Every serial killer movie has at least one shot of the psychopath’s deranged eyes sizing up his next victim, and Bharathiraja’s Sigappu Rojakkal (1978) is no exception. In a film with numerous close-ups and dramatic zoom-ins, PS Nivas’s camera zeroes in on Dhileep’s cool visage and deadly eyes ever so often. Dhileep (Kamal Haasan) is a wealthy businessman with a sprawling mansion in Chennai that conceals many secrets – a foster father who has lost his mind, a rose garden patch with a unique fertiliser, and a room full of secrets.

Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming thriller Raman Raghav 2.0 returns to the underdeveloped serial killer genre in India. Featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a self-declared psychopath and Vicky Kaushal as a police officer with his own dark secrets, the movie will open on June 24 after a premiere at Directors Fortnight, a sidebar event at the Cannes Film Festival.

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The trailer of ‘Raman Raghav 2.0’.

Possibly because of strict censorship codes and the unsavouriness and inherent misogyny of the genre, such movies have not been too frequent in mainstream cinema. Bharathiraja’s movie, which was a hit in Tamil Nadu and was remade as Red Rose in Hindi in 1980, is an exception to the norm that the protagonist could not be portrayed as a pervert with murder and kinky sex on his mind.

Sridevi in ‘Sigappu Rojakkal’.
Sridevi in ‘Sigappu Rojakkal’.

Sigappu Rojakaal (it means red roses) is shot in lurid colours (crimson abounds, naturally) and has a sinister background score by Ilaiyaraaja and the camera tricks that 1970s filmmakers were so fond of. The opening credits invoke Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Dhileep (Kamal Haasan) roams through the city in his car, his eyes constantly searching for what we soon discover to be his future victims.

Next, a gardener lovingly tends to a rose patch. When a rat interferes, it is killed and buried without a blink.

Dhileep seems to be a poster boy for philanthropy and good manners, but he is a man of twisted tastes. Images of a bare-backed woman keep flashing before his eyes, and the explanation is revealed after he marries Sarada (Sridevi), a saleswoman in a garment store. Sarada inadvertently stumbles upon her husband’s practice of ensnaring young women, killing them in bed and filming the act. One of the first clues is an underfed black cat that feasts on the blood that drops from Sarada’s finger as she is trying to cut fruit.

Dhileep actually hates women because of two traumatic childhood experiences. While Dhileep’s actions are not condoned, the script ensures that his guilt is externalised. It’s the perfidious nymphomaniacs that Dhileep encounters during his formative years that have made him a misogynist. Why then does he marry Sarada? Is he trying to redeem himself? Or does he have plans for her too? It’s unclear.

Despite its flaws, the Tamil movie has its share of pulpy pleasures. The camerawork, colour scheme, background score and inherently lurid subject matter work perfectly in tandem. Haasan’s chilling performance as Dhileep counts as one of the highlights of his career. Dressed in the fashion of the day and relentless stylish even when he is about to dispose of an inconvenient witness, Dhileep is one of the more memorable anti-heroes played by Haasan over a long and fruitful career.

The Hindi version came out two years later. Red Rose, starring reigning heartthrob Rajesh Khanna and Poonam Dhillon, is a frame by frame remake of the original. Khanna does a decent job as the two-faced businessman, but he lacks Haasan’s menace and ruthlessness.

Red Rose was a flop, writes Gautam Chintamani in Dark Star, his 2014 biography of Rajesh Khanna. “Red Rose would have always found it difficult to strike a chord with Hindi film audiences for the simple reason that they weren’t used to seeing their heroes ending up as deranged lunatics,” Chintamani writes. “To its credit, Red Rose never compromised its integrity on account of a mainstream star playing the psychopath. Unlike in typical Hindi films, Bharathiraja doesn’t justify the actions of Khanna’s character beyond the necessity of the script, thereby making it exceptional.”

The movies were possibly inspired by the notorious serial killer Raman Raghav, who claimed several victims between 1966 and 1968 in Mumbai. A voiceover in the climax of Sigappu Rojakkal cites Raghav as an example of the damaged souls that lurk in our cities, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting women. The first direct dramatisation of Raghav’s exploits was by Sriram Raghavan in 1991 in the video film Raman Raghav, A City, A Killer, starring Raghubir Yadav. A remake of Sigappu Rojakkal has also been in the making for the past few years by Bharathiraja’s son, Manoj. Raman Raghav’s story evidently remains inspirational – proof that depravity is repulsive but also immensely seductive.