Wikipedia describes film noir as a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, particularly those that emphasise cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Typically, the hero here is morally ambiguous. Then there are stock character types like the private eye (a private detective or inquiry agent) and the femme fatale (a seductive and mysterious woman who ensnares her lovers, often leading them into deadly traps). There is a great likelihood that we would also come across prying bystanders, cheating husbands, coquettish wives, and duplicitous cops.
The recently released Netflix film Raat Akeli Hai, which marks casting director Honey Trehaan’s directorial debut, is essentially a crime thriller with an ensemble cast featuring the likes of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Shweta Tripathi, Ila Arun, Shivani Raghuvanshi and Tigmanshu Dhulia. In Trehan’s words, “I always wanted to tell a story that is grounded in the reality that I know, while also honouring the classical features of a noir thriller and that is what Raat Akeli Hai is.”
Raat Akeli Hai follows a cop named Jatil Yadav (played by Siddiqui) who is investigating the murder of a powerful man. During his investigation he gets to explore the lives of various family members as he navigates through their dark pasts firmly rooted in centuries-old patriarchal values that still result in widespread oppression and violence against women. Even as Yadav tries to find the truth about the high profile murder he must be prepared to deal with distractions and red herrings at all times. For, nothing is what it seems. And, as stakes get higher, even a small miscalculation on his part can prove to be fatal.
One of the greatest hallmarks of noir when done well is the unrelenting mood that stylistically oozes out of each and every frame. As far as the Indian cinema is concerned, two filmmakers, over the last decade and a half, have demonstrated a singular command over the genre: Navdeep Singh and Sriram Raghavan. While Singh’s masterful 2007 neo-noir film Manorama Six Feet Under is loosely based on Roman Polanski’s 1974 Hollywood classic Chinatown, it is actually good enough to stand on its own.
Now, the recent Amazon Prime Video series Paatal Lok bears many similarities to Manorama. But it’s not really a surprise because Singh is a script consultant on the series.
His other two films NH10 and Laal Kaptaan too offer interesting shades of noir. As for Raghavan, his films Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar, Badlapur, and Andhadhun feature amongst the best neo-noir films made in the country.
Filmmakers such as Ram Gopal Varma, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Thiagarajan Kumararaja, Vetrimaran, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Rajat Kapoor too have dabbled with noir but with hardly the same flair. As for Trehan, as a director, he too is no Raghavan or Singh. The mood doesn’t seep into your pores the way it does in, say, Manorama or Johnny Gaddaar. You hardly catch anything out of the corner of your eye. It’s all thrust at you in a way that says “hey, I am supposed to be great—why are you not having any fun?”