Director Ramkumar's Ratsasan is doing well at the box-office, even though it released alongside 96, a film which opened to huge expectations. Much of the appreciation that the Vishnu Vishal-Amala Paul starrer has raked in is not surprising, considering it has been a long time since we've had a film on a serial killer that's told with some amount of depth and a gripping screenplay.
Ajay Gnanamuthu's recently released film Imaikka Nodigal, for instance, started on a promising note but was quickly derailed because of an annoying romance track and too many twists that lacked conviction. In that sense, Ratsasan has many things going for it, including the red herring the director places in the plot. The school teacher who sexually abuses his girl students is a villain we can readily hate. These scenes of abuse, however, border on the voyeuristic and can be extremely triggering for those who have experienced CSA – especially the one with the schoolgirl Ammu kneeling before the teacher, with the scene clearly suggesting that he expects her to perform oral sex.
But right before the interval, the red herring disappears and we're left to wonder who the real serial killer is – the man who is abducting and mutilating 15-year-old girls before murdering them. I was hoping at this point that Ramkumar wouldn't take the easy way out and dump a last minute "freak" upon us – like Arun Vaidyanathan's Nibunan. My wish was partly answered – to his credit, Ramkumar gives us a glimpse of the killer earlier in the film and we don't suspect anything because all our attention is focused on the red herring.
But sadly, the film also gives us a strawman villain in the form of an Anglo Indian young man who has progeria. Progeria, as those who remember watching Amitabh Bachchan in Paa may know, is a genetic disorder due to which signs of ageing set in very early. Most children with the condition do not grow into adulthood, with the average age of death being 13.
The serial killer in Ratsasan is not only easily othered by his "Anglo Indian" identity, he's also marked out by his strange appearance. It's especially disappointing that the film chooses this route because it begins with Arun's (Vishnu Vishal) extensive research on serial killers from around the world – which should have revealed that very often, serial killers just look like the rest of the populace. In fact, many of them may even have charming, magnetic personalities which help them lure their victims. Remember Ted Bundy?
Though we're given a hurried explanation for why the young boy becomes violent (and this predictably has to do with a girl rejecting him), it is hard to buy. Yes, bullying can be damaging, but does that answer why someone with serious and fatal congenital disabilities turns into a "monster"? Was it perhaps to balance this demonising of disability that the director also gives us two girls who are hearing impaired? But their inclusion in the plot seems to be more for providing a vital clue to Arun than anything else.
Serial killers often have troubled pasts – they may be from abusive homes, they may have been victims of violence themselves, or they may be from perfectly conventional homes which gave no "reason" for them to turn into killers. Foisting a genetic disorder (which is not linked to violent behaviour) on the character to "explain" his actions is an insensitive choice, especially when people living with the condition are already ostracised as "freaks" and "monsters" by others.
This easy 'othering' of serial killers, however, is not limited to Ratsasan. In AR Murugadoss's Spyder, the serial killer is the son of a man who manages a graveyard, a caste-based occupation. The boy is shown to be "enjoying" the scenes of death before him, which supposedly make him a killer. The director doesn’t care that this completely dehumanises a section of society that's already marginalised.
In Gautham Menon's Vettaiyadu Vilayadu, Kamal Haasan, who plays a police officer, asks the pair of criminals if they're gay because of the close relationship that they share. They are accused of raping and murdering women, yet the line is casually thrown on screen to elicit laughs from the audience.
In Hollywood too, famous serial killer films like The Silence of the Lambs have fallen back on transphobia and homophobia to other the killer for the audience, and label the criminal as a "deviant". A cross-dressing scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (from which Ratsasan also draws inspiration) was chopped when it was remade for television so as not to invite criticism for transphobia – although the criminal in the film has Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and is not a trans person.
More recent films and series from the West have been cognizant about stereotyping "deviant" behaviour. The popular Netflix series Mindhunter, for example, delves into the histories of several infamous real life serial killers, most of whom wouldn't elicit a second glance if they walked down the road. While the series also studies sexuality and sexual behaviours, it doesn't demonise any one community in doing so.
Ratsasan has a lot going for it, especially in the second half when the victory against the serial killer is not handed over to the hero on a platter. Though the influences and inspirations are there for anyone to see, the script has been put together cogently and it looks very new for Tamil cinema. Imagine how much more chilling and effective the film would have been, if only the ratsasan looked just like any one of us – as they often are in real life.