Thursday, July 5, 2012


Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Nirmal Pandey, Ashish Vidyarthi
In the past couple of weeks I’ve watched several films about the Mumbai underworld that I had never heard of before: Waisa Bhi Hota Hai (about which much more here), Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva, and now Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996).

The three films all share a kind of tonal dissonance that sometimes works (i.e., Waisa Bhi’s scary yet endearing Gangu Tai and Vishnu) and sometimes doesn’t. RGV’s Shiva, for instance, suffers from incomprehensible casting: there’s the more or less realistic Shiva (Mohit Ahlawat), who struck me as believably upright, even when smiting a cafĂ© full of baddies Amitabh-style, but as far less believably in love with Nisha Kothari, about whose lip-quivering impersonation of every feeling—desire, fear, righteous indignation—the less said the better. And then there’s the cartoonish don-turned-politician Bappu (Upendra Limaye), who seems to have been plucked up, like Dorothy in the tornado, from an altogether different movie.

Sudhir Mishra, the director of Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (“Tonight There Will Be No Morning”) and a star and co-creator of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro,  has a cast full of intriguing actors. Nirmal Pandey, who was very likeable as the only man worthy of Phoolan Devi’s love in Bandit Queen, is the antihero Aditya; I admit that had I been doing the hair and makeup I would have toned down the Fabio impression, but the long-haired-yet-buttoned-down look he sports here works for the cheating ad man that Aditya turns out to be. The other lead, the conflicted don Ramanbhai, is Ashish Vidyarthi, who was affecting as the mute Ratan in Naajayaz, another film featuring a regretful gangster; here is the excellent song "Barsaat Ke Mausam Mein" from that film, in which Ashish Vidyarthi is seen holding the umbrella over Naseeruddin Shah’s head:

Like Waisa Bhi Hota Hai, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin has as its ostensible hero a temporarily homeless advertising exec whose chance encounter with the underworld results in a life-changing experience. Aditya has been booted out of his apartment by his wife, Pooja (Tara Deshpande), who has just discovered his affair with the singer played by Smriti Mishra (who was also the young Sardari Begum the same year). Aditya is monopolizing the phone at a bar by repeatedly calling Pooja to explain himself—she keeps hanging up—when he becomes irritated that a young hothead is interrupting him, wanting to make a call.* The angry youngster turns out to be Chhotu, the youngest member of kingpin Ramanbhai’s gang (and Raman’s little sister’s boyfriend), and when Raman steps in to stop the boy from fighting with Aditya, Raman himself intercepts the tight slap that Aditya has intended for Chhotu.

Ashish Vidyarthi
I didn't say nice, I said honorable.
By this point in the film we already know that Raman is reasonably honorable, as kingpins go; he’s a man who values hard work and treats his gang like family (with the good and bad that that implies). We’ve watched him take the time for a heart-to-heart with his right-hand man Vilas (Saurabh Shukla)—whose supposed disloyalty Raman had planned to punish with death—and we know that as a result of Raman's patience, he has learned that Vilas remains true and can be spared. We know, too, that Chhotu, in a panic, has accidentally killed Vilas’s wife, turning Vilas’s imagined disloyalty into the real thing. Raman regrets the killing and the loss of his brotherly relationship with Vilas. But Chhotu is family, too, and Raman stands by him.

And we get the sense that Ramanbhai would agree that Chhotu could use a little smackdown. In fact, it seems that Raman would laugh off Aditya’s slap—an insult clearly intended for someone else—were it not for the fact that another kingpen’s henchmen are also in the bar, watching the events and waiting for Raman to respond with vigor. (Does anyone ever apologize for misdirected slap-administration? Just wondering.) So instead Raman has to uphold his honor conspicuously—and that means that Aditya must now become his target.

As the title implies, the film takes place over the course of a single night. During the eventful hours of darkness, Vilas will stalk Raman, accompanied by a stranger unhinged by a wife’s suicide; Raman and his men will stalk Aditya and his upset wife all over Mumbai; Aditya will try to protect Pooja, which means asking the mistress to house the wife for a few hours and also breaking the mistress’s heart; and a corrupt police inspector will stalk all the gangsters while taking bribes from them on the side.

Good guys?
Meanwhile,  the gangsters envy the “tip-top” material goods of middle-class office workers like Aditya and his boss, knowing that they will never have such luxury. Aditya, on the other hand, has everything—a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, a beautiful wife, money—but he lies and cheats, and heartbreak is clearly in store for one or both of the women in his life. He’s not making a living from smuggling, but he’s not exactly a role model.

A climactic encounter in a trainyard squares Ramanbhai against Aditya, and the film seems to leave somewhat open the question of which is the more honorable man--or perhaps just the less dishonorable one. But the final wrapup surprised me by suggesting that we’d known who to root for all along. Or perhaps Sudhir Mishra is simply saying that we’ve known all along what sort of person must win when old-school gangsters face off against modern ad executives.

Either way, there are probably more questions than answers left at the end. And the film closes with the same question that it opens with: “What is life?” As the lyrics tell us, nobody knows, and anyone who finds the answer regrets it.

*I couldn’t help thinking that in just a couple of years, Aditya would have a mobile phone, eliminating this plot point for good and all. Then again, cell phones don’t necessarily mean an end to trouble with gangsters--or with girls named Pooja. Just ask these guys.

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