Before Honey Trehan made his debut with Raat Akeli Hai, a film that was originally planned as a theatrical release but then made its way to Netflix, the Allahabad native had already made a name for himself as a casting director.
He started off as an assistant director on Vishal Bhardwaj’s Makdee and followed it up as a casting director on several Bhardwaj films such as Maqbool, Omkara and Kaminey. In 2016, Trehan turned producer with Abhishek Chaubey. The duo produced Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj, which opened at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Trehan’s journey towards direction has been a long one, and his career could be described as a slow burn in itself.
But the payoff has been rewarding. Raat Akeli Hai opened to rave reviews. I had mixed feelings initially but enjoyed the film a lot more the second time around. It’s the kind of movie where knowing the ending makes the journey there more exciting as you can spot and appreciate the red herrings and easter eggs.
Raat Akeli Hai has been compared to Knives Out, although the Indian film was shot before the 2019 hit released in theatres. Written by Smita Singh (Sacred Games) as her graduation project for FTII, the film’s script reached Trehan, who brought his own inputs to the writing while having Singh onboard as a collaborator.
It was shot on location over a period of 46 days, going exactly as per schedule. Trehan repeatedly points out how grateful he was to have Ronnie Screwvala (of RSVP Movies) as his producer, someone who didn’t just stand with him till the very end but also gave him the ‘freedom to fail.’
Over a two-hour long Zoom call, Trehan unpacks some of the broader ideas and the intimate details of Raat Akeli Hai, his long relationship with Vishal Bhardwaj and their unfulfilled dream of making Sapna Didi.
It’s been a few days since Raat Akeli Hai released on Netflix. In the words of a TV reporter, I want to ask you, aap ko kaisa lag raha hai?
Honestly, I really wanted this film to be seen in a theatre. But would people step out and shell 2,000 bucks to watch a film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte? I’m not sure. Unless you get great reviews and great word-of-mouth, then perhaps. Given the lockdown, I’m glad it released on Netflix because a lot more people have now seen the film. You know, the streaming players have killed the monopoly of stars over audiences. It’s become a democratic set-up.
In the absence of a box office and with Netflix not sharing numbers, how do you personally gauge the success of your movie? Not that box office is the right barometer but it still tells you something.
You scan the internet and get a sense of what the audience is feeling. And then you read the reviews of people you respect. I read your stuff closely, I like Baradwaj Rangan, Shubhra Gupta, Namrata Joshi, Saibal Chatterjee—many of them I’ve not met but it’s almost like I know them through their work. Like they know me through mine. You get a sense that your film is being read well, irrespective of the review being good or bad.
There’s so much happening in the film. On one end, it’s a whodunnit in the classic, Chinatown sense of the term. And yet, it’s also about power, masculinity and the oppression of women. What was the story you wanted to tell?
Patriarchy. The omnipresence of it. When the script came to me, it didn’t have any noir in it. It didn’t have so many night scenes. Smita is from Bundelkhand. I am from Allahabad. Why do I want to tell this story? Jatil Yadav probably had many cases before this. Why this case and why not something else? Our social system is plagued by patriarchy. It’s a curse that affects everyone, men and women and is passed on through generations. I wanted to explore this. Which is why I was very impressed by the way Smita handled the mother and son track. She″s a progressive mother but her son doesn’t seem to have inherited any of those values. When he first sees Radha on a train, she’s trying to run away…
Presumably from getting sold by the father to Raghuveer Singh?
Yes, and what does Jatil do? He doesn’t ask why she wants to run away. He says he’ll keep an eye on her and tells the father to sleep. Per him, if a woman is running away, she’s most certainly someone with a bad character. He doesn’t even bother to ask her what she’s running away from. It’s a tangible manifestation of what patriarchy does. Through the film, I wanted to show his own evolution. I could have shown the film without the flashback.
But it helps in establishing his guilt, which justifies why he wants to help her escape. In a way, he got her into it.
Yes. He carries that burden. He has turned 40. He’s unmarried. He’s dark-complexioned. The case eventually gives him a reason for acceptance. How it challenges and dismantles his own notions. He comes out of the clutches of patriarchy that bind all of us. Radha is the opposite of everything he wanted in a woman and yet he ends up with her. He’s evolved from what he was. The case becomes a way of reaching there. That’s the story Smita and I wanted to tell. It took us (him and writer Smita Singh) two-and-a-half years to get the script right. When I got this script. I was shooting A Death in the Gunj.
Also about masculinity, set in one house and then there’s a death.
(Laughs) Yes, subconsciously perhaps these things affect you. I’m a huge Hitchcock fan. My company’s name itself is called MacGuffin. North by Northwest has had a huge influence on me. We’ve not really cracked noir although we keep using the term very liberally. You need to make the elements of noir come alive as characters in your narrative. There has to be a consistency in mood. A sense of unsettling tension. Characters that take their own sweet time to reveal themselves. Those who hide more than they reveal.
But your opening shot in itself does that: shadows, lights, darkness, a car on an empty highway. This could’ve been set in the day too and nothing would have changed.
(Laughs) It wouldn’t have. But when I first read the script, that image stayed in mind. It was so powerful. I don’t know why. I was like, my film will start with this shot. Metaphorically, I wanted to say, let me take you on a journey. Let me enter your life. Let me evoke a sense of curiosity. Who died, why did they die? While you are still wondering about that, there’s another murder. What the hell is going on, boss? I wanted to tease out this mystery slowly. And so to begin the movie with a shot in the middle of night tells you that you’re going on a dark journey and there’s only darkness ahead. But yes, this accident could have happened in the day too.
Were there concerns about the length?
My first cut was 2 hours 35 minutes, without credits. Second cut was 5 minutes less. Everybody from RSVP loved it but they did say that it needs to be trimmed. Nobody could say where exactly. I told Ronnie I can’t bring it down more than 10 minutes although they expected it to be under 2 hours or 2 hours 5 minutes tops. I had one month to figure this out. A day after the screening, Ronnie Screwvala called me and said, when you come to show me the film, I want you to look into my eye and say this is the film you wanted to make. It’s two hours, two-and-a-half hours or even three hours. When you get that kind of support, it liberates you. He was a dream producer to work with.
It’s the kind of a film where each scene in the movie has a repercussion on another scene. What did you cut?
Mostly travelling shots. Nothing major. Like we had a scene where he’s reaching Gwalior. Or going from one point to another. We made the transitions crisper. It was impossible to remove a scene which had information because it would break the connectivity.
Spending two-and-a-half years on script meant ensuring that it was as tight as possible. Directing in itself is very stressful. Ultimately, you may have worked in the industry for years but direction is direction. You say action, you say cut, you need to be sure if the shot you’ve gotten is the one you can live with. The window to do a retake is very little and 300 people are waiting as you make up your mind.
What fascination does the the UP-MP belt hold for Hindi film writers?
Familiarity. It’s a world we understand better than any other. Smita is from Bundelkhand, I am from Allahabad. You just know the nuances, the mannerisms, the subtle traits better because you’ve lived through those. Second, do you think a producer will give money to a first-time director to shoot in a foreign location? (laughs) I remember what happened with Vishal ji once. A producer told him, sir, we’re investing so much money, you’ve got the best stars in the industry, why not shoot the film in New York?
‘Omkara’ changed the landscape in such an influential way that we’re still seeing its effects. It gave birth to a new cinematic expression, gave a language to the way we narrate our own stories.
Oh, one hundred percent. The local became exotic. The Dulhaniyas are also from Badrinath now (laughs) Four filmmakers changed the game: Ram Gopal Varma, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee. They changed the thought process of filmmaking and that contribution is a lot. Warna kya tha yaar? Mujhse dosti karoge, tumse dosti karoge, humara dil aapke paas hai, aapka dil humare paas hai, just all that. From there to Satya, Shool, Maqbool, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye, Khosla Ka Ghosla. And these stories worked because they are ours.
Tell me more about your working relationship with Pankaj Kumar. The camera in your film moves like a character. It’s as if the viewer is a quiet, invisible witness inside the haveli, following the family members around. They all look like they’re being watched, including Jatil Yadav.
That was deliberate. Fear is a silent character in the film. It’s an unsettling presence. The camera is my eye. I wanted the audience to follow the characters. I didn’t want to stage it. I hate doing that. I don’t give too many instructions. I tell them, you’re in the room. What will you do if this were your house? Look at them the way you’d to a family member. I’m an outsider. How will I know? It’s your house, you tell me. The camera follows the character’s gaze. 95% of the film is handheld.
When I told him this is how I see the film, Pankaj got very kicked. I told him lines like, when a character appears on screen, I want them to appear in a way that tells you that they come with a past. With an air of mystery. I didn’t want to reveal the past of these people through flashbacks but through other characters. What is Padmavati’s past? Through some other character, we get to know. What is Shweta Tripathi’s marriage like? Through her husband’s brashness we know. I didn’t want to randomly cut to a flashback.
Pankaj and I go back a long way. We became friends during Haider and connected on a deeper level during Talvar. When one of the film’s drafts was ready, I sent it to him to read for his feedback. Not for him to come onboard because ours was a very small-budget movie, we couldn’t afford him. After reading it, he sent me a message. “Nobody else will shoot this film but me.”
The second person to come on-board was editor A. Sreekar Prasad. Because I like to work with my editor on the script more than on the rushes. He read the script, sent his detailed notes and we were on.
How did you lock the film’s look? It has such a delicious colour palette, I’m sure in conversations with Pankaj, you must have used other films as references.
Right. So lighting wise, Moonlight is a film I absolutely love. That kept coming up. Nightcrawler, another noir that inspired me. For the wide shots, the shadows, the atmosphere, There Will Be Blood was my reference. The interrogation scenes, the conversations between the men, the interplay of power dynamic, for those scenes, No Country For Old Men, became a point of reference. The coin sequence in the film is extraordinary. Neutral light. Two people. Pure powerplay. The scene where Jatil and the butcher first meet, I wanted it to be as tense. So there wasn’t a single film but a bunch of films and scenes and how they influenced me.
The most tense scene of the film is when the butcher chases Jatil with a dogged determination. Then he stops. Jatil turns. And the butcher sticks up a poster of Munna Raja that’s come undone. It’s on a turn and comes around what would have been the interval, so a literal turning point of the film.
Yes! It was always written like this. And if you notice, there’s blood on his hands with all the butchering. So when he sticks the poster back up, the blood gets smeared on Munna Raja’s picture. It’s almost like a tilak, a promise of lifelong loyalty, the way it actually exists between some politicians and their henchmen, although this guy has a dual role. We were supposed to shoot the poster scene separately but found the perfect location in that scene and just went with it. I really wish you could see it on the big screen. Let’s do a screening!
Tell me how you directed Nawaz. It’s an excellent performance. You see him get vulnerable but when the uniform comes on—and he’s wearing it a lot—he transforms into this upright cop determined to solve the case. Almost as if his low self-esteem gets compensated by the power he can legitimately exert as a cop.
I told him to not go into this role as hero. You’re not a hero. Only your actions are heroic. That heroism in itself is a byproduct. You become a hero only in the last scene. You are a common person with common problems. First time he says, “Baahar duniya bahut kharaab hai, police waley hain, isiliye bata rahein hain.” Second time, he asks, bhaagi kyun nai yahan se? She says, “Baahar duniya bahut kharaab hai, police wale hain, aap to jaante hi hongey.” Third time he says again, “Baahar duniya bahut kharab hai. Humse akele nahi ho paayega.” He says it with so much vulnerability. He says it to a woman. It appears as if he’s rescuing the girl but if you look closely, it’s she who has rescued him.
Nawaz has this habit of talking really fast. He looks like a guy who’s about to break into a volley of abuses. This film has no gaalis. But doesn’t the vibe suggest it perhaps had a few?
It does! How did you direct Nawaz in a way that wouldn’t look like a slight variation of his past performances?
To be honest, that was a concern. An elaichi (cardamom) saved me. When he came on set in Lucknow, he came straight after shooting Sacred Games. He was in Gaitonde mode. I freaked out. We cut his hair, moustache. I was like, how will he slip in to a character that’s the opposite of Gaitonde?
I wanted him to breathe, not rush in. Just because it is written, you don’t have to blurt it out. I told him, you are discovering the mansion through these characters. He said, the film will become very slow. I said let it be slow. That’s the film I want to make.
I was not satisfied with the dialogue delivery. It was fast. He was sounding like Nawaz. I gave him some elaichi and took Nawaz bhai for a walk. We were talking. Now while you talk while chewing your pace slows down. Now if I had asked him to slow down purposefully, the effort will be visible. It won’t be organic.
Elaichi did it for me. It became a natural element. The whole film, we fed Nawaz tonnes of elaichi. I told him if it’s coming in the way of talking, let it. It became natural. At any given point, my DA was carrying a packet of elaichis. Director’s delight. I’ve had a similar experience only once before, with Irrfan. Nawaz has no frills. Where’s my vanity, my chappal, my chair, my makeup. Nothing. He’d come, finish his shot, pull a chair, go to a corner, face a wall, and sit with his script.
How do you feel about the comparisons to ‘Chinatown’? There’s a fleeting moment where you see the name ‘Chinatown’ on a menu card...
Yaar, it’s one of my favourite films. so i am very happy at the comparisons. Other than the menu card, we had planned on doing a wide shot of the exterior of the restaurant. We had the board designed as well with the name ‘Chinatown’ printed on it in the same font as it comes in the movie. But for some logistical reasons, we couldn’t get it.
Your directorial debut was meant to be ‘Sapna Didi’ with Deepika Padukone. But I believe Vishal (who’s written the script) and you didn’t see the project the same way. How do you look back at that episode?
Well, I was very passionate about the film. But you know, Ankur, it started to feel that I was directing Vishal sir’s film. He’s the writer and producer of the film. He wanted to shoot it in one particular manner. I started to feel uncomfortable. I felt I wasn’t making my film, I was making his film. I visualised the scenes in a certain way. He didn’t see it that way and we jointly decided that he will take the lead and that was perhaps better for the film.