Ruhaani Raat’s blurb reads: “A boy goes visits a sex worker to find answers to his questions. The two characters converse over a few hours & come to revelations that change their lives forever.” This strong premise promises a powerful story, but the movie fails to do justice to the blurb. Starring Moni Jha as Rajni, the sex worker, and Pranjal Acharya as Ruhaan, a coy boy, the movie is directed by Mohit Kr Tiwari, while the story and screenplay are by Raqeeb Raza, the fabled writer, and photographer documenting masc-sexuality at @daintystrangerphotos.
Though it has some mesmerising camerawork, this thirteen-minute-long short induced the effect of watching a lengthy and uninteresting movie in me. Given the slack writing and inefficacy of the actors to deliver a performance rendered through silences, it can be easily concluded that there’s nothing ruhaani (soulful) about Ruhaani Raat. The movie could have been a powerful work of art had the actors’ loud body language been better controlled and the clichéd film-making techniques had been avoided.
Gaysi interviewed Raqeeb to discuss the movie and his motivation behind writing its story. Edited excerpts.
What was the impetus behind writing “Ruhaani Raat”?
I was in a conversation with my director and friend, Mohit Tiwari, when the idea surrounding Ruhaani Raat came about. Mohit narrated the idea. I liked it and started developing the story. The idea was to tell a story of two individuals who are very different and yet the same, owing to the societal opinion on their identities.
You have been principally documenting shades of male sexuality via your photography. Did this shift to motion picture came to you organically, or were you always drawn to this medium?
I have always been fond of writing (having been academically involved in literature). Apart from the photography that I do, I write stories, poetry, critical pieces, and reviews. So, to answer your question, it came organically. I always wanted to do this.
The story’s premise and visuals in the movie looked so promising, but the movie was bland. It didn’t live up to its claim of showcasing “revelations that change their lives forever”. How would you respond to that?
It depends whether you see the realisation and affirmation of one’s sexuality as a life-changing event or not. Ruhaan’s character comes confused to Rajni; but by the end of the movie, Ruhaan realises and takes steps towards affirming his sexuality by visiting the male sex worker downstairs. Similarly, Rajni’s character also witnesses, for the first time, intimacy in conversation rather than the sexual act.
For this movie, did you research into the life, work, mindset of a sex worker and a woman? If yes, then how did you approach that?
I had conversations with sex workers. It was part of the research I did for another project, but it helped me in this project too. Their life stories, lived realities helped me. In regards to women, I was in constant touch with a few of my female friends during the whole writing process. I also read immensely on sex workers and their condition and lived reality in India. I watched a few documentaries as well, one of the notable among them being ‘Tale of the Night Fairies’ (2002) by Shohini Ghosh. I also watched a few regional and Hindi films which had stories relevant to the area.
Also, why do you think that a sex worker does not have intimate conversations on the regular, even if transactional sex is part of her profession?
I assume that this is in continuation to the previous question, and if it is so, then one must understand that I was talking about the character and not sex workers in general. When one writes a story, they (or at least I did) usually imagine a whole trajectory, a life in summation of the characters they write. In the story that I wrote, Rajni wasn’t someone who had a lot of good experiences in her life, and intimacy was not something she had known for the most part of her life. But all these contextual realities and incidents can’t be shown in a short film that runs barely for 10-15 minutes. So, to answer your question, yes they might have had intimate conversations on the regular in some cases, but the character that I wrote for our film didn’t have that experience.
Did you face any difficulties in casting for these roles?
I had written the role of Rajni with the actor Moni Jha in mind, and she agreed to do it. For the role of Ruhaan, we held a series of auditions and chose Pranjal as he fit the character.
Are Moni Jha and Pranjal Acharya trained actors?
Moni has acted in one or two short films before this, but she is not trained in acting. However, Pranjal is actively seeking [to pursue] a career in acting.
“Camera captures everything, even things that you don’t want it to capture” – one of my directors in theatre used to say this. It was, to me, clear that the actors’ performances were way too mechanical. Did you feel the same?
I agree with the statement that the camera does capture everything and that is why it is so difficult to hide the small mistakes that you would have otherwise [missed]. I feel there was room for improvement but nonetheless, I won’t complain because they brought to life the characters that I wrote and did it quite humanely.
Would you agree if I say that the story had nothing fresh to offer?
I wouldn’t of course, but I respect your opinion. T S Eliot had said that the individual talent lies in the ability “to retouch and recolour the pastness of the past”. He notes how every piece of art has imprints of past pieces but presents it in a new form. Similarly, I feel stories are already there in the universe, and we are just presenting different forms of it. With respect to Ruhaani Raat, I feel the structure of the story can seem similar to other works, but, in my opinion, the narrative and flow are different.
Could you explain what you wanted to achieve with this movie? Was there a story in it that you felt must be told?
We wanted to tell a story, we wanted to focus on conversations and the silences and the little things that come out of such conversations in close proximity. Of course, it is not the filmmaker’s job to explain the story they wanted to tell. We wanted to show how we humans often categorise and marginalise people based on their [socially-perceived] identities, and how despite that we are the same, at times.
What sort of movies would you want to make in the future?
I think my focus would be on telling better stories, stories that resonate but are also not sanitised to suit the sensibility that we have been conditioned to [appreciate]. Of course, it would be stories of marginalisation: of love, loss, and queerness.