and sexually harass the female lead.
However, the fact remains that Jatil keeps abusing his position as a police officer to either intimidate Radha into confessing to the crime or into trying to gain her affections. In one scene, he aggressively tries to kiss her, without asking for her permission. In another scene, he angrily pins her to the wall, Mills and Boons hero style, and then throws a mobile phone at her. Of course, Radha is no Preeti (Kabir Singh reference)—she bravely resists the kiss by saying that her heart is too emotionally numbed to handle any display of affection (Jatil, like any rejected incel, scoffs that she is only saying so because he is too ‘simple’ for her). However, ultimately she does accept Jatil’s overtures, clad in a virginal pink and white salwar kameez, as opposed to the dreary grey-brown clothes she had been wearing earlier in the film, symbolizing her ‘purification’.
Raat Akeli Hai packages Jatil as a ‘knight in shining armor’ for exposing the darkness underlying the respectful facade of the Thakur family, but we never see Jatil undergo any internal character development or acknowledge that his thoughts towards women need reform. Nor do we see him formally apologize to Radha for the way he behaved with her. Some would argue that both the apology and the reciprocal forgiveness are implied, just as Kabir Singh‘s defenders argue that the climax justifies the first half of the film. It can also be argued that the writers inserted the scenes about Jatil’s desire for a homely bride in the beginning of the film precisely so that they could invert the trope in the climax.
Jatil’s subsequent willingness to ‘accept’ and ‘save’ a woman who was trafficked redeems his character, and shows that he has turned over a new leaf. However, merely showing the hero’s chivalrous ‘acceptance’ of a love interest who has slept with other men does not problematise the fact that a woman’s virtue or lack thereof is not a metric for judging how she should be treated. Nor does it automatically excuse violent behaviour by the male lead, particularly when he is a person in a position of power.
Raat Akeli Hai‘s whitewashing of gendered violence by a police officer under the garb of being ‘realistic’ and ‘edgy’ is similar to how Paatal Lok normalized the custodial violence inflicted by its protagonist Haathiram upon transgender and Muslim suspects, while simultaneously critiquing the violence inflicted against these identities.
It is further worth noting that as Jatil’s fantasy girl, Radha is the only woman who is given the privilege of ‘escaping’ the Thakur household. Every other woman who is impacted by Raghubeer Singh’s misdeeds either dies or is resigned to status quo. Even Radha gets her ‘happy ending’ only by submitting to being Jatil’s love interest, instead of carving out her own independent future.
Though the film tries to make a statement by showing that women have the right to kill their abusers and men who abuse deserve to die, like other Bollywood films on this topic, this statement ends by showing death and conveniently ignoring the aftermath. It can be said that this is the ugly reality of violence against women in India-women often have no choice but to go ahead with their lives without any formal redress. Further, that given that the film was just a thriller and it was already 2.5 hours long, the makers were not obligated to flesh out the fate of each and every character.
Even so, using sexual violence and violence against women as a mere plot point to foreground the hero’s journey and to posit him as a ‘saviour’—which was also done in Simmba—is something that writers should be cautious about. It is likely that in the future, Bollywood writers will turn violence against women into a convenient storytelling trope to attract female audiences and feed into populist sentiments, without treating the subject with any nuance.
This commodification of rape and sexual assault in scripts so as to make them more ‘marketable’ isn’t really helpful for the feminist movement. Further, if writers care so much about women empowerment, they should subject the hero to the same feminist standards that they are trying to promote. There’s no point in being patriarchal while critiquing patriarchy.
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