Raman (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), one of the two protagonists of Anurag Kashyap’s latest, Raman Raghav 2.0, possesses an extraordinary gift: He can turn the ordinary into the remarkable. Consider an early scene in the film, where Raman squats on a road and watches a woman baking a chapatti in front of her shack. Moments later, she gives it affectionately to a young girl, presumably her daughter. It’s an ordinary scene of everyday humanity: a mother feeding her child. But when seen through Raman’s point of view, it acquires a different meaning, for moments ago this man has confessed to nine murders.
So what does Raman see: two family members or two potential victims? We know Raman’s a psychopath, but to what extent? Is he, for instance, unaffected by a mother-daughter relationship? The scene then cuts to a cat eyeing Raman; he looks at her with eyes wide open, to scare her, to show her that he means business. Raman, we then understand, doesn’t consider himself too different from an animal. Whether it’s a cat, dog, mother, daughter, sister, brother-in-law, or nephew — everyone’s fair game for him. So he picks up a big stone and walks towards the woman. As he reaches near her, he sees a handful of men having lunch. Raman still keeps us guessing. Will he try to murder them, or strike a casual conversation? Or have lunch with them. Or say something foolish and funny? It’s impossible to tell, because life opens up in mysterious ways for bloodthirsty, restless, heartless, hungry Raman. Ultimately, he drops the stone and flees, surprising us one more time.
Raman Raghav 2.0 comes alive with anticipation, tension, dread, even humour, when Raman is around, when he’s simply observing, when he challenges us to understand him, opening one door but shutting the other, trapping us in his mind, which provides neither easy answers nor easy escape. Take, for example another scene, where Raman randomly shows up at his sister’s (Amruta Subhash) house. She looks cautious, scared and suspicious. “Why do you treat me like a dog?” he asks her. “I’ve come to your house after seven years.”
During the course of the same conversation, which continues with the ominous purpose of a ticking bomb, he asks for something to eat. “Kuch bhi chalega mereko” (I’m fine with anything), he says. He’s fine with cold, leftover food in the fridge too. Later, in another scene, we see Raman picking up a packet of food from a busy street. Just like a street dog would. These bits show us another facet of Raman: The man who likens himself to an animal, someone who’s skeptical of his own worth, to the extent that he hates himself. And it makes sense: only a man with profound self-hatred has the capacity to viciously hate others, manifesting in crimes of untrammelled brutality. Raman is barely alive, and he sees no reason why others should endure the same agony. So murdering someone, in Raman’s worldview, is not simply an act of killing; it’s his pastime, his therapy, his defence mechanism. Raman, in his own words, is “god’s messenger”, constantly engaged in a secret communion that no one else can understand.
Raman Raghav 2.0 comes into its own when its writers, Kashyap and Vasan Bala, allow Siddiqui to shine. Armed with child-like curiosity and an iron rod, Siddiqui plays Raman with utmost urgency and a disturbing sense of purpose, like a man running in an endless maze. Bala and Kashyap, however, could have written this role with much more flair, making us curious about Raman’s world and motives, but Siddiqui—who is in incredible form, as always — makes them look good, constantly rising above the material he’s working with. So, Raman’s fine in Raman Raghav 2.0. But what’s not? Raghav (Vicky Kaushal) and nearly everything else in the film.
Less than five minutes into Raman Raghav 2.0, it’s quite clear that Raghav, an assistant commissioner of police, who’s also a cokehead, has murdered his drug dealer’s neighbour. (The drug dealer was murdered minutes ago by Raman.) This scene, just like many others involving Raghav, has shock value but makes little sense. Why would a cop, for instance, murder a stranger? Sure, Raghav was present at the man’s house to procure drugs, a fact he didn’t want anyone else to know, but would that fear compel him to commit such a big crime? We don’t really know and, hence, aren’t convinced. Characters in films aren’t obligated to behave logically, but we should at least know enough about them to believe their transgressions. Was this Raghav’s first murder? Probably not. But, then again, we aren’t sure. It’s one thing to cloud the protagonist’s motives, so that there’s an air of intrigue around him, but it’s a marker of convenient writing to reveal so little about him that he can’t be engaged with.
In just one small scene, quite early in the film, we understand why Raman is the way he is, and we’re instantly with him, trying to understand, if not completely solve, that puzzle. Raghav, on the other hand, doesn’t allow us to enter his world. We know that he’s devoid of empathy — at a crime scene, with dead bodies lying around, he first snorts coke and then begins to investigate, he uses his live-in partner just for sex — but we aren’t sure of anything else. We aren’t sure if he’s serious about his job, about nabbing Raman. We aren’t sure what he wants from his partner, from his peers, from his life. Is Raghav confused about any or all of these? We don’t know that, too. He’s nearly as monstrous as Raman, but even that aspect of his character is barely touched upon. We’re just supposed to accept Raghav as who he is, and it becomes frustrating after a point. And even though Kashyap hints at the reason behind the cop’s drug addiction (like Raman’s murders, Raghav’s coke gives him something he’s lacked all his life: control), but that bit comes so late in the movie that it feels like a token plot point. Raman Raghav 2.0 would have been a different film had it complicated our understanding of Raghav, had it dropped at least some hints, at the right time, about who he is. Instead, all we get is Raghav’s posturing and faux-masculinity, which, after some time, seem repetitive and pointless.
It’s quite obvious that Kashyap is drawing parallels between a serial killer and a cop: how they can at times mirror each other, nonchalantly commit crimes and get away with them, but he doesn’t really scratch the surface of that relationship. As a result, the film barely offers anything new beyond its trailer. It also doesn’t help that Kaushal, unlike Siddiqui, delivers a one-note performance, making mediocre writing look bad. As a result, watching Raman Raghav 2.0 feels like watching two separate films, where one segment is made watchable, at times compelling, by a gifted actor, while the rest of the film struggles to rise above its vacuity.
Kashyap also seems like a different filmmaker in Raman Raghav 2.0: someone who’s close to exhausting his tricks (he really needs to think beyond drug-addled protagonists, and loud, thumping background score contradicting on-screen violence), who looks jaded and desperately needs a break. And he needs one because, at one point, even his mediocre productions had sustained periods of inspired filmmaking and writing. Raman Raghav 2.0 is not that film. It is not completely devoid of merits, but they’re mainly made possible because Siddiqui interprets and elevates the writing to a different level.
Raman Raghav 2.0’s lack of humanity, however, especially in its closing segment (an abrupt end hastened by a kinetic background score), is easily the most disappointing bit about the film. Disappointing, not because it lacks a moral centre (movies can, of course, have a depraved worldview), but because that audacity — much like the rest of the film — fails to make a larger point, and seems silly and gimmicky. First Bombay Velvet, and now this. Kashyap is clearly going through a professional crisis at the moment, and you hope that changes soon, because Hindi cinema deserves better. And so does Kashyap.