Raman Raghav 2.o is divided into chapters whose titles appear in a lurid, pulp-fiction font – and the best chapter is titled The Sister. In a gut-churning subversion of the bhai-behen reunion scenes of Hindi cinema, we see Raman (or Ramanna, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) walk into his sister’s (a superb Amruta Subhash) flat and terrorise her family. As the scene begins, he says he just wants some food, a change of clothes. Soon, he’s in the bathroom, using her little boy’s toothbrush. The scene goes on and on, lingering on such minutiae, showing us how he’s desecrating the happy place she’s made for herself after what appears to be ages, with a man who makes her happy. She begs Raman to leave. And when he finally does, she falls into her husband’s arms and sobs, the long-suppressed tension leaking out of her like air from a balloon. At that moment, I realised I’d been holding my breath as well. An instant later, I thought: “Welcome back, Anurag Kashyap!”
In Ugly, Kashyap embarked on a stylistic departure. At first, the story seemed to circle around a girl’s kidnapping, but the narrative gradually shifted into a study of tangential characters – the film became less interested in “Who’s responsible and why?” than “Look how sordid grown-ups can get!” Raman Raghav 2.0 follows a similar format, each chapter a piece of a larger puzzle that can perhaps never be solved. (Which is why the screenplay’s tendency to “explain” things is a mistake, but more about that later.) The film opens with some text about the real-life serial killer named Raman Raghav, who, in the 1960s, confessed to 41 murders. Then, we get this punch line: “This film is not about him.” Kashyap isn’t as interested in entering a killer’s mind as painting a picture using its squalor as the palette. There’s no velvet here; only filth. Hence the repeated shots of Mumbai at its grimiest – even the beach is littered with refuse. The film could be called Ugly 2.0.
And we’re implicated in the ugliness. After a horrific murder – all the more horrific because of what we imagine rather than what we actually see – the soundtrack bursts into Ram Sampath’s Behooda, a track so insanely sensual that we imagine silhouettes of near-naked women slo-mo-ing around a gun barrel in the title song of a Bond film. We seem to be plugged into the pleasure centres of Raman’s brain, feeling the feelings coursing through him. You’d be right in saying that Kashyap, at this point, mythologises this monster – but then, Raman doesn’t need much help in this regard. He’s a compulsive self-mythologiser. Every utterance of his sounds like myth. “I walk only on black tiles.” “My father said my eyes glow in the night, like those of a fox.” (Eventually, we see this glow, as Raman peers through a hole in a ceiling and his eye catches the light from beneath.) Sometimes he says he speaks to God on the radio – the soundtrack erupts into static, as though trying to tune into His frequency. Elsewhere, the appliance changes – he says he is God’s CCTV. There are unreliable narrators, and then there’s Raman.
Or should we say Raavan, with a demonic scar snaking through his forehead? Entirely in character with his fondness for manufacturing mythology, Raman keeps referencing the Ramayana – as does the film, with its Ram Lila images and the Hanuman that hangs from a car’s rear-view mirror. And the Ram, here, is a cop named Raghav (Vicky Kaushal, whose wiry physicality makes up for emotions his young face cannot yet express). But like Mani Ratnam did in Raavan, Kashyap ugly-fies the ostensible moral centre of his story. Raghav is a drug addict in an abusive relationship with Smrutika (Sobhita Dhulipala) – he won’t use protection and she’s had three abortions. We’re now deposited in doppelganger territory. If Raman kills children, Raghav has been responsible for killing unborn children. If Raman cracks open skulls with a tyre wrench, Raghav violates Smrutika with his gun. When we get to this film’s equivalent of the kidnapping-Sita moment, in a grocery store, we wonder if Smrutika’s fate would be any different if she were to move in with Raman. As in Badlapur, we are invited to chew on this question: Who is worse? The man who cannot help being who he is, or the man who can? The man who’s left people dead, or the man who throws those around him into a living hell? It’s no accident that the film splits the name of the real-life serial killer and distributes between these two killers on screen.
These are the weakest portions of the film. For some reason, Kashyap doesn’t trust us to get this angle, and he keeps drumming it into our skulls with a tyre wrench. (There’s even a chapter called Soulmates, with this line: “Raman ko uska Raghav mil gaya.”) Every time there’s an attempt at an explanation – as in the scene that gives us a glimpse into Raghav’s relationship with his father (Vipin Sharma), which segues almost surreally into a scene with drug dealers – the film stops cold. Also, if you’re going to give us these little insights, these little glimmers of character, why not go all the way? Why not give us something more than, say, the phone conversation Smrutika has with her parents? It’s hard to see why such a stunning, seemingly self-possessed woman would continue to be in a relationship where she’s little more than a sex slave. (We could have used a chapter on her: The Lover.)
Raman Raghav 2.o is strongest when it doesn’t stop to explain. When asked what he wants, Raman snarls, “Izzat!” He keeps jotting notes about his exploits in a little red book, like a meticulous accountant. We think these are clues to his character, but no! He’s best defined by the scene where he gazes dully at a woman making rotis and, heeding an inner voice (maybe he’s tuned into God’s radio frequency), picks up a stone. We don’t see intent. We sense impulse. The scene ends brilliantly – it’s black comedy played at the lowest of pitches, a testament to a filmmaker and an actor at peak power. I felt some sadness watching Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Raman. He’s reached the stage where his technique has become transparent. The thing he does with his fingers, curling them around his eyes like a child pretending to peer through binoculars – it seems such a Nawazuddin Siddiqui thing to do. I don’t know if he can give a truly revelatory performance anymore. Even so, he’s astonishing. When we first see him, the camera focuses on his hand, holding a hammer – the disembodiment suggests a pure killing machine. But Siddiqui goes beyond and makes us see a man who’s as existential about his killings as the song on his lips: Aadmi musafir hai, aata hai jaata hai…
This is a classic Kashyap touch, as is the fourth-wall-breaking allusion to Vasanthabalan’s Angadi Theru, popping out of the mouth of a man least likely to have seen the film. But I laughed. The Kashyap humour is back too. Drugs mistaken for homeopathic medicine. Sheila ki jawani used as a lullaby. It feels weird to say this, but portions of Raman Raghav 2.o are almost sinfully entertaining. This is what we missed in Bombay Velvet, this ability to fuse an intense, twisted and very personal sensibility into tired genre material. By the end, the film got me. Even the doppelganger conceit that annoyed me earlier became logical, even inevitable – I saw things in a new light. Heck, walking home, I even saw the Bollywood romance in a new light. The narrative is book-ended by Raman’s confessions. The first time it feels like he’s toying with Raghav. The second time, it feels like love.
- Bombay Velvet = see here
- bhai-behen = brother-sister
- Raavan = see here
- Badlapur = see here
- “Raman ko uska Raghav mil gaya.” = Raman has got his Raghav.
- “Izzat!” = honour/respect
- Aadmi musafir hai, aata hai jaata hai… = Man is a traveller. He comes. he goes…
- Angadi Theru = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.