Fantastic Fest: PSYCHO RAMAN Revels In Cinematic Madness

Paying homage to serial killers, both real and fictional.

Raman Raghav 2.0 might sound like the title of sequel, but it’s actually the winking name for Anurag Kashyap’s latest, a self contained crime thriller based on a real-life serial killer from the 1960s. Released under Psycho Raman in North America, both titles evoke a proximity to media, one structured like a software update and the other like a spin-off from Hitchcock. Both titles work, too. Raman Raghav, the real one that is, killed 23 people in Mumbai using blunt, heavy objects. He even raped his sister before stabbing her to death, and caused widespread panic and paranoia in the city – but as the opening scroll reveals after listing his crimes, the film isn’t about him. He isn’t even featured in it, and the story takes place decades after his death. It’s about an imitator who commits similar crimes and the policeman he’s obsessed with, but what it’s really about is deconstructing (and re-constructing!) the cinematic ‘psycho.’

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the mild-mannered Ramanna with unblinking ferocity. Ramanna is the name he chose for himself, after his murderous idol, but his identity feels incomplete without a Batman to his Joker. He’s fortunate enough to come across a dirty cop whose name invokes that completion – ACP Raghavan Singh, a drug addict whose uniform is his own constructed identity, a shield to prop up the bravado hiding his masculine insecurities. To Ramanna, they’re kindered spirits. Two halves of a whole as opposed to sides of a coin, belonging together not because they’re on opposite sides of the law, but because they’re one and the same at heart. While Ramanna is a homeless man trying to convince the cops of his involvement in his own murders, Raghavan is a man of privilege who hides behind sunglasses, constantly concealing himself. Yet both men are violent, and their violence comes from deep within.

Kashyap, like many Indian directors, is influenced by mainstream Hollywood. The serial killer Vs lawman story is staple of American cinema, and like many a Tinsel Town psychopath, Ramanna’s real-world diagnosis is vague and non-clinical. But unlike the ‘psychopaths’ who came before him, this particular cinematic villain isn’t just our protagonist, he’s allowed to be deeply human while being deeply, deeply evil. Terms like ‘psycho’ and ‘crazy’ get thrown around a lot in these situations, but Kashyap isn’t concerned with justifying Ramanna’s actions. He’s interested in understanding them, because regardless of how he fits into the movie canon of killer crazies, both his and Raghavan’s ethos are rooted in specifics of Indian society. It’s as if Psycho Raman is using our views of movie psychopaths (different from how psychopaths would be medically classified, mind you) as a means to explore the destructive nature of masculinity.

Ramanna’s murders take place mostly in the shadows, but it’s in an extended chapter at his sister’s house (the film is divided into chapters to further hammer-home its Brechtian nature) that we’re allowed to truly revel in it. It’s violence against a woman and a child, but the violence itself is never the visual focus, despite being constructed with the excitement of a heist film. It’s as if the enacting of cinematic psychopathy, regardless of visual blood spatter, is the coveted safe. But if that’s the heist, the preparation montages would be the exposition steeped in fear; revelations of who Ramanna is and where he comes from, all building up to violence that’s simply dripping with cruelty – but the film itself is not cruel. In fact the violence is mostly off-screen. The real excitement comes from Siddiqui’s performance. He comes from a place of hurt and loneliness, but not in a way that you’d feel sorry for him. The film is crystal clear in its rejection of his actions, but his manipulated justifications which paint himself as a victim are the stuff of thespian gold. Ramanna is a man who truly believes he’s been wronged (he hasn’t), and it’s in building up to his next vicious act that the film reveals itself. It’s in Siddiqui’s quiet moments, his ticking time-bomb of a controlled temperament, accompanied only by the sounds of Mumbai’s streets, that we start to crave his next murder. Yet it’s not the kill itself we crave, since we never actually see it. It’s the brief moment before the kill. The look in Ramanna’s eyes where he comes to the realization that it’s something he MUST do, be it because of impulse or circumstance.

In Ramanna’s mind he’s the poor, the oppressed, the oh-so-sorry sexless who’s owed a woman’s body, and that’s where he aligns with Raghavan. Only where Ramanna is an unstoppable force, charging through the narrative and almost inviting each title card, Raghavan is impotent. He literally can’t get it up, but he also fails to exert any form of control or dominance over his live-in girlfriend, be it sexually or emotionally, even when he has her at gunpoint. It’s a massive ‘fuck you’ to the kind of status-obsessed male posturing you tend to find in a city like Mumbai, but it’s also the driving force behind Raghavan’s destructive tendencies, those that make him more like Ramanna, especially when he doesn’t want to be. While he’s the figure of order to Ramanna’s chaos, he’s the more chaotic, and the more unpredictable.

Ramanna and Raghavan are embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game, but they’re absolutely not in any race against a clock. The stakes are completely conceptual; it isn’t who they kill or save that matters, but rather how each one goes about approaching their own addiction, and how their indulgences prevent (or facilitate) the intersection of their paths. Ramanna escapes the police pretty easily, and Raghavan’s uniform protects him from facing any real consequences, but the film never lacks excitement. Anurag Kashyap wears his influences on his sleeve, and while Scorsese, Tarantino and Fincher are amongst most imitated directors today, Kashyap infuses his cross-cultural blend with intoxicating Trance and neon-lit atmosphere, creating a unique stamp while bringing Mumbai’s decadent underground and destitute underbelly together in a fiery collision. His Se7en-inspired opening credits reveal his characters up-front (where the original hinted and obscured) as pulsing electronic music peppered through its runtime turns a potentially dour affair into something borderline burlesque.

Most of all, the movie is FUN. For an Indian film at this moment in time, it’s risqué in its revelry. Sobhita Dhulipala’s Simmy exerts a shocking amount of physical and sexual agency within her role as a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, humiliating her copper boyfriend at every turn and carrying herself with the sort of cavalier demeanor not expected of Indian women – by Indian society, and especially by her hot-headed boyfriend. Vicky Kaushal’s Raghavan is a bad-boy, bad-cop and all round bad-guy (the kind who snorts coke off dead people’s plates before gently returning them to the crime scene!), but he can’t complete his image or assert his authority until he lets himself become the very ‘psycho’ he’s chasing. Until then he’s pathetic, as is his pursuit of an unattainable masculine ideal that he falsely believes can exist without violence. And of course, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the modern day Mifune, lights up the screen whether he’s sitting still and letting you peer into his soul, or charing at his brother-in-law headfirst with a bike helmet.

When broken down to its morality, Psycho Raman is vile, at least on its surface. It invites you on a journey alongside two characters who, over the course of the narrative, mold themselves according to the conventions of the American psychological thriller. They do incresingly terrible things as they get there, but the movie has no qualms about its own cognitive dissonence. These are bad, bad men, and Kashyap’s lens looks down on them and everything they stand for… until it’s time for them to act on their impulses. In those moments, they’re the cinematic ‘heroes’ we crave, performing brutal feats that we enjoy when we see them on the big screen, separated by a layer of canvas. And it’s in straddling that dissonence, the line where revulsion at reality is allowed to morph into visceral excitement of actions just beyond it (generally speaking, most folks don’t have to deal with serial killers) that Kashyap, a vocal opponent of Indian film censorship, approaches a critical understanding of cinematic violence.

The cinematic psychopath is something we, artists and audiences, once constructed to avoid dealing with social and moral implications of violence in movies. And yet, in presenting cinematic violence as grounded in an emotional reality, Kashyap states his claim that audiences are not incapable of processing a colission of the real and the stylized. We can revel in violence even when it comes from a morally putrid place as long as the film understands this when contructing its own identity, and as long as WE approach it with that same critical understanding. As long as we understand that these sounds and images, while representations of lived experience, are not the experience themselves, we can absorb the context surrounding them while also enjoying being taken to places we may not always want to go.

Moral purity is for demagogues. Cinema is for revellers.