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Never forget: How ‘Chinatown’ influenced three Hindi films

‘Raat Akeli Hai’, ‘Manorama Six Feet Under’ and ‘Sonchiriya’ all borrow elements from the 1974 American noir classic

(from left) Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown', Abhay Deol in 'Manorama Six Feet Under' and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in 'Raat Akeli Hai'
(from left) Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown', Abhay Deol in 'Manorama Six Feet Under' and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in 'Raat Akeli Hai'

(This piece has spoilers for Chinatown, Raat Akeli Hai, Sonchiriya and Manorama Six Feet Under)

Fittingly for a noir, Chinatown casts a long shadow. Roman Polanski’s 1974 film won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and, unlike its maker—who drugged and raped a minor and then fled to Europe to avoid prosecution—is still regarded highly. Perhaps the greatest colour noir ever, its impact on American film and culture is immense, but even Hindi cinema shows its influence. One famous moment in particular informs three fine Hindi films: Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya (2019) and Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai, released last week.

Hired to dig up dirt on engineer Hollis Mulwray by someone posing as his wife, Evelyn, Los Angeles private eye JJ “Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) photographs the man in the company of a young woman. Mulwray turns up dead in a reservoir, and Gittes is hired by his powerful father-in-law and former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston), to look into the disappearance of Mulwray’s mistress. As Gittes digs deeper, he uncovers a scam involving the city's water supply that leads back to Cross. Meanwhile, he’s increasingly fascinated by the real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), Cross’ daughter, who warns him that her father is a dangerous man. When Evelyn is found comforting the supposed mistress, she tells Gittes the girl is actually her sister. In a shocking twist, it’s later revealed that they aren’t sisters but mother and daughter, Cross having raped Evelyn when she was a teenager.

Chinatown fused elements of classic noir—tough private eye, hardboiled dialogue, a femme fatale—with 1970s American cinema’s deep cynicism about the establishment. Thirty-three years later, Navdeep Singh smartly adapted the film as Manorama Six Feet Under. Abhay Deol plays an engineer (and failed detective story writer) named Satyaveer in a small Rajasthan town, who's visited by a mysterious woman. In a scene crisscrossed by shadows, she asks him to find evidence that her husband, irrigation minister Rathore (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), is having an affair. As in Chinatown, his photographs of the mark land him in trouble, the woman is revealed to be an impostor, and there's a murky public works irrigation project.

Manorama’s plot is almost as complicated as Chinatown’s, which is saying something. It isn’t a straight-ahead remake, instead borrowing and rearranging elements from the original—an illegitimate daughter, a mistress, a corrupt cop (it's still very much a remake—which Singh acknowledges by having a scene from the film play on TV). Even the way Vinay Pathak says jjje—jija is Hindi for brother-in-law—while addressing Deol is too close to “JJ" for coincidence. It’s finally revealed that Rathore is a paedophile, who’s supplied with children by an orphanage. In both films, the sexual predations of the men is a metaphor for their figurative preying on the land (in Cross’ case) and the public (in Rathore’s).

In Manorama, one of the thugs who breaks Satyaveer’s fingers to scare him off the case (the reference is to Gittes getting his nose nicked with a knife) was played by a then-unknown Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The actor is the lead in Raat Akeli Hai, playing a Kanpur police inspector named Jatil Yadav who’s called in to investigate the murder of a wealthy old man, Raghubeer Singh, on his wedding night. Honey Trehan’s film seems at first to have more in common with the comic murder mystery Knives Out (2019)—in both films, the deceased’s grasping family members are the suspects. But Raat Akeli Hai keeps pushing in the direction of noir, and when Yadav starts to fall for the victim’s widow, Radha (a haunted Radhika Apte), even as he suspects her, just as Gittes did with Evelyn, the influence of Chinatown becomes clearer.

There’s a scene in Raat Akeli Hai that’s startlingly similar to one in Manorama. Yadav searches an unfamiliar room until he finds a sheaf of photos, after which he’s seen washing his face, just like Satyaveer in the 2007 film. These lead him to the film’s reveal—closer to Chinatown than Manorama’s—that the old man was abusing his school-going niece, who ended up murdering him. I wonder if Raghubeer’s daughter being pregnant in the film was a deliberate red herring for Chinatown fans looking for evidence of incestuous predation. If so, it’s a neat bit of misdirection, as the daughter seems to have secrets she’s withholding while the niece is a brat with little screen time. The resemblance between the antagonists in the three films is unmistakable—high society, silver-haired, powerful, well-dressed, involved in political machinations and sexual deviancy. The protagonists too are cut from a similar cloth—all sleuths, with a stubbornness and gruff moral code, each fascinated by a mysterious woman who seems to need saving.

The third film with an echo of Chinatown has nothing to do with noir or detectives. Sonchiriya is a dacoit Western directed by Abhishek Chaubey, who happens to be one of the producers on Raat Akeli Hai. In his film, Sushant Singh Rajput’s dacoit, Lakhna, helps Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar) as she tries to escape her family after killing her father-in-law; with her is a young girl the old man was abusing. Towards the end of the film, her husband and son catch up with them. As the furious boy holds them at gunpoint, it’s revealed that he is a product of incest and rape. “He was your grandfather. He was your father," Indumati says, in an echo of Evelyn’s pained outburst: “She’s my sister. She’s my daughter. She's my sister and my daughter."

Raat Akeli Hai, Manorama Six Feet Under and Sonchiriya are fine films, each with its own distinct milieu and tone. That they all borrowed, in small and large ways, from the same source is testament to the adaptability and vitality of Chinatown.

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