A brutal serial killer on the loose, a city on edge, and a cop who will leave no stone unturned to find the killer can be nicely folded into a made-for-TV movie. Give the same devices to respected filmmaker Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur, That Girl in Yellow Boots) and the results could take one of two opposite outcomes. The end product could well be an imprecise and yet pricey salute to bygone era, say, Bombay Velvet (2014), or something else. Raman Raghav 2.0 has Kashyap drawing up an incredibly captivating, small-budget and chilling entry fueled by adrenaline and a dose of heebie-jeebies.
In the late 1960s a real life serial killer, eventually known as Raman Raghav, terrorized what was then Bombay. In addition to gaining notoriety as India’s most infamous serial killer, Raman Raghav also became a celebrated and morbid case study into a psychopathic mind operating in pretty much an alternate reality. Taking loose, major departures from that real life outline, Raman Ragav 2.0 provides a modern update with a twist of two tossed in.
As far as killers go, the main suspect in the brutal bludgeoning killings appears to be a certain Raman (Siddique), a down and out, shadowy figure who lives in the night (or does he stalk the night?) and could be schizophrenic. Cold on his trail lurks Inspector Raghavan (Kaushal), who finds himself both drawn to the killer’s brilliant persona as much as he is repulsed by the brutality of the killings. The killer, whoever he is—for there is circumstantial evidence placing Raman with loose alibis from time to time—likes to taunt the police by leaving behind, often bloody and horrific clues.
Perhaps Kashyap is most in command working with limited budgets where he can micro-manage to a greater degree than when he can wield large budgets. For Raman Raghav 2.0, a story Kashyap co-wrote with Vasan Bala, Kashyap resorts to what can only be described as guerilla filmmaking, which calls for shooting in actual, often off-street, settings and, sometimes, even without permission. Gone are the plush studio interiors where even grime can look polished. Here, the grime will not cleanse easily and the tenement sounds and traffic noises are real. Unlike larger budget entries that may have dozens of mostly-pricey takes most of which end up on the editor’s floor, Kashyap shot hundreds of scenes, over days and not months. The amazing result is an expanded span of controlled settings that give a larger impact to the story then its limited purse would otherwise signal.
Like with Navdeep Singh’s brilliant NH10 (2015), the fear lurks (mostly) in a subterranean maze that is Raman’s reality. In NH10, an ominous and symbolic revenge is delivered in a scene involving a wronged woman deliberately dragging a thick metal rod against the pavement. The dragging metal screech is angry, cantankerous and promises violence to a brutal finish. Twisted logic is intertwined with guilty satisfaction in the means to that end.
That scene was an antithesis to what Raman Raghav 2.0 lashes out with. Here, a metal rod grinding on pavement, in an apartment lobby or in a dark alley, raises both fears and anticipation of mayhem. Surely, whoever swings this rod can’t be all that bad, can they? And yet, no rays of sun, no birds chirping or the break of dawn await the ritual. There is only more darkness.
The other side of the coin to Raman’s seedy world is Inspector Raghavan’s parcel. Even though slightly more disciplined under the guise of law, Inspector Raghavan is not beyond resorting to full-fledged torture to extract the truth, whatever it may be, from Raman. Well played by Kaushal, Inspector Raghavan wants to, no, needs to, solve the perplexing serial killer case. His broken moral compass points to a man who strayed beyond his mission some time ago. What is lacking is two strong characters engaging with each other. Instead they mostly engage with their environment.
Siddique’s application to the role is stunning. His Raman effectively views himself as an animal that is settling a warped cosmic “score” where he is judge, jury, and executioner. His psychopathic outbursts are harmonized with a narrative where he is both a victim and the perpetrator. His most chilling legacy, in addition to an especially creepy ghoul-pose in the publicity poster, is the built in anxiety that subtly taps into the imagery of masked contemporary terrorists. Bravo!