'Psycho Raman' ('Raman Raghav 2.0'): Cannes Review

Psycho Raman - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s demented serial killer ups the scare ante.

A serial killer and a cop are mirror images of auteur violence in Anurag Kashyap's dark drama.

Writer-director Anurag Kashyap established himself as one of India’s most exciting crossover filmmakers with the dizzying tongue-in-cheek gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur, whose creative invention his subsequent films have struggled to even approach. That is the case with the serial killer yarn Psycho Raman (Raman Raghav 2.0), his third title to play in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, whose less than original premise is that cops and criminals have a lot in common, and the line between good and evil is easy to cross. Keeping the director’s trademark violence and bloodshed more or less offscreen, it’s far less unpleasant to watch than the child kidnapping story Ugly, though it shows a similar level of cynicism towards the Mumbai police force. Upping the ante, the question here is not police incompetence or even corruption, but their license to kill that tempts a coke-addled officer into very dark waters.

The theme of the killer cop has often been treated in Indian films, recently for example in Vetri Maaran’s tense socio-political thriller Interrogation. Here police execution is viewed through the distorting, larger-than-life lens of crime as filmed entertainment. Pumping up the adrenaline, Kashyap uses bright lights and a pulsating pace to deliver the excitement.

The project started out as a big-budget period bio of real-life killer Raman Raghav, who confessed to murdering 41 people when he was finally brought to justice it the 1960s. Settling into a more cost-effective setting in contemporary Mumbai, the current film has plenty of edge and grit, but lacks the spirit of spoof that makes high levels of violence palatable. Apart from the director's cult following abroad, it seems most suited to the tastes of Indian viewers.    

The story could have turned into one huge cliche, and there are genre elements that are numbingly familiar, was it not for the exceptionally scary performance of Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the role of the villainous, demented serial killer Ramanna. Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal need not move over, but he would certainly enjoy the nuanced performance of this rising Indian actor, who has demonstrated his extraordinary range in roles stretching from a humble office clerk in The Lunchbox to a porn-meister in Miss Lovely, as well as multiple gangster stints for Kashyap and others.

With eerie glowing eyes and a scarred forehead, Ramanna is easy to pick out in a crowd, especially after he dons his dead sister’s gold earrings. For sound effects, just so he won’t pass unnoticed, he trails a long car jack behind him. He’s also prone to casually confessing his crimes to passing strangers. Though obviously deluded by the voices in his head telling him to kill (which he believes come from God), he lucidly expounds his philosophy in the last reel: namely, that the act of killing is an unparalleled high, hypocritically perpetrated in the name of riots and religion, Syria or whatever humanitarian cause is popular at the moment. Instead, a killer should have the courage to murder intentionally, one-on-one, just because he wants to. His intention should be pure.

This is the philosophical torch he hopes to pass on to the would-be hero of the tale, trendy-looking young police commissioner Raghavan Singh Ubbi (Vicky Kaushal of Bombay Velvet). He is good material. His coke habit is completely out of control when the curtain rises on a nightclub, where he picks up the heavy-eyed, swollen-lipped Simmy (played by model Sobhita Dhulipala, Miss India Earth 2013) before stopping off for more drugs. Finding his pusher has just had his head bashed in, the good cop doesn’t hesitate to take decisive action: He murders another intruder who stumbles onto the scene of the crime and takes the coke. The scene overturns expectations nicely, but also creates quite an emotional rift between the audience and the supposed hero.

Moving forward with no point of reference, the viewer can be excused from trying to side with the imaginative, wonderfully off-the-wall Ramanna — until he pays a visit to his sister and offs her entire family, including his big-eyed, 6-year-old nephew. And this is just the beginning of his rampage. While the song lyrics gleefully sing about worms crawling up his filthy skin, he searches for new victims and weapons with which to kill them. Each time Raghavan’s detectives nab him, he slips away and murders some more. And he always keeps one eye on Raghavan, who he sees as his doppelganger, even though he’s dressed in the uniform of respectability that gives him a moral right to kill.

As the confused lawman, Kaushal is the weak link, nice to look at but shallow in his wacky fits of unprovoked violence. Take the brutal way he manhandles Simmy, the rich party girl who has evidently become his steady date, given that later in the film she tells him she has aborted three of his kids. In fact, all the women characters (two swinging singles and two maids, to be precise) are despised and mistreated, and not just because the muscle-bound cop has to use Viagra to meet their demands. Variety and depth of character are badly lacking on the female front, weakening the whole film. 

Production company: Phantom Films

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vicky Kaushal, Sobhita Dhulipala

Director: Anurag Kashyap

Screenwriters: Vasan Bala, Anurag Kashyap

Producers: Vikas Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane

Executive producers:  Tanvi Gandhi

Director of photography: Jay Oza

Production designer: Tiya Tejpaliya

Costume designer: Shruti Kapoor

Editor: Aarti Bajaj

Music: Ram Sampath

Casting director: Mukesh Chhabra

World sales: Reliance Entertainment, Stray Dogs  

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)

127 minutes