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.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan

Hitesh Kewalya’s romantic comedy uses the familiar Bollywood trope of parental disapproval, but this time the couple battling their relatives for acceptance are involved in a same-sex relationship. It’s unusual enough for Hindi cinema to have any gay characters, let alone treat them sympathetically, but in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan the love story is treated exactly the same as a more traditional romance, it just so happens that the couple are both male. While the film isn’t completely successful, it’s a good attempt at a different kind of love story and is hopefully a step towards more realistic portrayals of LGBTI characters in Bollywood. 

The story starts in quintessential DDLJ mode with Aman (Jitendra Kumar) and Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) running to catch a train. Right away the stage is set for a classic romance, and even if the two protagonists are wearing identical red bodysuits and black capes, there is an expectation that ‘Raj’ will somehow have to win his ‘Simran’. There’s a flashback that shows Aman and Kartik live happily together in Delhi but while Kartik’s family are aware of his homosexuality, Aman’s parents have no idea and are happily considering his future life partner even as they get ready to marry off his cousin Goggle (Maanvi Gagroo). Kartik is estranged from his parents who cannot accept the fact that their son is gay, but he convinces Aman that because his father is an educated man, all will be well. Even so, they plan to keep their relationship secret while attending Goggle’s wedding. However, on the train to the wedding, Aman’s father Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) sees Aman and Kartik locked together in a kiss and the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Shankar is appalled and literally sickened by his son’s behaviour, and is determined to ‘cure’ Aman by any means possible. The film follows the family’s attempts to deal with what they see is a life-style choice despite Aman’s attempts to convince them otherwise. 

Ayushmann’s Kartik is the more flamboyant partner, but he never veers into stereotypical territory and his portrayal of a gay man who is happy in his relationship seems pretty spot on. Jitendra’s Aman is quieter and seems naturally the product of his small-town upbringing in a large and mostly dysfunctional family. Jitendra Kumar is very impressive here and his performance rings very true as someone who is naturally more introverted and trying to balance his own wishes with the realistic desire to try and conform to his family’s expectations. The scenario rings true, and even though the conflict is billed as a comedy, there is genuine heartache here on all sides as Aman battles through the difficulties of coming out as gay to his prejudiced and self-centred father. The mix of personalities, Aman’s quieter and more introspective and Kartik’s exuberance and energy also works well and despite a very flimsy backstory, the romance feels genuine simply because the two interact believably together as a couple. 

Aman veers between vulnerability and despair while trying to explain to his parents why there is no difference between their love and his. Which might have worked, except Shankar and Sunauna (Neena Gupta) had an arranged marriage and there appears to be little love on either side. Aman’s explanations involving dopamine and oxytocin are designed to appear to his scientist father, but Shankar is relentless in his homophobia and Aman seems helpless to resist his family’s attempts to solve the ‘problem’ of his sexuality. Since these include a symbolic death and rebirth ceremony, followed by a determined attempt to make him marry Kusum (Pankhuri Awasthy), it’s understandable why he feels as if he cannot destroy his family just for his own selfish satisfaction. Interestingly, Kusum has her own issues too as she is in love with someone deemed totally unsuitable by her family. A marriage of convenience seems an excellent way out, even though Aman is noticeably not thrilled by the prospect. So, it’s left up to Kartik to fight for his lover, win the family’s acceptance and generally try to save the day. 

There is plenty of excellent laugh-out-loud comedy as Kartik attempts to overcome the Tripathi family’s prejudices. The support cast here are all superb and ensure that most of the scenes are genuinely funny despite the underlying seriousness of the issues being addressed. Maanvi Gagroo is excellent as Goggle, a woman who is desperate to get married despite her blind eye which puts off potential suitors and her family’s general disinterest. Manu Rishi Chadha is also excellent as her father Chaman, Shankar’s younger brother who lives in the family home with his wife Champa (Sunita Rajwar). The family dynamic is well played for laughs, particularly in the relationship between Shankar and his younger brother, although both Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta are fantastic as a double act with all the expected familiarity of a long-married couple.

While mostly the comedy works well, a few of the scenes feel forced, more so in the second half. There feel almost like skits that have been added solely for comedy rather than actually fitting smoothly into the screenplay, and as such they break the momentum of the story. While the first half sets up the premise of the film well, the second half has just too much going on to be totally effective. As well as the storyline about Aman’s family’s inability to accept his relationship with Kartik, there is a sub-plot involving Shankar’s invention of disease-free black cauliflowers, Goggle’s really quite distressing marriage difficulties and Chaman and Champa’s own difficult relationship with Shankar and Sunaina. In the process of dealing with so many characters and sub-plots, the film misses some good opportunities to deal with some of the significant and serious issues facing Kartik and Aman. Both characters have good dialogue that raises important points about same-sex relationships but these never last long enough to make an impact. At times the audience in Melbourne started to applaud some particularly insightful lines, but then suddenly were whisked out of the moment by another quick change of subject and new comedic exchange. Despite poignant and keen observations about how difficult it is to find family acceptance of gay relationships, the lure of the next laugh is too great, and the film rapidly moves on, instead of savouring these brief glimpses into the all too real issues facing many people today. 

The best thing about Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is that the film treats the relationship between Aman and Kartik in just the same way as a conventional romance. Although many of the more serious aspects are brushed aside to make way for laughs, the film seems to be at least a step in the right direction to hopefully start some conversations and at least show the possibility of acceptance of same-sex relationships. It’s a lot of weight for the film to carry, which is maybe why Hitesh Kewalya sidesteps most of the serious points and focuses more on the comedy. It may also explain why there are so many sub-plots to act as a smoke-screen for the more controversial romance. Despite its faults, this is an easy film to watch; it’s funny, the songs from Tanishk Bagchi, Vayu and Tony Kakkar fit well into the narrative and the performances are all exemplary. Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar are simply fantastic and even when the story doesn’t quite work, their relationship does. Well worth watching for some light-hearted entertainment that doesn’t push its social message too hard.

Tumbbad

Horror films are not usually my first, or even second choice, but I’m so glad I listened to a friend’s recommendation and watched Tumbbad. The film is exquisitely made and the story is much better than I expected – more Pan’s Labyrinth than The Shining although quite definitely Indian in feel. Here there are myths, metaphors and monsters that are frightening on a number of levels while the underlying story explores the theme of greed and how it warps and twists those it touches. The story is told in three separate chapters that span the years from 1918 to 1947 and adds glimpses of the social issues of the time, ranging from the harsh treatment of widows to Indian Independence and the opium trade. Against this backdrop, Vinayak Rao grows from a young child to become a father himself as he seeks out the treasure that lies within Tumbbad.

The film opens with an animation and voice-over where a father tells his son the legend of the god Hastar and his imprisonment in the womb of the goddess of prosperity. It’s an effective way to quickly explain the background story and introduce the idea of treasure and the consequences of unrestricted greed before moving to 1918 and a rain-soaked village somewhere near Pune. Tumbbad is where young Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar) and Sadashiv (Rudra Soni) live with their mother (Jyoti Malshe) in a strange stone house on the top of a hill. The boy’s mother is housekeeper and mistress to the ageing Sarkar (Madhav Hari Joshi) who lives in a crumbling palace and who is apparently also the boys’ father. Vinayak’s mother also takes care of the Sarkar’s great grandmother (Piyush Kaushik), who is chained and locked in a room at the end of a long, narrow corridor in their small house. She sleeps as long as she is fed regularly and the family live in dread of her waking with her snores added to the ever-present sound of the rain.

After Sarkar dies, Vinayak wants to look for the treasure, supposedly located somewhere in the palace, but after a tragic accident his mother is intent on leaving Tumbbad. She forces Vinayak to promise not to return, but fifteen years later Vinayak (Sohum Shah) breaks his vow and returns to the palace to claim his birthright. But as his great, great grandmother tells him, not everything you inherit should be claimed. The final chapter in the story relates what happens when Vinayak brings his own son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) to Tumbbad and initiates him into the mystery of Hastar and the family treasure.

The film was written by Rahil Anil Barve, along with Anand Gandhi, Mitest Shah and Adesh Prasad, and went through a number of producers and re-writes before finally releasing at film festivals last year. Perhaps as a consequence of the long development, Tumbbad is full of sumptuous detail that mostly serves to enhance the story. To start with, the village of Tumbbad seems practically non-existent since the only places seen through the veil of rain are the crumbling palace and the family’s stone house set amongst a bleak and desolate landscape. Adding to the misery of the landscape, inside the house there are dark passageways lit only by lamplight, while the palace is a bewildering warren of rooms and buildings which are gradually overtaken by trees and greenery as time passes. The whole place reeks of decay and corruption and is the perfect setting for a horror film. Pankaj Kumar is in charge of cinematography and his previous experience with films such as Haider and Ship of Theseus seems to have influenced his almost surreal treatment of the landscape here.

The path to the treasure is via a well and as Vinayak descends the passageway becomes red with oozing walls that seem to pulsate, making it seem as if he has indeed crawled into the womb of the goddess in his search for Hastar. The monsters are well thought out too and with clever use of CGI and dim lighting the effects are frightening without being overly gruesome or theatrical. The film relies on suggestion and atmosphere rather than all-out horror or gore, but there are several excellent jump-scares and plenty of creepy moments that are quite scary enough for me.

Throughout the film there are several reoccurring themes that lock the cycle of greed in place. The rain is constant, while a woman wearing red and the image of a boy covered in flour reoccur in different chapters of the story. Best of all are the wonderfully intricate and complex locks that secure the various entrances – to the stone house, the palace, and even to the entrance to the treasure.

Sohum Shah is fantastic here as a man so obsessed by gold that he values it above all other relationships. His face is cold and emotionless until it comes to the matter of money, and then his infatuation with treasure is plain to see. He even trains Pandurang in the skills needed to reach the treasure, but has no real emotional connection with his son at all. The two child actors in the beginning are superb and are instrumental is setting up the initial claustrophobic fear that permeates their home.

It’s the evolution of the main characters here and how they become monstrous in their greed that works best, which Mohammad Samad manages well as Pandurang. His change from initial innocence to scheming for more gold is beautifully handled and perfectly summed up in his attitude to his mother and to Vinayak’s mistress (Ronjini Chakraborty). It’s an impressive performance from the young actor and he handles the various emotions of the role incredibly well. Anita Date is also good in a small but important role as Vinayak’s wife, while Deepak Damle and the rest of the support cast are all effective and add layers to the complexity of the film.

The most impressive thing about Tumbbad is the story, which grabs attention right from the start and just doesn’t let go. The stunning sets and clever use of light and shade are amazingly effective, while the whole world of the film is resonant with detail and rich in imagination. Despite the story being all about the evil of greed, it doesn’t ever feel moralistic, but rather simply describes the consequence of succumbing to the desire for more and more gold. It’s also an interesting take to have the protagonist approach and take advantage of the monster rather than the other way around. All up, Tumbbad is an excellent directorial début from Rahi Anil Barve and creative director Anand Gandhi. It’s simply an awesome film that deserves a wide audience outside of fans of the horror genre, and is well worth catching online if (like me) you missed it at the cinema. 4½ stars.