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.

Petta (2019)

petta

Karthik Subbaraj is a self-confessed Rajinikanth fan (he even mentions this in the movie credits) and his latest film can best be described as a fan’s ode to the Superstar. Petta is a step back in time to the classic Rajinikanth of the nineties with punch dialogues, trademark poses and bucket loads of swagger and attitude. The mass style brings the superstar persona to the forefront and, particularly in the first half, relies heavily on Rajni’s charisma and screen presence to deliver an action-packed masala adventure. Although there are still plenty of twists and turns, the first half of Petta is a departure from the previous style of film making from Karthik Subbaraj and the characterisations and detail of the story suffer as a result. But with Petta being such a marvellous return to form for Rajinikanth, the film is still an absolute treat for fans.

The film follows the exploits of Petta (Rajinikanth), a man who comes to take up the position of hostel warden at a boarding school on the recommendation of the local minister. He gives his name as Kaali and immediately goes about restoring law and order in the hostel by evicting a group of bullies terrorising new students. Chief of these is Michael (Bobby Simha), the son of a local rowdy (Aadukalam Naren) who is also involved in various black-market schemes in the area. Petta brings order and structure to the hostel while at the same time assisting one of his students Anwar (Sananth Reddy) with his love affair. The results in a brief romance with Mangalam (Simran) and elicits some excellent advice – when faced with a problem, first play your favourite music and dance before making any decisions. The perfect maxim to live by!

The first half of the film sets up the character of Petta as a righteous man who is willing to do what it takes to win, but who is ultimately on the side of good. Classic Tamil hero stuff and Rajni plays the tough hero persona with his usual flair. Along the way he plays old Tamil movie songs on an ancient radio and indulges in trademark Rajni antics with cigarettes, sunglasses and various other props. Many of his poses recall his earlier blockbuster films while the dialogue is sharp and on point, raising plenty of cheers from the audience in Melbourne. Karthik Subbaraj has written the character to recreate the perfect storm that is SuperStar Rajinikanth, but this means that the other characters have little back story and even less time in front of the camera. Petta is front and centre of every frame – beating up bad guys, making the perfect dinner and setting the world to rights – just as we want him to do, but the lack of a build-up or real motivation for Petta makes some of these scenes just a bit too predictable.

Petta has a mysterious past and eventually it catches up to him in the second half necessitating a move to Uttar Pradesh. Here the plot starts to thicken and Karthik Subbaraj remembers to add his signature twists to the storyline. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Singaaram, a long time enemy of Petta who is out for blood and determined to get rid of Petta once and for all. His son Jithu (Vijay Sethupathi) is well placed to take on the task as he’s the chief rowdy in charge of Singaraam’s various dubious enterprises and has no issues at all with either murder or mayhem.

While he’s a fantastic actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui seems a bit too pathetic and weedy to be an effective villain in a Tamil movie. Although his personality is bitter and twisted, his lack of physicality doesn’t play well, and his reliance on guns and explosives rather than his bare fists somehow seems to be cheating. Or maybe I just watch too many mass films! Vijay Sethupathi on the other hand is excellent and his entrance provoked just as many cheers from the audience in Melbourne as did Rajinikanth. He is perfect as a vicious thug who is still able to think on his feet and the scenes between Vijay and Rajinikanth are simply superb. The various twists and turns add more interest to the story and it helps that Jithu and Singaraam get more backstory with a flashback sequence and some good dialogues.

Rajinikanth looks amazing in this film and he moves more freely here in the dance and fight sequences than in his other recent films. S. Thirunavukarasu’s (Thiru) lighting and cinematography is beautifully done to maximise the different settings, particularly when the action moves north and the characters are surrounded by a festival in the streets. Peter Hein’s action sequences work well and the various locations too. The different areas of the hostel, a street market and a warehouse full of chairs allow him to create some novel situations and moves while a sequence with Petta practising with nunchucks in front of a fire is brilliant. Anirudh’s music fits well into the style of the film, especially with the wonderfully upbeat Aaha Kalyanam and SP Balasubrahmanyam appearing on the track Marana Mass. Sadly there was no credit given for the subtitles, but these were generally OK, although again very much of the literal translation type, so didn’t always make sense. Also in white which was frequently made illegible by the background. However at least the subtitler made the effort to identify the various classic songs used so that was a win – and as always, I’m very grateful for subtitles, full stop.

Unlike Karthik’s earlier movies like the excellent Iraivi, the female roles here are all of the ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ variety and despite the additions of a couple of romances they are totally superfluous to the plot. Malavika Mohanan has the best realised role while Trisha, Simran and Megha Akash have very little to do. The flashback sequence has a brief appearance by Sasikumar and J. Mahendran and the usual ensemble of support actors make up the various gang members on one side or other of the conflict.

What really works about Petta is the interplay between Rajinikanth and the various characters in the second half. The mixture of violence, punch dialogues and occasional comedy all fit perfectly into a plot that keeps changing tack. Singaraam may not be the best chief villain, but his nasty weaselly ways are novel and Nawazuddin Siddiqui has some great expressions as he flits between giving orders to kill and worrying about where Petta will pop up next. While it’s fantastic to see Rajni in such good form, it’s in this part of the film where everything comes together – star, story and support cast, to produce an almost perfect whole. This probably is a film that has something for everyone, with enough old-school Rajni to please his fans, a good character driven story in the second half for those who prefer his later incarnations in films such as Kaala and some characteristic Karthik Subbaraj storytelling for fans of the director. All this and Vijay Sethupathi too – highly recommended!

Mom (2017)

Mom

Mom starts out with an interesting take on the step-mother/daughter relationship but takes a turn midway to end as a standard revenge film with a haphazard second half and an overly mawkish finale. Thankfully Sridevi is outstanding as the mother hell-bent on revenge, and Sajal Ali, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the rest of the cast are all excellent, making Mom better than average, despite the film’s flaws.

The first half of the film explores the tension between Devki Sabarwal (Sridevi) and her step-daughter Arya (Sajal Ali). Arya is the daughter of Anand (Adnan Siddique) and his first wife, and she bitterly resents Devki for taking her father away from her and her memories of her dead mother. Although Devki and Anand have been married long enough to have a child of their own, Arya still isn’t reconciled to her step-mother and the resulting acrimony affects every moment the family spends together. Adding to the tension is the fact that Devki is a teacher and Arya is a student in her class which allows Arya to continue the teacher/student formality even when they are at home by always addressing her step-mother as ‘madam’. The difficulties of dealing with a moody and resentful teenager are compounded by Arya’s animosity towards her stepmother, while Anand is caught in the middle trying to keep the peace. Generally Anand is a passive character who drifts along seemingly not too bothered by his daughter’s rudeness which I presume is to allow Devki the space to take centre stage later in the film. However, the relationship between Devki and her step-daughter is handled well with the family dynamic appearing authentic and the dialogues realistic, and perhaps it’s not too far a stretch that Anand avoids the situation at home rather than getting too involved.

Everything changes one night when 18-year-old Arya goes to a Valentine’s Day party at a farmhouse and doesn’t return home. She is abducted by four men in a black four-wheel drive, and Ravi Udyawar brilliantly builds and maintains the tension as he switches between a frantic Devki desperately trying to contact Arya by phone and horrifically effective overhead shots of the vehicle slowly cruising along deserted roads. The soundtrack adds to the sense of menace and there is a chilling, heart-stopping moment as the car stops and the men change who is driving. It’s horrifying because we know what is happening but all the more effective as nothing is ever shown of the violence until Arya is dumped at the side of the road.

Reading about the film and watching the trailer I was worried that Mom might go down the route of so many films about rape but Ravi Udyawar gets this part of the film totally right and sensitively handles an assault which is too often inappropriately sensationalised or set up to blame the victim. The anguish and despair felt by Devki is also well portrayed, as is Arya’s reaction, while for a change the police are rather more sympathetic although the process of gathering evidence does seem fatally flawed.

When the courts offer little in the way of justice, Anand puts his faith in an appeal and a more rigorous series of tests, while Devki has a more practical approach to her daughter’s rapists gaining their freedom. Anand’s reaction here does seem rather less plausible, but to some extent does fit with his earlier ‘ostrich in the sand’ approach to his daughter. Devki is aided by a private detective, Daya Shankar Kapoor aka DK (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who is sympathetic to her mission. But with detective Mathew Francis (Akshaye Khanna) suspicious of Devki and Arya still as distant as ever, it seems that Devki has set herself an impossible task when she sets out to seek revenge.

Devki is shown as a strong character right from the beginning. She promptly and efficiently deals with an unpleasant incident in her classroom and appears determined to break down the barriers between herself and Arya, despite her step-daughter’s frosty attitude and carefully maintained distance. Sridevi looks radiant too while the scenes between her and Adnan Siddiqui have a genuine warmth and easy affection that speak of a good relationship. After the assault, her reaction to her daughter’s injuries is wonderfully histrionic but perfectly apt for the situation while her trepidation and uncertainty come across clearly as she embarks on her revenge. However, the screenplay doesn’t help here as DK insists that they meet in secret and the pair then proceed to arrange rendezvous in conspicuous public places where they speak to each other without seeming to take any precautions at all. Even the association with DK seems rather unlikely given their first meeting, but Nawazuddin Siddiqui runs with it regardless and manages to give his character plenty of appeal despite his slightly disreputable appearance. His DK is a more sympathetic character than first appears and he is excellent at conveying his own horror and understanding of the situation to Devki. The dialogue between the two tries to give some rationale for Devki’s actions and there is plenty of symbolism included during their meetings, but it’s really the performances from the two actors that allow any suspension of disbelief and make it even vaguely possible that Devki could act as she does.

Akshaye Khanna does the best he can with the role of the police officer assigned to Arya’s case but his character has little to do and doesn’t seem to know which side he should be on either. Mathew Francis seems to be a capable enough office but his investigations are only shown briefly and he never seems to be a serious threat to Devki’s plans. I also have some issues with the portrayal of transgenders and the completely evil nature of Abhimanyu Singh as one of the perpetrators which seems too over the top in a film that already has plenty of extreme emotion.

Anay Goswamy’s cinematography is excellent and the music from A.R.Rahman evocative and perfectly suited to each mood of the film. Where the film falls down is in the predictable nature of the second half and its failure to address the topical issue of violence against women except by suggesting the usual vigilante payback as the way to go. Naturally it makes for a more exciting film this way, but it would have been more satisfying to see more of the family’s reaction, more of Arya’s own story and her father’s struggle for justice. Better too, if Ravi Udyawar had stuck to the fractured relationships and the impact of assault, rather than following the well-trodden path of failed justice and pay-back. Even the scenes of revenge (as clichéd as they are) are glossed over swiftly and the police investigation relegated to a few brief dialogues with a bizarre about-face by Detective Mathew Francis appearing out of the blue, just in time for the film climax. Sridevi is always worth watching, but her co-stars here are all equally good, even though Girish Kohli’s screenplay limits their contribution to the story. Worth watching for the excellent performances, technically good presentation and well executed first half, just don’t expect anything more than a typical masala ending.