First Take | Serial killers & other parasites

Serial-killer procedurals are frequently plotted in Malayalam cinema. In Hindi, Akshay Kumar and director Ranjit Tewari messed it up big time in Cuttputli lately. The art was not in the right place. The question is, why is Bollywood such a failure with serial-killer investigative dramas?

Subhash K Jha September 17, 2022 15:24:03 IST
First Take | Serial killers & other parasites

Director Vipin Das’ Malayalam serial-killer thriller Antakshari has its deep dark flaws, for example, the murderous attacks are attributed to a gross casteist assault on a little boy who grows up to be a sociopath who believes every person who rides a particular brand of motorcycle is a potential target for his wrath.

I do hope that the branded motorcycle is not placed in the plot as an endorsement. If so, much of the film’s undeniable energy and strengths would be forfeited.

Police procedurals are a favourite plot predilection in Malayalam cinema. This one is not in the same league as some of the other recent khaki-coloured dramas in Malayalam cinema, but it possesses sufficient raw energy to make the proceeding electric enough to occupy our minds for two hours.

Das (he is eager to emphasize he not named after singer Yesudas but on Das Kapital) is the cop-hero, played by a convincing though hardly compelling Saiju Kurup. Das must track down a vicious killer before he gets to his wife and little daughter. It is all done in a formulaic fashion. There is an uncooperative senior at the police station, a junior who goes out of his way to help the hero nab the killer, and roomfuls of red herrings: for example, there is local goon-politician and his rebellious son at loggerheads. And a young speechless girl named Nayana, who comes to town with her own narrative hovering over the script.

I couldn’t figure out Nayana’s significance in the plot till the end, except that she refuses to testify in a sexual molestation case against the hero. I also thought the whole antakshari playing device that runs through the plot was more a hurdle than a help. Here they are, Das and his faithful deputy Srinivas (Sudhi Kuppa) trying to get the serial killer before he claims another victim(which could be Das’ daughter). To be doing an antakshari of evergreen Malayalam melodies at a time like this seems ill-timed.

This having said, the film’s climax in the dead of the night with Das single-handedly defending his wife and daughter against a crazed(crazy about old songs, and plain crazy) with handheld camera movements giving the nightscape the look, feel and flavour of lurking menace, is among the most terrifying endgames seen in a thriller.

Stay for the climax. Some of the film’s more apparent flaws–why is the hero’s daughter allowed to come home alone from school through intimidating forestry at a time when a killer on the prowl?– are washed away by the time the killer makes himself visible.

Serial-killer procedurals are frequently plotted in Malayalam cinema. In Hindi, Akshay Kumar and director Ranjit Tewari messed it up big time in Cuttputli lately. The art was not in the right place. The question is, why is Bollywood such a failure with serial-killer investigative dramas?

There aren’t too many memorable serial-killer procedurals in Hindi. In Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2:0, Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the repugnant serial killer from Mumbai who bludgeoned more than forty people to death. How does a mind as diabolic as this work? Nawaz gives us a roadmap into the workings of this evil mind. In the trailer, we see him as cunning and compelling. The way he preys on his unsuspecting victims is not only chilling it is deeply disturbing.

At one point in the trailer, Raman Raghav has a little boy tied up and ready to be killed. “What is your name?” he calmly asks the gagged crying boy, who can’t answer.

“Pocket. I’ll name you pocket, so that when I am accused of killing you I’ll claim I am only a pick pocket,” volunteers Nawaz.

A bad ill-timed joke coming from a character who treats his killings as an impassioned recreation. An occasion to unwind.

The nauseating casualness with which the character treats human life is profoundly disturbing. The trailer opens with Nawaz’s Raman Raghav being interrogated by a cop Raghav rambles on with his own peculiar logistics, about walking on the black and white squares of the sidewalk until there is no more sidewalk left…

The destructive cleverness of a criminal mind is adumbrated in scene after scene showing the perpetrator exploring his own vicious consciousness with a detached admiration. There is something exceedingly disturbing about Nawazuddin as Raman. That he was a psychotic killer is a fact we all know. Nawaz fleshes out details of the character’s inhuman impulses with a shattering equanimity. Tragically Nawaz’s nemesis is a cocaine-snorting corrupt and out-of-control cop, played by Vicky Kaushal.

I am not too sure how much of a confrontational scenario director Anurag Kashyap has built between the two actors. This is clearly the psychotic killer’s film. At the end of the trailer, we see Nawaz screaming to be let out of confinement. Then when he realizes no one is listening his expression of screaming protest melts into a state of resigned calm. This is a killer who got the better of the Mumbai police. Nawaz plays him as a smart-ass rabble-rouser.

What oceans of turbulence is secreted under the veneer of what we call civil conduct? What the trailer of Raman Raghav 2:0 tells us is that there is a sociopath lurking not too far away from all of us. He could be the man in the house next door. Or he could be the guy you see every morning in the mirror.

The macabre tale of bloodshed is buoyed by a boulder-heavy background score and an expectedly energetic editing pattern that makes the gruesome killings more stylish than healthy.

See Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 masterpiece Memories Of Murder and we know why Anurag Kashyap can never be Bong Joon-ho. There are too many hurdles in getting to the core of the killer’s vile heart. Kashyap tried in Raman Raghav 2.0. But the film took the focus away from the investigation and tried to probe too closely into the killer’s dark soul.

That was a mistake. Trying to give “motive” to the killer’s instincts is to substantiate his evil designs. No rational thought can explain why seasoned murderers do what they do. Or why serial killers take so much pleasure in torturing/maiming/killing their victims? Kashyap’s film tried to jump to the other side of the line of morality.

Memories Of Murder remains safely on the right side. We never see or meet the killer. In fact, the case, based on the exploits of Korea’s first serial killer, remained unsolved until long after the film was completed. The focus remains unshakably on the investigation. The setting is the sleepy listless town of Hwaseong. Two inept local police officers Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha) are joined by a far more professional investigator from Seoul named Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung).

The crime investigation is captured in dark probing hues. We are never taken too far away from the scene of a crime as suspects pile up in a mutilated mess. As the pressure to get nab the killer grows we begin to feel the mounting stress of the officers, until they come to a point where they are desperate to put any identity to the killer.

The road to apprehending the evil perpetrator is paved with brutal intentions. We see the victims as objects: twisted crushed mauled. No sympathy is spared for the innocent suspects. The murder suspects look like twisted specimens. One mentally disabled man begins to tell in detail how he violated the women he killed when he had nothing to do with the killings. Another man caught masturbating in public near the scene of crime wants to know if self-pleasuring in public is a crime.

Since the film is based on a play, a lot of the sordid drama’s blunt impact depends on the dialogues. What I found lacking in the narration is compassion. The gentle touch is missing. We know nothing about how the murder victims’ family feels, though much is made out of the pain inflicted on the victims.

There is only one brilliant concession to sentimentality when the investigative cop applies a bandaid on a young schoolgirl’s back for a minor injury. Later when she is brutally tortured and killed the bandaid is found on her body still covering the little wound as her body shows signs of monstrous torture.

There is much in Memories Of Murder to applaud. The brutality of police interrogations occurs in spurts of suddenness. The background music by Taro Iwashiro = hightails from wistfully gentle to ominously powerful without warning. We never know when another murder will happen and how the investigative cops with react. They are in essence, groping in the dark with no hope of getting to a closure.

The film is meditative in its visual appeal. Kim Hyung-ku’s cinematography is poetic in capturing the violence. The frames are saturated in colours of longing. At the end, the detective hero played by Song Kang-ho comes to the scene of the first murder, looks straight at the audience to suggest anyone can be a killer. Homicide doesn’t need motive. It just needs a trigger.

Memories Of Murder reminds me of Bong Joon-Ho’s most celebrated Oscar-sanctioned film Parasite. It is unlike anything we’ve seen from Korean-Chinese filmmakers. It’s a masterclass in portraying class differences, with the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ notion from Downtown Abbey carried to ludicrous heights(and depths) of dark satire by a script that knows the socio-economic divide of Korea’s sharply-segregated population inside-out.

Director Bong Joon-Ho plunges us into a kind of class war where the artillery is so intangible we often feel we are looking at a conflict where the casualties are not quantifiable.The director’s main weapon for attacking an unreasonably askew class system, is satire. He peels through the pretences , only to find more of the same.He doesn’t judge the hypocrisy. But mourns for it.

Parasite is all about pretence and masquerade. The parallel incompatible lives of the poor Kim family and the wealthy Park family, come together in ways that are wackily improper. One by one every member of the poor Kim family insinuates itself into the wealthy Park family with the express purpose of dipping their rough tired hands into the rich family’s wealth.

The easy breezy manner in which the father mother sister and brother of the Kim family make themselves at home in the Park family is not credible, let alone convincing. The plot’s efficacy is reliant on the quotient of naivete that the rich Park family shows. While the father of the house is fidgety and guilt-ridden the mother is a wide-eyed clueless breathless specimen of an over-privileged community.

It is easy to see them entrapped by the gold-digging family from downtown and soon the Kim family is seen wallowing in the wealth and luxury of the adopted home.

This is where Bong Joon Ho chooses to darken the narrative to a pitch-black shade. Ensconced in the basement of the Park mansion is a bankrupt old man, the husband of the wealthy family’s housekeeper, who has gone underground to escape creditors.

The entire landscape of this engaging but bleak and depressing social comedy is coloured by shades of distress and disharmony. The ending is so violent and macabre, I couldn’t see it coming. But when it does come, I could see the director enjoying our shock at the orgy of raw violence that erupts on the manicured lawns of the Park family.

Parasite is eventually an aggravated parable on the unequal distribution of wealth and how those found on the wrong side of the poverty line will find ways, often incredibly violent, to usurp the over-privileged. While this disturbing idea as a cinematic theme is rendered wonderfully workable I was not fully convinced by how easily the wealthy Park family got taken in. Or how little effort it took for the entire underprivileged Kim family to insinuate itself into the wealthy home.

Much like this unexpected third-world Korean drama insinuating itself into the mainstream of the posh Oscars.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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