Much like silent films, westerns, and musicals, noir is pretty much a dead genre. I do like to watch a down-on-their-luck detective go about a corrupt city trying to solve a mystery while constantly talking to the audience, but maybe that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. That doesn’t mean that filmmakers have stopped trying to enter the genre with stories that can be categorized as slacker noirs, neo-noirs, neon-noirs, and sometimes, straight-up noir. David Fincher has done it several times over the years with Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Killer. Ryan Gosling’s The Nice Guys, Drive, and Blade Runner 2049 are right up there with the bests. Surprisingly enough, Bollywood has taken quite a few swings at making its mark with C.I.D., Manorama Six Feet Under, Johnny Gaddaar, Kaminey, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Raman Raghav 2.0, Monica, O My Darling, Jaane Jaan, and Khufiya. With Rautu Ki Beli, I think India has its first decent slacker noir.
Anand Surapur’s Rautu Ki Beli, which he has co-written with Shariq Patel and co-edited with Manish Jaitley, tells the story of Inspector Negi, who works in the titular village in Uttarakhand with four of his subordinates. While the state is teeming with corruption, the village is largely untouched by crime as the people enjoy a somewhat laidback lifestyle, thereby rendering the work of the police moot. But one unfortunate day, the death of the warden at a school for the physically challenged and underprivileged shakes everyone up. Everyone, from the school’s principal to the trustee, is marked as a prime suspect and questioned thoroughly about their relationship with the deceased individual. And the closer Negi gets to solving the mystery, the more pushback he receives for putting so much effort into this whole situation, which leads him to believe that there’s more to this “unnatural death” than meets the eye. In addition to that, Negi begins to feel that solving this case is going to solve his internal turmoil.
Initially, Shariq and Anand don’t really draw a lot of attention to the fact that the school where the whole murder mystery is unfolding is filled with kids who are blind, and that’s because Negi and his team don’t notice it. They listen to their superiors and treat the incident as an anomaly and not a symptom of a larger problem. But as soon as Negi widens his gaze, he realizes that there’s something sinister at play, which has everything to do with the fact that able-bodied adults assume that these kids can’t see, and hence, they can be exploited or neglected. There’s a surprising amount of lip service dedicated to a certain political leader, which can seem odd. However, a closer look at the people involved in this mess, which includes the politicians of Uttarakhand, makes the irony of those very random interactions between the two villagers apparent. And just in case the subtext is too hard to decipher, Shariq and Anand spell out the importance of financially backing those who truly need all the help they can get instead of benefiting those whose coffers are already overflowing. Additionally, there’s a lot of focus on the topic of love, which feels relevant due to the cultural backsliding being caused by the rise of “traditional” (read: regressive and patriarchal) values, which Rautu Ki Beli aims to counter one step at a time.
Rautu Ki Beli is a genuinely good-looking film, courtesy of D.O.P. Sayak Bhattacharya, and it’s aided by some great sound design. You feel like you have been transported to this idyllic village, and you are trying to grapple with the contrasting nature of the gruesome murder and the vibrant aesthetic of the place. Every shot of Negi standing in front of the trees and the mountains has a touch of melancholy to it because you know that the freshness of nature doesn’t align with what some of the humans inhabiting the place are doing. The relaxed pacing suits the film really well. The lighthearted tone allows the themes and topics to be digestible for the general public. That said, there are a couple of issues. First, the editing isn’t consistently good. Several moments feel repetitive or unnecessarily dragged out, thereby making it seem like a conventional murder mystery rather than the slacker noir it wants to be. And secondly, there is police brutality. During the Q&A session at the IFFI 2023 screening of the film, Shariq mentioned that, unlike the Singham movies, Rautu Ki Beli portrays the police more realistically. But not questioning the unmonitored violence that Negi and his team mete out blurs the line between the Singham films and Rautu Ki Beli. Recently, Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery set itself apart by explicitly calling out police brutality while being centered around cops. If you’re not doing that, then what is the point of saying that you’re “different” from the rest?
The cast of Rautu Ki Beli is fantastic. I have to make such a general statement because, at the time of writing this article, the movie doesn’t even have an official IMDb or Wikipedia page. We were explicitly told not to record anything on the screen or take out our phones; therefore, I couldn’t make a note of the actors and the characters they have played. Now, I have to work my way around it. So, bear with me. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as Negi, is great. He starts off pretty distant and uninterested because he is too busy fighting his own demons. But his evolution into a representative of the law who looks after the needy and reprimands those who have all the luxuries that one can have in a lifetime is really good. Rajesh Kumar and the rest of the team who work on Negi’s team are superb. Their bumbling but sincere attitude is too sweet to handle. The actors playing the faculty of the school are excellent. Even the guy playing the watchman elicits quite a few laughs. Atul Tiwari and the nexus that’s apparently toying with the reputation of the school are splendid, as they keep pushing the boundaries of unethical and evil practices. All the small-time crooks are wonderful. A special shoutout should go out to all the actors who have portrayed the blind school children, especially those playing Rajat and Diya. They truly nail the pivotal concluding moments of the film.
Rautu Ki Beli is a decent slacker noir. Much like the village and the characters, it can seem that the film’s not really in a hurry to solve a murder case. But the longer you stay with it, the more you’ll understand what Anand Surapur and his team are trying to say through the journey of Inspector Negi. That said, if you don’t want to stress your mind by unpacking the murder mystery along with Negi, you can simply chill out while watching the film and virtually take a trip through the scenic mountains of Uttarakhand. Either way, you will be taken out of the experience by Anand’s weak stance on how the police should act with criminals versus how they actually treat them in real life. The somewhat optimistic ending will try to smooth those rough edges, but its effectiveness will definitely depend on your leniency. Anyway, watch this film and then explore the noir genre, if you haven’t already, because it deserves your attention.