There’s a stirring passage in Donna Tartt’s campus murder saga THE SECRET HISTORY, where the charismatic and eccentric professor of Greek, Julian Morrow, waxes eloquent to his mercurially talented students on the Dionysian ethics of letting loose, of allowing the primal instincts to take over, exhorting that “if we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.” I wonder if our cinematic (and cultural) fascination with psychopaths and serial killers stems from this tension, the conflict between toeing the line and barrelling through it. For in our (at least ostensibly) logical and structured societies, can there be a greater threat, a more brazen subversion, than the man who refuses to acknowledge, let alone respect, his fellow citizen’s right to life?
Raman Raghav 2.0, about a gleefully off-kilter devotee of the infamous Raman Raghav murders in 1960s Mumbai, who talks to God on his radio, and walks around town with a piece of iron pipe, is a patchy film in some respects, but is blessed with an endlessly absorbing central character that we can watch all day, and a toweringly talented actor in Nawazuddin Siddiqui who can make it fun. This is, by no stretch of the imagination, one of Anurag Kashyap’s stronger works, and yet its visual inventiveness and slow-burn edge would be beyond most filmmakers – it feels, more than anything, like an experiment, a sure-footed director working near the peak of his powers, flexing his muscles, and having some fun with the medium that is the love of his life, all gorgeous slo-mo, dazzling fast cuts and hypnotic close-ups, a film which belies its tight budget through sheer technique and craft.
The dramatic crux of the story lies in the relationship between the deranged and anarchic serial killer Ramanna, played by Siddiqui, and the lead cop in charge of solving his string of murders, Raghavan, a cocaine- and MDMA-addicted playboy in thrall to his own toxic masculinity, played with menace and physicality by Vicky Kaushal, who is almost unrecognizable from his boy-next-door turn in Masaan – this is not, however, a tale of hero vs. villain. Both of these tortured, terrible men are looking for something, and, in each other, they may have found it. In its own perverse way, it is a love story, not a new one (no love stories are), and finds echoes in the Will Graham-Hannibal Lecter relationship from Hannibal, or, to borrow a far more popular idiom, the Batman-Joker mythology. Theirs isn’t a battle of wits – it’s one of souls, more like. Ramanna feels that to truly aspire to the mythos of his idol, Raman Raghav, he needs a soulmate, a Raghavan to buy into his ethics and join Ramanna in his madness. Raghavan desperately holds on to his symbolic stature as the cop, the “good” guy, even as he spirals deeper and deeper into his addictions and violent behaviour, breaking into a fight, significantly, with a father who has never given him the approval or benediction he seeks. None of these genre elements are innovative or fresh, but the conviction that Kaushal and Siddiqui bring to their roles helps them carry off even a bum note or two with élan, not to mention Kashyap’s own commitment to commemorating the clichés like a true cine-bhakt. And all throughout, the film seems to mirror the Joker’s line in Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel The Killing Joke –
“The difference between you and me is one bad day.”
The film’s most glaring weakness is in its treatment of women – as often happens in stories about men struggling with their maleness, like in the first season of True Detective, the female characters are almost reduced to footnotes. Raghavan’s mother, the only person he seems attached to, is present only for a one-sided phone conversation, where her voice is never even heard. His girlfriend, played with considerable screen presence by newcomer Sobhita Dhulipala, shows signs of coming to life in a scene or two, only to be reduced to a passive spectator for the rest of the movie, her presence seemingly required only to set Raghavan off on the path to self-destruction. Ramanna’s sister, played by the excellent Amruta Subhash, is a compelling character, fearful of and disgusted by her brother, and fiercely protective of her family, but is barely given enough time to prosper.
In time, Raman Raghav 2.0 will be seen as minor Kashyap, one of the lesser films in his canon – the significance of the film is likely to be for Siddiqui and Kaushal who should sweep every acting award this year. And yet none of this distracts from the fact that Anurag Kashyap is a furiously vital and ballsy filmmaker, one we are lucky to have working in our times. And as a read-through of the credits of this film reminds us, he is also the best thing to happen to Indian cinema in ages – his co-writer on this film is Vasan Bala (Peddlers). His co-producers here include Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan, Lootera) and Vikas Bahl (Queen). All of them filmmakers he has nurtured, supported and showcased to wider audiences, parleying his own hard-won visibility to give something back to the fraternity. And this is not even to mention other filmmakers like Hansal Mehta (Shahid, City Lights, Aligarh), Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan), Raj Kumar Gupta (Aamir, No One Killed Jessica), Bejoy Nambiar (Shaitan, David, Wazir), Bedabrata Pain (Chittagong), Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya, Udta Punjab) and Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), all Kashyap collaborators and proteges who are bringing their fresh new sensibilities to Indian cinema and sowing the seeds for what looks more and more every year like a revolution, the likes of which we haven’t seen since “parallel cinema” died in the early 90s. Which is why a Kashyap film is not just a Kashyap film these days, but also a document of a filmic evolution, a marker of a movement, even lesser films imbued with a significance derived from its context – but the wonder of it is, despite all this hype and pressure, he still refuses to disappoint us.