Raat Akeli Hai (2020)

Raat Akeli Hai is a noir detective tale that puts Inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) at the centre of an investigation into the death of rich patriarch Raghuveer Singh (Khalid Tyabji). The film follows a classic whodunnit format, but within the tale director Honey Trehan tackles a number of prejudices and societal woes that make the film more than a simple murder mystery. Despite a slow start, the film slowly builds and apart from one or two small slips, Raat Akeli Hai is an excellent addition to the Hindi detective genre.

The film starts with a murder on a lonely road at night. A truck crashes into a car carrying a single female passenger, and when the crash isn’t enough to kill her and her driver, the truck driver delivers the final blow himself. Fast forward a few years and Inspector Jatil Yadav is called to the house of Raghuveer Singh when the family find him dead on his wedding day. The prime suspect is his new wife, Radha (Radhika Apte) who was Singh’s mistress and who is resented by the rest of the family. Each has their own reason for wanting Raghuveer out of the way, and as the story unfolds most are shown to be fairly unpleasant people. Even Radha has personality quirks, but she’s easily the most sympathetic of the bunch.

Raghuveer’s first wife was the victim in the opening scenes, and her brother Ramesh Chauhan (Swanand Kirkire) is amongst the suspects at the wedding. He seems resigned to his sister’s fate, but there is the possibility that he’s harbouring a grudge against his brother-in-law. Singh’s daughter Karuna (Shweta Tripathi) is pregnant with her first child and her husband (Gyanendra Tripathi) is violently aggressive towards Radha and seems nasty enough to commit a murder. But then, it’s also more likely that he would kill Radha, rather than his father-in-law. Also included in the suspects are Raghuveer’s apparently drug-addled son(Nitesh Tiwari), his sister Pramila (Padmavati Rao) and her two children Vikram (Nishant Dahiya) and Vasudha (Shivani Raghuvanshi).

The family are rich and despise Radha for being from a poor family. That she was sold into the position of Raghuveer’s mistress doesn’t seem to bother any of them, neither do they seem particularly concerned that he abused her regularly. However, they are at least fair in their general disregard for each other, and most seem to have disliked Raghuveer in equal measure. The more Jatil investigates, the more depraved and dislikeable Raghuveer appears, from his lavishly decorated bedroom with pictures of semi-clad women on the walls to revelations about his preferences for young girls, there seems little to like about the man. What makes the story so intriguing is that there is little to like about the other characters either, and even Jatil has idiosyncrasies that make him appear fussy and unpleasant.

As the investigation unfolds, Jatil finds an unlikely witness in the family’s servant Chunni (Riya Shukla), but when she too is found murdered, it seems as if Jatil may never find the answer. All the clues point to Radha, and perhaps it’s simply Jatil’s developing infatuation that makes him refuse to believe that she could be guilty of the crime.

The story is cleverly developed with small snippets of information gradually building to form the larger picture. I liked how unpleasant everyone is and how they each seem a plausible suspect, even Radha, despite her being the focus of the plot. Her behaviour during the investigation is obstructionist and she refuses to tell her side of the story, presumably from a knowledge that it has never helped her in the past. But even beyond that there is a slyness to her personality that made it difficult to fully empathise with her character. However, Radhika Apte still manages to capture vulnerability and desperation within her portrayal and the mix is simply brilliantly done. Despite not liking Radha, I still felt sorry for her and her situation, while simultaneously wanting to slap her and tell her to stand up for herself! That mix of clever writing and inspired performance makes Radha an intriguing and memorable character, no less because for the most part she is negatively portrayed.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is also excellent as the investigator, bringing a tough, hard-bitten attitude but still displaying compassion when required. His personal fussiness adds depth and a realness to the character that ground his firm focus on the truth and make it seem more reasonable that he would decline to succumb to the family’s desire for a cover-up. The only downside was a developing romance between Jatil and Radha which was uncomfortable and out of step with the rest of the story. After condemning Raghuveer for his treatment of Radha, any relationship between Jatil and Radha seems just as wrong given the power imbalance between the two characters. Writer Smita Singh seems to have tried to mitigate this by introducing Jatil and Radha earlier, but the romance still feels unnecessary.

What I appreciated more was how the story took the darker sides of society and carefully mixed slavery, child abuse and incest with domestic and family violence. Issues that seem to be kept under cover and not spoken about, are dragged into the open, and the horror and anguish caused by abuse of power is suddenly clearly visible. Karuna’s howl of anguish when she finds out the truth resonates as a cry for justice for all abused and tortured individuals, as well as an effective means to demonstrate her own feelings of powerlessness with her own situation. The secrecy and selective blindness by family members is used powerfully to illustrate just how prevalent such treatment of women is throughout all levels of society.  This even extends to Radha’s father, who was the one who initially sold her, and to the family’s treatment of Chunni, who is the only likeable person in the whole film.

I’m a fan of detective films generally and the story and execution here is sophisticated and smooth. The film is perhaps a little slow to get going, but once it does, there are plenty of clues and suspects to keep it interesting. The characterisations are well done, and all the performers seem a natural fit for their roles. This is just different enough to stand out from the crowd of whodunnit’s that have been released recently and I thoroughly recommend it as both social commentary and intriguing detective tale. 4 stars.

Striker (2019)

Pawan Trivikram’s debut film has an interesting storyline but the execution is rather clunky and in the end doesn’t do the plot justice. The film is essentially a murder mystery, and although it takes a long time to get going, the second half has some tense moments and enough twists to keep the ending in doubt. Praveen Tej and Bhajarangi Loki star, but Dharmanna Kadur and Shilpa Manjunath make the biggest impression despite their smaller roles.

The film starts by introducing Sidhu’s (Praveen Tej) unusual mental disorder. Following an injury as a child, Sidhu apparently suffers from ‘nightmare disorder’ which means he doesn’t know if what he has experienced is real or a dream. This causes some confusion when he follows up on previous conversations with his neighbours, some of which really occurred and some of which weren’t real. Sidhu is a mechanic who works with his best friend Venky (Dharmanna Kadur) whose wife is expecting their first baby. The third member of their group is Ravi (Ashok Sharma) who runs a mobile shop and who has a girlfriend that the other two have never met. The friends all meet in Ravi’s apartment to drink, smoke and discuss life in general, although Venky’s wife doesn’t approve. But when Sidhu finds Ravi’s body in the apartment one morning, he isn’t sure if he has murdered his best friend or if their disagreement was just a dream. With SI Purushottam (Bhajarangi Loki) investigating and the net closing in, Sidhu has to work out exactly what happened before it’s too late.

The first half of the film is taken up with developing the story behind Sidhu’s disorder and then the romance between Sidhu and Madhu (Shilpa Manjunath). This starts badly after Sidhu thinks that his meeting with Madhu was just a dream, but ultimately it’s Madhu that comes up with a way for Sidhu to work out what is real and what is imaginary. The romance is well done and Shipla Manjunath effectively evolves her character from being disgruntled and unhappy to finally falling in love. I really liked how the relationship was portrayed, in particular that Madhu wasn’t prepared to just forgive Sidhu and fall in love, but instead was ready to make him work for her attention. The time spent on the romance is somewhat justificated since Madhu’s method to distinguish dreams from reality is an important point later on, while the relationship provides some of the reason for Sidhu to act the way he does. It’s also a good point of contrast to see a different side of Sidhu, since for the most part he is morose and violent with a hair-trigger temper. His relationship with Madhu brings out a softer and more compassionate side which helps to develop some empathy for his character as events unfold in the second half. 

As the investigation steps up in the second half, there are some excellent twists and turns, and this is where Dharmanna Kadur really steps up with a terrific performance as Venky. I really enjoyed how he confused both Sidhu and SI Purushottam with different stories for each and was completing convincing throughout. The plot here is really well done, and although the end is less satisfying, it’s possible to look back and see the foreshadowing earlier on in the film. The pace picks up as well in the second half, which helps devlop a sense of urgency as time runs out for Sidhu.

The main problem I have with this film is that at times the execution feels awkward and laboured. Pawan Trivikram seems to be following a set formula – love seen here….fight scene here, and the story doesn’t flow as well as it needed to. It’s not helped by some terrible dialogue, which is either just translated very literally, or is just stilted and unrealistic with little emotion. I’m guessing it’s the first as there are many grammatical errors in the subtitles as well, and at times they just make no sense at all. By themselves, poor subtitles are a reflection of the production and not necessarily the filmmaker, but here they just compound the problems around the lack of story flow in the film. Praveen Tej varies between good and very wooden, sometimes in the same scene. Part of his character is his bad temper, so his disgruntled expression made sense, but there wasn’t much difference between his appearance when angry and when just chatting to his friends or neighbours. When he did start to show some emotion during the romantic sequences, his character suddenly came alive and I wished he had done more of this in the later scenes. 

Despite these issues, I did really like the story behind Striker. It’s a different take on a murder mystery and the twists in the second half were generally well done. It will be interesting to see what Pawan Trivikram comes up with next and I’ll be keeping an eye out for his name. I’m sure that the film would have had more impact on me if the subtitles had been clearer, and for those who understand Kannada, the film probably works much better. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why producers don’t think outside the Kannada film industry and realise that there are other markets out there where they could increase their reach with something as simple as better subtitles. Striker has a great story, but the execution could have been better. It’s worth find it on a streaming platform if you like murder mysteries with a twist, and probably best if you can understand Kannada. 3 stars.

Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya

Swaroop RSJ’s 2019 film is a neo-noir style comedy mystery that is a departure from the more usual fare from the Telugu film industry. I haven’t seen many Telugu films at all that involve detective investigations, and very few that combine comedy and suspense so effectively. Naveen Polishetty is excellent in the titular role while Shruti Sharma makes a great sidekick and best of all, there is no dodgy romance to muddy the waters. I really enjoyed this film, despite a few plot holes, and the mix of comedy and serious investigation make Agent Sai Srinivas Athreya well worth a watch.

Sai Srinivasa Athreya (Naveen Polishetty) goes by the name Agent and runs the Fatima Bureau of Investigation or FBI for short. For Agent, being a detective is all about the look and the attitude, despite running his business from a small office in the market area of Nellore. He’s teaching the ropes to new recruit Sneha (Shruti Sharma) which mostly consists of asking her to watch a series of classic detective movies and discussing famous literary detectives such as his hero, Sherlock Holmes. Also involved in his instructions are to always carry a take-away coffee cup (actual coffee is optional) and to dress with style and panache. Agent interprets this by wearing a waistcoat, an overcoat and sporting a fedora which do at least serve to make him stand out from the crowd.

Agent’s actual detective work consists of small cases and barging in unwanted on police investigations, which earns him the ire of the local officers and ends up with him being forcefully ejected from crime scenes. However, when his friend Sirish (Chanakya Tejas) tells him about unidentified bodies being found alongside railway tracks, Agent has a whiff of a case that he can really sink his teeth into. The only problem being that the police arrest him on suspicion of the murder when they find him at the site of a recently discovered body. During his night in jail, Agent speaks to an old man, Maruthi Rao, who tells him about his daughter who was raped and murdered. The police aren’t showing any interest in the case and Agent vows to find Vasudha’s killer. Agent assigns Sneha to follow the more dangerous looking of two suspects, while he himself shadows Ajay (Sandeep Raj) but when both Harsha (Vinu Varma) and Ajay turn up murdered, Agent is once again prime suspect for the police. Along with a fellow private detective Bobby (Suhas), Agent slowly starts to unravel the case, which ties into the railway bodies mystery and even has connections to his own personal life. With the police determined to blame Agent for the murders, it’s a race against time to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the crime.

The film works primarily due to Naveen Polishetty’s portrayal of the fast-talking and slick detective at the centre of the story. The comedy scenes are excellent, and he gets the delivery just right for maximum impact almost every time. He’s just as good though in the moments when he does have to show more emotion and for the most part, he gets the mix of over confidence and vulnerability just right. I also liked the no-nonsense relationship he has with Sneha and really appreciate that Swaroop didn’t go with the obvious and add a romance between the two. Their working relationship is well written and the mix of Agent’s brilliance and Sneha’s down to earth practicality serves the story well. The support cast are all fine but have little depth, apart from Krishneswara Rao who is adept and adding mystery to his role as Maruthi Rao.

One of the only issues I have with the film is that we are told everything, often in great detail as Agent describes every scene and what each clue means. It would have been less overwhelming to show a little more and tell less, which could also have been used to give the most significant moments more impact. There are many, many twists and turns in the tale which does make it interesting, but since they occur at break-neck speed, by the time I could process the information and make the link back through the various characters, Agent was already on to the next twist. I really wanted Swaroop to slow down some of these scenes and draw out the revelations a little more, particularly when the film started to delve into the shady operators who prey on their victims’ superstitions and beliefs. 

Despite the uneven pacing, the story itself is well put together and the twists are unexpected and cleverly integrated into the narrative. Sunny Kurapati makes sure the film looks good and Mark K Robin’s background score suits the mix of action and more cerebral detective work. It comes down to a good story, a clever mix of action and comedy and two great lead characters who work well together. So good in fact, that I really hope they put together a sequel! A very different film from the Telugu film industry and one well worth catching now that it is available online. 4 stars.