Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a grumpy and sincere cop, hoping to get hitched soon. But he and his mother (Ila Arun) know that it won’t be easy: Jatil is neither young nor fair.

A tough, sharp cop — an embodiment of ideal masculinity — he is marked by curious contradictions. He’s been rejected by several girls; his dark complexion bothers him, so he applies a skin-lightening cream; and a mistake in the board exam form changed his name from Jatin to Jatil — a grievance he still holds against his mother.

But these worries seem inconsequential against a new turn in his life: investigating a murder.

An affluent man in Kanpur, Thakur Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji), was shot dead on the night of his wedding. The mansion was filled with family members and guests, yet nobody heard a thing. Raghubeer, old enough to be a grandfather, was getting married to his mistress, Radha (Radhika Apte). He left behind nearly half-a-dozen family members — a son, daughter, nephew, niece, sister-in-law — who don’t trust each other. And then there’s Radha, a young woman who, after long, has held Jatil’s attention.

Raat Akeli Hai, directed by Honey Trehan, grabs our attention right from the start. Its first five minutes are suspenseful and evocative: long shots of a car and a truck on a highway at night, lit only by their headlights; not a single word of dialogue; two murders. The victims, returning from Gwalior to Kanpur, were Raghubeer’s first wife and driver, killed five years ago.

Jatil suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar world. He doesn’t know anything about the family, has no idea about the motivation; anybody or nobody could be the murderer. Maybe it was an inside job, maybe an outsider was involved, maybe it was a combination of two.

Like a good thriller, Raat Akeli Hai’s initial segment keeps us invested and guessing. Screenwriter Smita Singh drops crucial reveals at opportune moments, shifting our loyalties and viewpoints. So, we find out that Radha had an affair with Raghubeer’s nephew, Vikram (Nishant Dahiya), and wanted to marry him. On the night of the murder, she left nearly dozen missed calls on his phone. Jatil, on the other hand, keeps seesawing: should he trust Radha or not — should the heart prevail over the mind when lives are at stake?

A still from Raat Akeli Hai.

Soon, other players enter the picture: the Singhs’ family friend, MLA Munna Raja (Aditya Srivastava) and Jatil’s boss, Lalji Shukla (Tigmanshu Dhulia), influential people who know each other, intent on thwarting his progress. As the case unfolds, it gets murkier: Singh’s domestic help is murdered, Jatil gets suspicious of Munna, and he finds out that Radha had entered Raghubeer’s room on the night of the murder.

Raat Akeli Hai does an impressive job of aligning the audience’s perspective with Jatil’s, as we primarily see this case through his eyes, sharing his discoveries and confusion. Yet, at the same time, we know a few things that he doesn’t: the murderer of Raghubeer’s wife, for instance, creating a sense of subliminal tension and anticipation. Later, we find out that Jatil knows something that we don’t: that he had met a suicidal Radha on a train five years ago. These small, clever turns continually redefine our relationship with the protagonists and, consequently, the film.

Unlike other thrillers, this film isn’t fixated on red herrings or foreshadowing. This is a world so insular that an outsider — in effect, the audience — has nearly no chance of solving the case, unless they know a few crucial facts about the family. The investigation then largely becomes linear. Jatil finds one clue, follows its trail, cracks another, and so on. But this lack of tonal variation also sags our interest.

If you take apart the thrill of finding the murderer, Raat Akeli Hai feels tepid.

Besides Jatil and Radha, none of the other characters hold our interest; there’s nothing unique about them that opens this movie further. The bond between the leads, too, doesn’t sufficiently evolve; both Jatil and Radha are mainly stagnant, resulting in a chemistry that doesn’t stoke our curiosity beyond a point.

Even the relationship between Jatil and his subordinate feels monotonous; the former disapproves, the latter listens. A riveting thriller needs much more: a peek into the human condition, unexpected humour, some social commentary — or anything else, really, that subverts our expectations beyond the customary genre pleasures.

Siddiqui, here, is stripped of his hinterland stardom, so he doesn’t get the devastating lines he’s renowned for or indulge in scene-chewing eccentricities. Yet the film doesn’t give him much else, either; it’s a what-you-see-what-you-get part, and the actor is competent — nothing more. Ditto Apte, playing a simple role with enough conviction.

Moreover, the mechanics of the investigation are quite straightforward — Jatil finding clues under the bed, in a drawer; connecting the dots through cross-questioning — making this fact-finding exercise more laborious, less cerebral. And even when Jatil finds the final piece of the puzzle we can’t participate in that thrill simply because we don’t know enough. There’s nothing terribly upsetting with Raat Akeli Hai — it is committed to its main task and does that well. That said, though, some wild lunges or detours wouldn’t have hurt, either.

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