Raman Raghav 2.0 and the Place of the Serial Killer in India’s Urban Cartography

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Sexual ‘perversion’ and sadism are woven into Anurag Kashyap’s nihilistic tale, episodically structured in the form of chapters.

Still. Credit: FuhSePhantom/YouTube

A still from Raman Raghav 2.0. Credit: FuhSePhantom/YouTube

Spoiler alert; this is not a review.

Since the early part of the 20th century, the serial killer phenomenon has fuelled, as scholar Mark Seltzer shows, a sensational, visceral and pathological imagination about the consequences of urban living.

In a public landscape where addictive violence and media saturation is the norm, the serial killer appears to speak to our most intimate world of fear. This ability to move between public and intimate worlds has made cinema a hospitable home for the actions of this criminal. Some of the classic depictions include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), Fritz Lang’s M (1931) Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1959), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991), and David Fincher’s Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007).

The repetitive use of certain features has increasingly established the serial killer film as a global genre. The killer tends to be a stranger figure emerging from the urban crowd and his lack of motive and sudden strikes provide the atmosphere of psychological and physical terror that the genre has always depended on. For the audience there is some sense of pleasure involved in identifying the pattern of killing, in the gradual control over disorder, in the identification with a strong representative of the law, and in imagining murder as a form of art. Most importantly the serial killer tends to follow a logic that is inseparable from our changing perceptions of sex and crime. Desire, sexuality and individual identity are mediated by this figure putting to test our deep seated fears, anxieties and fantasies.

In Raman Raghav 2.0, Anurag Kashyap draws on the generic universe of the established serial killer film to create a figure set in contemporary Mumbai.

Inspired by an urban legend associated with Raman Raghav, a notorious killer who created terror in 1960s Bombay, Kashyap presents us with a protagonist who is inspired by the killing spree of the original Raman Raghav. Ramanna (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) walks the city with a heavy iron rod. He kills people in the slums and the back alleys of the city. Ramanna displays an obsession for Raghavan (Vicky Kaushal), a corrupt policeman addicted to cocaine. Raghavan suffers from a false sense of his masculinity, which casts a shadow on his relationship with an independent woman, Simmy (Sobhita Dhulipala). Ramanna’s murderous destruction is followed closely by Raghavan and the film revolves around this obsessive interaction and oscillation between the two characters. Sexual ‘perversion’, sadism and the precarious world of the law are woven into this nihilistic tale that is episodically structured in the form of chapters.

Ramanna’s iron rod creates a grating sound on the pavement. It’s a sign of his arrival, and the film foregrounds this both spatially and aurally. He also hums during his walk and in some ways this reminds us of Fritz Lang’s M, where the killer’s whistle was placed as a sound that haunted the streets of Berlin in the years preceding the Nazi rise to power. Till date, M remains an allegorical classic that prefigured a chilling world to come. But while M recreated Berlin as a giant architecturally designed set, Kashyap turns his attention to real locations in the city of Mumbai, a form he has displayed in virtually all his films.

The physical movements of the policeman and the killer are deployed to carve out an urban terrain of congested alleyways, small dhabas, little factories, drug circuits, apartment blocks and hardware bazaars where pipes, tyres and other such items are sold. Indeed for Kashyap the hunt for space has always been essential for his film practice and after the debacle of Bombay Velvet, which worked with a carefully constructed set, location shooting had to be made critically important in his new venture.

Raman Raghav 2.0 is successful in creating a dark landscape of Mumbai’s underbelly. There is constant movement generated in the frames in the form of Ramanna’s drift through the city, Raghavan’s investigative operations and the finely orchestrated chase sequences. These strategies have tended to frame the depiction of space in all of Kashyap’s films, whether it is Black Friday, Ugly, The Girl in Yellow Boots, No Smoking or even Dev D.

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

From Tom Conley’s Cartographic Cinema, where he compares cinema to maps, we know that both deal with details and organise them on a flat surface. Maps and films economise and compress the density of information that they deal with and both depend on a visual frame. Filmmakers who recognise this intrinsic connection or relationship have worked towards a dynamic excavation of space in their films. For Kashyap this is second nature. He is like an urban cartographer at his best when dealing with both constructed sets and actual locations. Raman Raghav 2.0 is no different in the way narrative turns are introduced to generate a range of spatial encounters. The audience moves through apartment blocks, railway tracks, streetscapes, informal interrogation rooms, grocery stores, factory spaces and more. And in each of these moments the enduring affect is that of space.

The interrogation following Ramanna’s first confession early on in the film is a case in point. The police use an abandoned apartment in an unoccupied building for the interrogation. They use violence and leave Ramanna locked in the apartment, assuming he couldn’t be the killer. The apartment block is established through high angle shots, placing it as a residential neighbourhood. A bunch of boys who gather close to the building to play later hear Ramanna screaming for release. The boys follow the sound and land up on the floor where Ramanna is. In the next moment we see him near train tracks walking a free man. This kind of strategy to place, situate, locate and excavate remains an enduring style.

At one point, Ramanna lands up at his estranged sister’s congested, lower middle class apartment. The eye for detail here is amazing as we get a sense of the tiny bathroom, the little kitchen and living space. Ramanna takes over the apartment, terrorises the family and demands food. The sister walks to the butchers to buy chicken. She is tempted to but refrains from speaking to two constables standing near a shack selling sugarcane juice. The camera moves between the outside, the corridor, the staircase and the apartment. The tense and terrifying situation reveals snippets of Ramanna and his sister’s past, of hardship, violence and incest. This is rather clumsily structured through dialogue but retains a power through its spatial language. The sister, her husband and their little son are bludgeoned to death, their bodies discovered almost a week later.

Credit: Facebook

Raman Raghav 2.0. Credit: Facebook

Perhaps the most interesting moment in the movie is when the maid at Simmi’s apartment leaves with the house key. This is probably a daily ritual in the household but a close-up shows the hand taking the key conveying a sense of foreboding. We then see Ramanna watching from the opposite building. He visits the maids shack in the slum at night and waits. The key is now hanging on the wall, an object that spells something ominous. With deft camera work and editing we are first introduced to the slum as an infinite rooftop terrain against a night sky. Then we occupy the street level view. A man is sleeping outside the shack. The maid inside is trying to use the key as a toy to pacify her crying baby. Ramanna uses his rod to kill both the man and the woman. During the killing an old woman is shown picking up potatoes that have fallen out of a sack. This allows the camera to move between the outside and inside. Simmy’s house keys trigger this sequence of killing and Kashyap deploys it as an object to create a network of contrasting spaces linked to class.

If space is the hallmark of Kashyap’s cinema, then Raman Raghav 2.0 has a lot to offer. Yet in narrative terms the film fails. Even the immersive landscape of the city is affected by the uneven narrative. There are too many elements that are not thought through and Simmi is one of them. She is presented as strong and vulnerable but ultimately operates only to allow Raghavan’s character to emerge. She clearly has presence and shows promise but is overshadowed by other events. The music is loud and the dialogues are sometimes clumsy. Too much of the past is distilled through snippets of conversation. Did we need to have any past in the film? Raghavan’s father, Ramanna’s sister? Why do we need the past at all in a film like this?

The violence in the film is a result of the combined actions taken both by Raghavan and Ramanna. The criminal activity of the visibly identified serial killer slowly merges with that of the policeman. In doing this the film deals with both the secret terrain of violence unleashed in the shadows of sovereign authority and the overtly visible acts of criminals. Lawrence Liang has shown how the cop and the criminal are not always adversaries but mirror images of each other separated by law. Cinema is therefore in a privileged position to reflect on law as the site of violence. In placing these two figures in conflict and as each other’s mirror images, Kashyap had a powerful premise to work with. Yet in making Raghavan an obnoxious character to start with, the narrative is reduced to a depiction of two insane characters and not of the deep and complex relationship between the law, violence and notions of justice that crime cinema is capable of.

Ranjani Mazumdar is Professor of Cinema Studies at School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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