26 June 2016

The Copycat Criminal

Today's Mirror column:

Raman Raghav 2.0 is a breathtaking portrait of a serial killer. But it is also an incisive, disturbing perspective on violence. 

Whether in his still-unreleased Paanch, about a band of friends who turn killers, or 2014's Ugly, in which a child becomes a pawn in a game of one-upmanship between adults, or the more familiar power struggles of Gangs of Wasseypur, the psychology of amorality has always been Anurag Kashyap's predominant interest. Raman Raghav 2.0 might be the tautest, most mature exploration of that interest. This is particularly admirable because the subject is a serial killer, someone without any rational reason to commit the crimes he does. Unlike in an Ugly or GoW, violence here cannot be explained as a means to an end. It is sui generis, and its own reward. 

And yet violence is also - like all human traits - something we learn by mimicking others. Kashyap and writer Vasan Bala make that imitative impulse central to their brilliant script, in more ways than one. The fictional protagonist—played with pitch-perfect, chilling ordinariness by Nawazuddin Siddiqui—is not the notorious 1960s serial killer, but a murderer in the present who decides to model himself on him. Like the filmmakers, he is fascinated by the figure of Raman Raghav. Some of this sense of kinship may or may not be triggered by his own given name, which may or not be Ramanna. But the man who first surrenders at the police station gives his name as Sindhi Dalwai, telling the confused cops that that was Raman Raghav's real name, and now it is his. Raman was in wireless communication with God, he says, killing whoever God tells him to. As for himself, he's a little more advanced: he's God's CCTV camera. 

But Ramanna's copying of Raman is only the first form this mimicry of violence takes. [This isn't a review, and there are spoilers ahead, so if you plan on seeing the film, you might want to stop reading now and come back afterwards.] Much more terrifying is the mirroring between the serial killer and the policeman, Raman and Raghav. "I'm like a Yamraaj ka doot [an agent of the God of Death], ridding the world of people," says Siddiqui's Ramanna to Vicky Kaushal's cocaine-fuelled Raghavan. "Is maamle mein hum same to same huye [In this respect we're exactly the same]." The impunity and arbitrariness with which the police murder people in India is a public secret (the devastating Tamil film Visaaranai is a recent filmic reminder). But that fact has perhaps never received a more sinister, personalised reflection in fiction than Raman Raghav 2.0. 

Ramanna and Raghavan may seem poles apart to start with, but as the film progresses you see their similarities: their vulnerability and the violence that disguises it, their salaciousness about women they are close to. Kashyap adds other signifiers of mimicry, as ordinary as they are masterful. For instance, in accordance with his self-declared persona, Siddiqui keeps circling his fingers around his eyes (it is a gesture familiar from a very different sort of Hindi film thriller: Pran used it as informer Michael D'Souza in the 1974 Majboor). If Ramanna is constantly putting on imaginary spectacles, Raghavan never takes his real ones off. If Ramanna's ek-tak gaze never misses anything, his eyes lighting up in the dark, Raghavan's is always shielded from the light. It is no coincidence that the last purchase Ramanna makes is a pair of secondhand sunglasses. 

Barring a couple of exceptions, Kashyap provides few clues to why this man kills those he does. But what the film suggests, emphatically, is that he only kills those he knows he can. In what might be one of its most breathtakingly filmed scenes, a homeless, starving Ramanna, having just escaped from days of illegal police confinement, discovers a little hutment almost hidden by greenery. A woman is cooking rotis on an open-air chulha, handing one to a little child. Siddiqui's hungry gaze follows them first, and then he picks up a stone and does the same. But where he had imagined a solitary woman, there is a whole circle of men, eating silently, sitting on their haunches. As he almost trips backward and makes a run for it, one thinks of how effortlessly the scene has suggested his animality: the cat whose mewing first draws his attention, the leafy wildness of the surroundings, the silent padded feet on which he approaches his victim, and his fleet-footed departure from a sense of self-preservation when he realizes he is outnumbered. 

Violence is an elemental display of strength, Kashyap seems to be saying: a way of expressing one's advantage over those who cannot fight back: the unarmed, older or physically weaker, the drunk, the fast asleep. It can, once the brain has contorted itself thus, give the powerless man a strange sense of power, no matter how ephemeral. And sometimes that power is infectious enough to be a warped kind of sexy. 

But it is not only serial killers who experience that high. Perhaps the film's most devastating insight comes from Raghavan's scene with his father (the superb Vipin Sharma). The cocky young cop, whom we have so far only seen bossing over his team and bullying his lover (a very interesting Sobhita Dhulipala) takes only a few seconds in his father's hectoring company to be reduced to an errant child. And then, like a confused actor who's suddenly remembered his role, he turns the tables. It is as if the only communication between them is fear—and here, too, the son mirrors the father. As with Raman and Raghav, the copy outdoes the original. 

Bala and Kashyap have produced an unforgettable character, a man whose madness is unique-—and yet also located him on a continuum. That makes RR 2.0's exploration of violence more frightening than any serial killer film I've ever seen.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 June 2016.

1 comment:

temporal said...

this is not a mere study of a serial killer

it is more of an intriguing insight into the awakening of the animal in us

that animal can be hibernating in an ordinary man, a religious or political leader

good movie

well edited