The brutal murders in Anurag Kashyap’s serial killer film Raman Raghav 2.0 happen off camera for the most part. Yet I found myself flinching and turning away each time the screen went black, or the distinct sound of a metal rod making contact with flesh filled the room.

Kashyap’s film is not an easy watch. Nevertheless, his exploration into the mind of a killer, who, by his own admission, kills for no reason other than the fact that he wants to, is deeply fascinating.

Raman Raghav was a serial killer who operated in Mumbai in the mid-1960s, and subsequently confessed to having murdered 41 people. But Kashyap’s film is not about him, we’re told right at the start. It focuses instead on a copycat modern-day killer, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who holds up the notorious 60s psychopath as his inspiration, and feels a kinship to a coke-snorting police officer, Raghavan (Vicky Kaushal), whom he thinks of as no different from himself except that he kills from behind the privilege of a uniform.

In an interview he gave a few weeks ago, Kashyap said Raman Raghav 2.0 is the most romantic film he’s made. In a strange way, he’s right. Nawazuddin’s character, who goes by the name Raman, becomes instantly captivated by Raghavan, from the moment he first sees him, killing a stranger in cold blood and for no apparent reason. Raman has found a kindred spirit in the twisted cop, and from hereon he kills to feel close to Raghavan. Can there be a more pure and selfless love?

The film then is about the cat and mouse chase between cop and criminal, although like in Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur, Kashyap too subverts the hero/villain template until the line begins to blur. The cop character is anything but a straight arrow, unable to so much as function without a hit of cocaine, and routinely abusive to his live-in girlfriend Simmi (a terrific Sobhita Dhulipala).

Siddiqiui is appropriately creepy as Raman, a long scar running down his forehead, an unmistakable glint in his eyes, and almost always dragging a long car jack behind him. In one of the film’s best scenes, you watch transfixed as he coolly cooks chicken curry in a home that he has forced himself into, while the family, trapped and terrified, await their fate.

It’s a testament to the actor’s abundant talent that you root for Raman when he’s being pursued by cops in a slum. Or you find his simplicity endearing when he can’t seem to make even a basic calculation. He reveals childlike pride while casually confessing his crimes to complete strangers. His delicious turn as the possibly demented killer is easily the biggest strength of the film.

Kaushal, meanwhile, never quite matches up to his co-star’s brilliance, squarely failing to turn Raghavan into an equally compelling protagonist. He has presence, but his performance as the morally bankrupt cop feels hollow and lacking in real feeling.

The film itself benefits from a propulsive music score (by Ram Sampat), some unexpected moments of humor, and an energy and pace that seldom dips. Kashyap is in good form, but ultimately Raman Raghav 2.0 doesn’t bring anything blazingly new or original to the serial killer genre.

I’m going with three out of five. It’s consistently engaging, but doesn’t get under your skin like some of Kashyap’s other films, particularly Black Friday, Gangs of Wasseypur, and the criminally overlooked Ugly.

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