Reviewed by Guy Lodge for Variety from the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
"This film is not about him," a title card declares -- a taunting "gotcha" punchline indicative of the tone to follow -- right after Psycho Raman opens with a potted biography of Raman Raghav, the notorious Mumbai serial killer of the 1960s. Well, it is and it isn't. The latest glittering hybrid of Bollywood kitsch and Hollywood genre grit from distinctive Indian stylist Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur), this present-day crime melodrama draws extensively on local lore surrounding Raghav in its fictional portrait of an obsessive imitator: Its original title is "Raman Raghav 2.0," which risks sending uniformed viewers out in search of a preceding film. As it is, one such vivaciously nasty exercise in urban nihilism is probably enough, though the verve and nerve of Kashyap's filmmaking continues to excite.
Last year, Kashyap aimed semi-successfully for a crossover hit with Bombay Velvet, a lavishly attired gangster saga so besotted with Scorsese that it even snagged Thelma Schoonmaker's editing skills. With Psycho Raman, he's squarely back in Indian-specific territory with a thriller that -- while perfectly accessible to non-Indian viewers at a fundamental narrative level -- will likely prove too grimly cold-hearted and winkingly mired in local legend to attract widespread interest from international distributors. And while the film flirts with the hard-genre trappings implied by its title, Kashyap is careful to keep the physical carnage (much of it executed with a blood-crusted tire iron) mostly off-screen. It'd be a stretch to call the film "tasteful" -- the frantic opening credits alone are potentially seizure-inducing -- but the relative restraint of its approach is unexpected.
If Psycho Raman largely looks away from the gore of its title character's deeds, it smears more than enough dirt and sweat onto the camera lens to compensate. "Man of muck, are you really worthy?" a woman croons in one of the film's original, somewhat randomly applied songs. "Your mind reeks of mould, you jab your wounds to pus," she continues, in case audiences haven't quite ascertained the flavourfully fetid ambience Kashyap is going for. The director and his cinematographer, Jay Oza, shoot Mumbai's slum streets with unromantically humid, ripely coloured energy -- as if viewed through the coke-addled gaze of habitually nose-powdering police detective Raghav (Vicky Kaushai), one of several "men of muck" in evidence here.
When not fecklessly attending to his own needs and neglecting those of his jaded girlfriend Simmy (Sobhita Dhulipala, a terrific cast standout), Raghav heads up a faltering investigation into a series of recent, similarly grisly murders in the city. He's in the dark, but we aren't: Immediately after the credits, we meet and immediately recoil from Raman (Nawazzudin Siddiqui, in a performance of literally unblinking intensity), a plainly unhinged sidewalk scavenger introduced in a police holding cell from which he wheedlingly escapes. (In an unnecessarily fussy structural arrangement, the chapter-divided film flashes back and forth around his detainment.) Homeless and blood-hungry, he pays a visit to his estranged sister and her family, whereupon viewers learn in short order just how psycho Raman really is.
Kashyap and Siddiqui make a meal of his perversely protracted predatory tactics -- gradually tightening the screws as he prepares a chicken curry between strikes -- though keeping viewers in sustained suspense over whether a six-year-old boy joins his list of victims or not is perhaps the film's most dubiously provocative ploy. (This culinary detail, incidentally, is one of several sly references to the real Raghav's quirks: In 1969, he allegedly offered police his confession in exchange for a chicken dinner.) The film derives less tension from his crimes, however, than it does from his insidious, near-infatuated stalking of Raghav, sensing in the addiction-raddled detective not just a compelling foe but a reflecting kindred spirit. He may well be right: Certainly, neither man is likely to have viewers' sympathies. Just in case you hadn't worked it out, their first names join to form that of the real-life killer: Kashyap is not a filmmaker with immense regard for subtlety.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Psycho Raman often entertains most with its most lurid formal, musical and narrative gambits, from the electrifying, strobe-tastic assault of the film's nightclub-set opening sequence to the cranked-up rat-in-a-trap terror of its finale, which closes with ample (if not exactly upbeat) potential for a 3.0 sequel. Domestic commercial returns for this unabashedly sensation-seeking outing may well be healthy enough to give that possibility a blood-spattered green light, though one hopes Kashyap -- whose limber, enthusiastic work here jolts more than it actively surprises -- has his eye on fresh genre terrain to exploit.
Saturday 18 January, 11:30PM on SBS VICELAND (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Thriller, Crime
Language: Hindi, English
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vicky Kaushal, Sobhita Dhulipala, Amruta Subhash
What's it about?
Mumbai, 2015. Raghav (Kaushal), a drug addict policeman who maintains a turbulent relationship with his girlfriend Simmy (Dhulipala), and Raman (Siddiqui), a serial killer obsessed with the heinous crimes of Raman Raghav (a notorious psychopath convicted in 1969), get caught in a ruthless cat-and-mouse game, a dark path with no return for both of them.