The dynamic between cops and the criminals they hunt has been explored to death in cinema. They’re always brooding over how one half completes the other and how cops have to become monsters themselves to catch a killer. You know the drill. But it’s been a while since I’ve seen the drill as dark and hostile as Anurag Kashyap’s Psycho Raman, which had its Quebec premiere at the 2016 Fantasia Festival.
Set in the darkest alleys of modern day Mumbai, Psycho Raman is a blitzkrieg assault on the senses. Pulsing music, sharp photography, line upon line of cocaine, and a powerfully evil performance from star Nawazuddin Siddiqui make this a uniquely ferocious serial killer thriller.
One night early in his serial killing career, Raman (Siddiqui) is interrupted by a corrupt cop who’s come looking for some blow. Hiding in the shadows, Raman is pleasantly surprised to see the cop, Raghav (Vicky Kaushal), coldly finish the job he started. In Raghav, Raman sees not just a cold-blooded kindred spirit, but his actual soul mate. And he feels very strongly about it.
While Raghav investigates Raman’s trail of bodies, Raman is in turn watching him – stalking Raghav and his beautiful girlfriend Simmy (Sobhita Dhulipala). Raman acts as “God’s CCTV” – looking into windows, lurking on rooftops, lingering outside the police station with his trusty iron rod in tow.
The story behind what shaped Raman into a monster is hinted at during the film’s first “chapter” (there are seven in all). Raman travels to his sister’s apartment, where he brutalizes her family and makes allusions to the abuse he inflicted on his family as a youth, growing up poor with little opportunities. We also get a glimpse into Raghav’s upbringing, which had the shine of the privileged upper class. He even refers to his overbearing father as “his holiness.”
These social dynamics and the adults they produce are examined in the film without being heavy handed. Raman can see that despite his privileged upbringing, deep down inside Raghav is more of a monster than he is, and Raman does his worst to get the dirty cop to reveal his dark side.
It’s pretty awesome watching Raman lurk about the streets, alleys, and rooftops (and in one wicked scene, the sewers) of Mumbai in almost an invincible manner. He has a distinctive scar on his face and carries a giant iron rod – so he shouldn’t be the most difficult man to catch, but Raghav is too tied up with his own corrupt world to do much apprehending.
The scenes they share together are wildly tense. Coked up Raghav is a powder keg and Raman is the cool, wide-eyed psycho thing going on that’s uncomfortably funny at times. I wouldn’t say Raman is more empathetic than Raghav – both men are horrendous monsters. But there seems to be more of a method to Raman’s madness, while Raghav is just an unhinged wild card.
Along with the anxious murder scenes, Kashyap has a few chase scenes that utilize the labyrinthine layout of Mumbai’s slums. The camera follows the action through narrow alleys, up ladders, down passages, and into homes, creating a palpable portrait of poverty. One standout scene involves Raghav racing up through a building to find a drug connect on the top floor. He zips through tight spaces, sweat shops, and stairwells – all shot with a kinetic energy that leaves your head spinning.
For all of the quick cuts and propulsive drive in the film, it could’ve used some sharpening up in that first chapter I mentioned. It drags on forever, leading up to an inhuman act of violence we see coming a long time before it actually happens.
That’s a small grumble though for Psycho Raman’s 2 hours and 10 minutes run time. If you only think of Bollywood when you think of Indian film, Psycho Raman will knock some sense into you, as it stands up with the grittiest American serial killer thrillers.
The film screened at the ongoing Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.