By Rachit Raj

At the heart of the murder mystery in the wonderfully made Raat Akeli Hai is a dysfunctional family that teases us into believing that the normal is anything that can be shrouded from the eyes of the law. It is a reminder that truth is a raw fruit, fragranced by the careful carpeting of a layer of a lie, to maintain the normalcy – support the status quo.

Eventually, it all comes down to that. Maintaining the status quo. In that sense, Inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddique) plays an anarchist in uniform in this film directed by debutant Honey Trehan. He is the only man who really cares for the truth in a narrative laced with deceit, deception, and hidden secrets, all creating a large, intrinsic case for a classic whodunit, which largely returns with wonderful results.

The set-up is quite simple. A family’s patriarch is killed on the night of his second marriage. There are no obvious suspects and no witnesses. It is a Christie-esque mystery that challenges the viewers at every step. The most obvious suspects include Radha (Radhika Apte) and Vikram (Nishant Dahiya), both coming with their own set of secrets.

But to truly appreciate the filmmaking of Raat Akeli Hai, one needs to look beyond the 149-minute long quest to find the killer. Like most good thrillers, the identity of the killer almost loses significance after a point here. What matters is how this one act of killing someone – an act of assertive rebellion in the midst of conformity – opens wounds of a family that becomes a gruesome reminder of the volatile reality that a joint family can be.

Writer Smita Singh and director Honey Trehan use this to take a sharp, subtle dig at the way the world, the system works. The death of the old patriarch is the end of a certain way of life. An unapologetic, unruffled patriarch who is convinced that he has all the cards in his favour. After all, in a conformist patriarchal setup, there is little that he has to fear. Maybe, that is various family members reiterate the absence of love in the hearts of others for him. He was an unloved man, too arrogant to look past himself.

Jatil and Radha, then, stand as the hiccups in a world that is ironed out to behave a certain way. Jatil becomes obsessed with his search for truth, eventually beyond his professional duties, and Radha is the convenient scapegoat that seems to have escaped, somehow. There is nothing more dangerous than a scapegoat on the loose, aware of its dawning end. The two become the inconsistency that gives truth a shot at being voiced.  A truth that exists right within the family; breathing in silence, carefully chiseling past the mist of lies to settle into a grave of silence.

Raat Akeli Hai is a decent enough whodunit when looked at as simply that, but add to that its social, thematic depth and the story truly finds its grip. It makes a statement beyond the murder, the killer, and the process of Jatil solving the mystery. If Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo explored the intrinsic greed that holds the family together, Raat Akeli Hai explores the acceptance and deadened survival of crime and corruption for the sole purpose of upholding the sanctity of a family that has lost itself in the process of holding itself on a pedestal.

Nawazuddin Siddique delivers a faultless performance as the Inspector, both fierce and vulnerable in the face of becoming an anarchist in his search for truth, made to confront his past in the now of the case, and battle between truth and duty, having to choose one over the other. Radhika Apte has lesser screen time comparatively but she gives the film some of the best moments. As Radha, she is both a vulnerable victim as well as a fierce fighter, transitioning from one to the other seamlessly. However, the real treat comes from the supporting cast here, all delivering powerful performances, ensuring that the onus is not on Siddique and Apte, alone. Shivani Raghuvanshi, Shweta Tripathi, and Nishant Dahiya are especially wonderful in their little, but significant parts, thickening the chaos on screen.

Raat Akeli Hai is a slow-burning film that takes its time to grow into a quintessential whodunit. It is as much about the atmosphere it is set in as it is about the murder at hand. Everything lurks around as a fearful possibility, no one escaping the chasm of suspicion. It is a film that lives on beyond its moment of reveal, forcing us to see around at the world, briefly making us wonder if the truth behind the farcical smiles of people around us carries a similar, sinister arc.

(Now streaming on Netflix)