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Tuesday
Sep062016

DARING DIVERSITY IS TRUMP CARD IN 2016 MUFF SEASON

For 17 years, Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) festival director Richard Wolstencroft has programmed his event fearlessly, often counter to that which is considered socially acceptable; in 2010, he defied a government ban and had his home raided in the wake of a ‘protest screening’ of the gay undead shocker, LA Zombie. But in 2016, has he pushed too far? Does the ominously familiar festival tagline ‘Make The Australian Film Industry Great Again’ imply the unthinkable? Is MUFF and its headline-grabbing founder declaring an allegiance with (cue ‘Imperial March’) Donald Trump…?

At first, Wolstencroft (pictured, below) laughs off the suggestion. “The ‘Make the Australian Film Industry Great Again’ line is more about how the industry is just lousy now and not like the dynamic 70's and 80's,” he says. That may be so, but SCREEN-SPACE points out that four of the eleven narrative features playing this year – Marcus Koch’s 2007 clown-horror B-classic 100 Tears, Aussie alt sector icon Mark Savage’s Stressed to Kill, Paddy Jessop’s revenge-themed Shotgun and the closing night pic, Revenge of The Gweilo from Nathan Hill – all riff on the Trump-ish obsession with denial of white man privilege and patriarchy.  

“Sure, there's a bit of that,” he admits. “I'm a bit that way and I run MUFF. But (any) accusation that MUFF does not embrace diversity in filmmaking is wrong. Of the 80 films showing (this year), about a quarter are made by women. The mix of white directors and those of mixed ethnicity is about the same.” He notes that the festival was co-founded with a woman, Rebecca Sutherland; selection committees and staffing has always reflected Melbourne’s distinct social complexity; and, the event’s assistant director role has been filled by young men of Lebanese (Hussein Khoder, 2011-2015) and Indian (Roshan Jahal, 2016) heritage. Says Wolstencroft, “MUFF is a far more diverse festival than many ‘indie’ ones around, who may preach PC-ness but be made up of entirely white crews.”

There can be no denying the 17th annual MUFF line-up, which unspools September 9 at both the Alex Theatre and Backlot Studios in the southern capital, comprises a vastness of vision, with long- and short-form works from home and abroad across fiction and factual genres. Opening the feisty 9-day programme is the world premiere of The Perfect Nonsense, director Addison Heath’s off-kilter romantic odyssey starring Kristen Condon and Kenji Shimada. Other Australian auteurs under the MUFF banner in 2016 are Daniel Armstrong (SheBorg Massacre; trailered, below); Enzo Tedeschi (A Night of Horror Vol 1); Dee Choi (Mui Karaoke); Todwina J. Moore (Rock in a Hard Place); and, Rohan Thomas (The Other Option). Accompanying 100 Tears as part of a retro-themed sidebar presented by the cult film website Fakeshemp.net will be Alec Mill’s Blood Moon (1990), a late and under-appreciated entry from the Ozploitation era.

Also of that period is filmmaker Mark Savage, a kindred spirit of Wolstencroft’s and prominent underground identity in Melbourne, having directed such defining low-budget cult items as Marauders (1986), Sensitive New Age Killer (2000) and Defenceless: A Blood Symphony (2004). In programming Savage’s US-shot thriller Stressed to Kill, Wolstencroft has honoured a peer and friend of four decades standing. “I think Mark is one of the most important voices in Australia cinema of the last 35 years,” he says. “He made Super 8 films about violence, rape and the darkness of the human spirit; totally out of this world for Australia back then. (His films were) aggressive, exciting and completely contemporary and 30 years ahead of the game.”

While staying determinedly committed to Australian talent, the short film program dubbed Mini MUFF and programmed by Seamus Ryan and Michael Taylor will screen works from six international territories including Canada, The U.S.A., The U.K. and France. From Spain comes the supernatural story of a ‘soul taker’ in Eva Doud’s El Lardon del Luz; Irish underground cinema is represented by Robert McKeon’s Wifey Redux (pictured, right). One of the highlights will be the opening night screening of A Thin Life, an Australian production from 1996 that was believed to be lost forever until Wolstencroft and director Frank Howson tracked down and reassembled the original negative; the session on September 9 will be the completed film’s first-ever screening.

Despite a commitment to avoid labels (“I don’t really give a shit about definitions”), Wolstencroft does note that the underground scene has irrevocably changed since the term was coined. “Underground is the new word for ‘indie’,” he states. “Sundance films all star George Clooney and Brad Pitt and are not real ‘indie’ anymore. Underground film festivals play the real independent films.” In this years program notes, he concedes that only a select few festivals (SUFF, Revelations and Monster Fest) imbue the truly counter-culture filmmaking spirit in Australia. “At MUFF, we foster mostly low-budget to micro-budget genre cinema. We don’t look for production value; we look for ideas, spirit and an aggressive, self-promoting attitude. We look for something out of the ordinary. I have selected films for MUFF based on the personality and drive of the filmmaker alone.”

The 17th Melbourne Underground Film Festival runs September 9-17. For all ticketing and session details, visit the event’s official website.

Wednesday
Aug102016

PREVIEW: 2016 SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL

Works from alternative sector giants Todd Solondz, Sion Sono, Richard Tuohy and John Waters and the world premiere of Australian director Ben Ferris’ urban decay documentary 57 Lawson highlight the 10th anniversary line-up of the Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF).

Harbour City audiences attuned to the subversive, political and shocking have been well-served by the internationally recognised event, still programmed by founder Stefan Popescu and wife, Katherine Berger. The 2016 gathering, running September 15 to 18, will present 35 feature-length screenings, including 20 documentaries, 12 narrative features and 3 retrospectives, with 20 Australian premieres in the mix. As in past years, the event will stretch beyond the darkened rooms of its spiritual home, The Factory Theatre in Sydney’s inner-west, and offer masterclass tutorials, exhibition content and panel chats from a diverse range of academic and artistic guest contributors.

Opening night honours have been bestowed upon Weiner-Dog (pictured, top), the latest dramedy of discomfort from underground icon Todd Solondz. Other high profile features include Mexican auteur Emiliano Rocha Minter’s We Are The Flesh (pictured, right), hot off a triumphant screening at Fantasia 2016; SUFF alumni Richard Bates Jr (Suburban Gothic, 2014) with his offbeat shocker Trash Fire, featuring a career-redefining role for Entourage star Adrian Grenier; Japan’s prolific enfant terrible Sion Sono delivers The Virgin Psychics, a raunchy teen-telepathy romp that Variety called a “cheerfully gutter-minded supernatural farce”; and, the Sydney premiere of Billy O’Brien’s cult-bound nightmare-piece, I Am Not a Serial Killer, featuring a welcome (if against type) return to the bigscreen for Back to The Future star, Christopher Lloyd.

Closing out the festival will be the highly-anticipated, fully restored print of the iconic John Waters’ 1970’s trash classic, Multiple Maniacs, featuring Waters’ muse Divine in one of the roles that solidified her counter-culture reputation. Other retrospective sessions include a 25th anniversary screening of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, starring Peter Weller as William Burrough’s drug-addled protagonist; and, a 40th anniversary honouring of Brian De Palma’s high-school horror classic Carrie, which will screen in support of the documentary De Palma, an in-depth career appraisal overseen by A-list fanboys Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

An impressive 20 mid- and feature-length docos will screen at SUFF, which has rattled cages with rare, occasionally outlawed factual films (in 2012, Keith Allen’s Princess Di conspiracy theory piece, Unlawful Killing, played in defiance of ongoing legalities). In 2016, it has yet to be determined if the suited heavies appointed by Tommy Wiseau, director of the bad-movie classic The Room, will force the festival to withdraw Rick Harper’s making-of doc, Room Full of Spoons, as happened to organisers of the recent Melbourne Documentary Festival (pictured, right; Wiseau, far right, with Harper and crew).

Social issues tackled by the SUFF documentary schedule include internet misuse and abuse (Irene Taylor Brodsky’s Beware the Slenderman; Neal Broffman’s Help Us Find Sunil Tripath), the psychology and passion of the artist (Jai Love’s Dead Hands Dig Deep; Thorsten Shutte’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words; Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink Robert Frank; Jason Pine and Jason Georgiades’ Desert Age: A Rock & Roll Scene History; Louis Black and Karen Bernstein’s Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny), human rights in destabilised societies (Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow; George Gittoes’ Snow Monkey) and mental health (Justin Schein’s Left on Purpose; Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side).

On a lighter note, all-age audiences can enjoy a vivid wander down memory lane courtesy of renowned author and curator Kier-La Janisse, who offers a two-hour celebration called Saturday Morning All-You-Can-Eat Cereal Cartoon Party. Pyjama-clad patrons can dine on bowls of retro cereal, bursting with sugary anti-goodness, while watching classic animation and giggly PSAs (content details are top secret, apparently).

Since its inception, SUFF has supported the short film sector and in 2016 once again offers its popular short film sessions under the banners of ‘Love Sick’, ‘LSD Factory’, ‘Ozploit’, ‘Reality Bites’ and ‘WTF’. The legacy of the festivals commitment to makers of short films is celebrated in a ‘SUFF Blast From The Past: Short Films 2007-2015’.

For those that embrace the truly cutting-edge, SUFF will present Re:Cinema, which organisers describe as “a program of experimental video and film work that examines the notion of the ‘cinematic’ in relation to the contemporary imagescape.” This will accompany a retrospective of the works of Richard Tuohy and his collaborator, Dianna Barrie (pictured, right), titled Hand and Machine; Tuohy will also host The Chromaflex Experimental Colour Film Workshop at the Sydney College of The Arts. Finally, filmmaking skills will be examined in the Masterclass sessions, with contributors Gordy Hoffman (screenwriting), Ross Grayson-Bell (producing), George Gittoes and Helen Rose (documentary techniques) and Ben Ferris (directing).

The 10th Sydney Underground Film Festival will commence its 4 day schedule on September 15 at The Factory Theatre, Marrickville. Session and ticket information can be found at the event’s official website.

Monday
Jul182016

HARMONIUM: THE KOJI FUKADA INTERVIEW.

Revisiting elements of his 2010 drama Hospitality, writer-director Kôji Fukada crafted one of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival’s breakout titles with his latest, Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu). The chilling, slow burn pyscho-drama tells of the disintegration of a seemingly stable family unit when a visitor from a dark past settles amongst them. Cited by Variety as a work of “cinematic and intellectual rigour”, the film earned the Japanese auteur the Un Certain Regard Jury prize. In the wake of the triumphant screening, the 36 year-old director sat with SCREEN-SPACE in a sunny, manicured yard just off The Croisette to talk about his current work, which has it’s Australian premiere next month at the Melbourne International Film Festival

SCREEN-SPACE: You’re cinema is elegant, refined yet deeply affecting. Names such as Eric Rohmer and Robert Bresson have been cited as key influences. Which filmmakers have inspired your work?

Fukada: To be spoken of in the same sentence as those masters is too great an honour. My first influence was my father, as he was a huge film lover. I was exposed to international cinema from a very young age. My childhood home was filled with VHS tapes. I’ll never forget one night, when I was about 14 years of age, I watched two films back-to-back – Marcel Carne’s Chicken Feed for Little Birds and Victor Erice’s The Spirit of The Beehive. Over time, I have recognised that one of my key influences has also been Theo Angelopoulos, a master and pioneer of cinema. His social commentary and artistic achievements come from the highest cinematic level.

SCREEN-SPACE: How did Harmonium develop?

Fukada: It started with a simple synopsis that I wrote in 2006. I had difficulty getting finance for it so, in 2010, I made a film called Hospitality. It is essentially the first half of what you see in Harmonium, like a pilot version of it. It’s also about an intruder coming into the life of a family and disrupting their relationships. When our producer, Koichiro Fukushima, saw Hospitality he came on board and Harmonium began to take shape. It took us 10 years to make the film, so it is a thrill to finally present it here in Cannes. (Pictured, right: a scene from Harmonium with, from left, Kanji Furutachi, Tadanobu Asano, Mariko Tsutsui and Momone Shinokawa).

SCREEN-SPACE: Is there any aspect of your story or characters that will resonate most profoundly with Japanese audiences?

Fukada: If anything, it is the husband/father character of Toshio, a patriarchal figure who does not comfortably verbalize his emotions or communicate with the other family members. He is that traditionally conservative Japanese father figure, though I’m sure they exist in other countries as well. Something intrinsically Japanese is the role that the husband undertakes when children arrive, adopting the father role to a much greater extent that the husband role. Similarly, the wife very much becomes the ‘mother’ figure. Instead of coalescing as a unit, a ‘family’, they become individuals bound to the expectations of their new roles.

SCREEN-SPACE: Is this duality, this thematic strand that suggests even the most closely-knit unit is only as strong as the individual, indicative of your beliefs?

Fukada: It is very difficult to distinguish myself from my work. They represent how I view the world and how I view humanity. In this story, we have a community of people we call a ‘family’, the very smallest kind of human community that exists. But what I wanted to explore was how the individuals within this seemingly close community still possess an essential solitude. That represents my view on human beings. (Pictured, right; Fukada, far right, with his actors Kanji Furutachi and Mariko Tsutsui attending the 2016 Cannes Film Festival).

SCREEN-SPACE: You draw naturalistic performances from the cast. Were you able to work with them for long periods in the development of the script and in rehearsal?

Fukada: We had a short rehearsal period, perhaps 2 or 3 days, but with such a modest budget and with the time constraints that rehearsals place on actors, our planning was limited. But there were many hours of in-depth discussion with the cast, especially Kanji Furutachi, with whom I have collaborated on four projects. I don’t want my actors to just do a read-through, or be bound by their actions in a single room. I don’t feel there is a lot of value to rehearsal unless it is very near to the on-set experience, so I will prefer to rehearse on location or on a finished set. And that’s very difficult and expensive to do, to be on-set and not be filming.

SCREEN-SPACE: Are your sets collaborative environments or are you very clear with your cast as to their roles in your vision?

Fukada: I don’t want the actors to be an alter ego of me. I want them to exist as individuals who are living in the moments they create. So rather than ask of them to build a character in a particular way, be that physical or emotional, I ask them be present, with their cast mates, just as you and I are now. It is essential that they not act, but react and interact with each other. That all begins with my role as writer and director. I must ensure the actors are honest and truthful in any moment (and) that complexity has to be there in my screenplay. (Pictured, right; a scene from of Harmonium).

SCREEN-SPACE: You eschew close-ups, maintaining a very respectful distance between the actor and your lens. Why so?

Fukada: I keep the relationship between the actor and the camera very simple. My camera keeps a certain distant from the actors because being in close proximity feels as if I am trying to explain or define the intent of the scene to the audience.

SCREEN-SPACE: Looking more broadly at your homeland’s film industry, is it a happy place for independent cinema and your auteur peers?

Fukada: It is very difficult for arthouse films in Japan. We don’t have an organising body, like France’s CNC or South Korea’s KOFIC, which negotiates subsidies and provides administration for the sector. Bodies like that exist to promote diversity, which is crucial to a vibrant film sector. These organisations understand audience needs, so a genre film can be produced and marketed to a large audience at the same time that an arthouse film with specialised needs can be promoted to a niche sector and succeed. That balance allows for a very rich cinematic culture, both commercially and critically. In Japan’s economic system, it is very difficult to make such a system work; if a film does not recoup its cost, it becomes very hard for the creative people involved to survive.

Ticket and session information for Melbourne International Film Festival screenings of Harmonium can be found attheevent's official website.

Tuesday
Jul052016

REVFEST HAS HAND IN PUPPET MASTER'S LEGACY

Fans of the eclectic slate for which Perth’s annual Revelation International Film Festival has become known won’t be disappointed in 2016. West coasters can choose from the experimental non-dialogue horror of Atmo Horrox, the goat gland documentary Nuts! or the seductive sorcery of The Love Witch, to name a few. Unexpectedly (perhaps even reassuringly), peering out from the darkness will be the pointy-green grin of one of pop culture’s most endearing characters, Kermit the Frog, and the warm, gentle features of his creator, Jim Henson.

Muppets, Music & Magic is Revelations’ sidebar celebration of Henson’s remarkable contribution to showbusiness, featuring eight separate retrospective documentaries that track the development of his unique universe of characters. Also being screened are two of his visionary features, his Tolken-esque fantasy adventure The Dark Crystal (1982) and the cult classic, Labyrinth (1986). The collection is presented in conjunction with The Jim Henson Legacy, an initiative formed in 1992 to preserve and perpetuate the work and spirit of the late genius.

“It’s amazingly comprehensive,” says Revelation Festival Director, Richard Sowada, who recognised that elements of the collection spoke to his festival’s agenda. “I think it’s the deep experimentation and the clarity of vision that’s so appealing to Rev. These artefacts have meaning and purpose and ultimately make a difference to the culture and its inhabitants and they do it in such a lovely way.”

In 1955, Henson was a freshman arts-major at the University of Maryland with drive enough to negotiate a late-night TV slot for his satirical puppet concept called ‘Sam and Friends’ (pictured, right). These early years are explored in the 73-minute presentation ‘Commercials & Experiments’, which features rarely-seen works ranging from corporate training shorts to commercials to avant garde oddities, each revealing an artist exploring and defining his passion and talent.

Although his playfulness is evident in these works, the ‘Jim Henson’ that would become synonymous with children’s entertainment is only fleetingly glimpsed; the radical social change and fearless approach to artistry of the 1960s comes through in works such as Youth ’68, The Cube and his Oscar nominated short, Time Piece. Revelations has included a programme warning that some of the content is for mature audiences (below; a scene from Time Piece).

It was from these early, experimental years that the timeless, occasionally subversive comedy of Sesame Street was launched. At the time of Henson’s passing in May of 1990, then-Chairperson of the show’s producers, The Children’s Television Workshop, Joan Ganz Cooney, said of her friend, “He was our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W. C. Fields and Marx Brothers, and indeed he drew from all of them to create a new art form that influenced popular culture around the world.” The development and impact of the show is chronicled in His Sesame Street Years, a delirious celebration of Henson’s vision and the dynamic he formed with early collaborators Frank Oz, Fran Brill and Caroll Spinney, each masters of the craft in their own right.

Two clip-compilation documentaries capture the growth of Henson as a performer and the artistry with which his beloved creations were developed. In Performance captures the man honing his comic timing in rare footage of the early years when then voices and personalities of Kermit, Rowlf and The Swedish Chef were cultivated; Behind the Seams looks at the ensemble of world class puppeteers and craftspeople who fell under Henson’s spell and helped create some of the most iconic showbiz moments of all time (pictured, right; Henson in conference on-set with his leading man).

Rounding out the sidebar are two compiles screening under the Mini Rev banner and the State Library of Western Australia. Tales from Muppetland presents the Muppet players take on classic fairytales, with some timeless comedy care of the sesame Street News team thrown in for good measure; and, Muppet Musical Moments features the glorious staging that was created to accompany musical guests from The Muppet Show, including such names as Linda Ronstadt, Julie Andrews, Elton John and Liberace.

(The collection) is a great reflection of Henson’s character and personality,” says Sowada. “There’s no ulterior motive behind any of his work aside from bringing people together. That feeling transcends generations and gives his work real meaning.”

Muppets, Music & Magic: The Jm Henson Legacy screens July 9-15 as part of the 2016 Revelation Perth International Film Festival. Ticket and session details can be found on the events official website.

Friday
Jun242016

TO DIE FOR: THE ANURAG KASHYAP INTERVIEW

His best films are confronting, contemporary works that challenge India’s filmmaking culture. Similarly, Anurag Kashyap defies expectations as an interviewee; his stare is intense, but his manner is gentle, his voice clear but soft. And fast; his perfect English and fierce intelligence makes it a challenge to keep pace. The 42 year-old director, best known for the visceral 2012 crime epic Gangs of Wasseypur, is in Cannes to shepherd his latest through a Director’s Fortnight slot; Raman Raghav 2.0 is a purely cinematic re-imagining of the life of India’s most notorious serial killer, whose random brutality terrorised Mumbai locals in the mid 1960s. “He is the Jack the Ripper of India, and we stuck to the facts of the case very closely,” says Kashyap, midway through a lengthy chat with SCREEN-SPACE in a 5th floor lounge, a few blocks from The Croisette…

SCREEN-SPACE: How long have you wanted to tell this story?

Kashyap: When I got into the business of moviemaking, my first job as an apprentice was during post-production on a film based on the life of Raman Raghav. I never knew of him before, but I was writing crime short stories so I immediately became curious. I had access to all this material and was soon obsessed with making a film on Raman Raghav, an obsession that lasted 23 years.

SCREEN-SPACE: Why has it taken so long for you to realise the project?

Kashyap: We’ve had this script for the last six years, but I just couldn’t get the money to make the film. In India, we make very happy movies and a dark film like this, and a period film as well which immediately means it will cost a lot of money, no studio felt it would be feasible. But I was so invested in the story. And then, a lot of changes started to happen in India, politically and socially. Suddenly there is a lot fear in society; modern living became scarier, both in India and around the world. People have become so fearful of fundamentalism that they have become fundamentalists themselves. It was then that I realised the only way I was going to get the film made was to contemporise it. I actually had the title before I had the script! Raman Raghav 2.0, an updated version, like an iPhone (laughs). (Pictured, right; Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the title role)

SCREEN-SPACE: What was key to transplanting such a protagonist into modern day Indian society?

Kashyap: When I started writing, all these modern fears started to seep into the story. Working from my imagination and creating the mindset of the character, I realised he viewed himself as a much more pure person. Here is a criminal, a brutal criminal, who we know is going to kill, but then there is another man, a policeman who is supposed to protect me but who is also a killer, with his own reasons and conclusions. The serial killer murders because he wants to, that is easy to rationalise; it is a purity of thought. It is a complex philosophy, however warped it may be.

SCREEN-SPACE: Between Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s homicidal psychopath and Vicky Kaushal’s corrupt, unhinged cop (pictured, right), might audiences find it hard to root for anyone?

Kashyap: The audience is forced to root for the world that these characters co-exist in. I am rooting for what is outside of the room when the two of them share a scene. I hope that someday, society will learn what goes on when two people like this are together, how they manipulate reality for their own gain. That is the world today and that is what the film represents. I wouldn’t be allowed to address the politics of the story directly in my country, so I address within the construct of a genre film. Genre films have always played that purpose, subverting the politics of their society. When this film comes out in India, people will start to discuss and debate its politics. I want that discussion to take place.

SCREEN-SPACE: The two men certainly represent two sides of the same coin, as it were…

Kashyap: ‘Raman’ is the name of the villainous god in Indian mythology. But in Sri Lanka, the same ‘Raman’ is the hero. So our religion, our very belief systems, has this dichotomy about the co-existence of good and evil. In India, there is much discussion about this aspect of our existence, of belittling one belief system in favour of your own. That intolerance is what is afflicting the world at the moment.

SCREEN-SPACE: Are you concerned that the film might glorify the killer? Of turning him into a ‘Robin Hood’-type anti-hero?

Kashyap: Indian people know the story of the real Raman Raghav and they won’t confuse this movie’s version of him with the terrible person he was in real life. I’m doing more than projecting him as an anti-hero. I’m using the fact that audiences who flock to see him already view him as an anti-hero. This film is not a ‘whodunnit’, it is not about who is the serial killer; audiences go into the film knowing who the protagonist is. You know, I showed my actors and crew two films, Let the Right One In and We Are What We Are. These are neo-realistic films, about vampires and cannibals, which barely touch on the horror of their existence. I wanted to stress that we did not want to make a film about a serial killer, but about an individual trying to survive in a society with which his belief system is entirely at odds. (Pictured, right; Kashyap, centre, during the shoot).

SCREEN-SPACE: Your leading man, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, said this of you: “When he is behind the camera, I feel his supportive hand pushing me to break new ground and redefine boundaries…”

Kashyap: He is the clay I need to mould a character. Graciously, he allows me to do that. That trust comes from 17, 18 years of struggle together. In the early years, I promised him that we would make a film together and I would put him at the centre of it. I cast him in his first speaking role, two lines as a waiter in 1997 (laughs). We have such a comfort zone together. And that level of understanding and communication was crucial, as we only had three weeks to shoot. I sat down during pre-production and separated scenes and allocated dollars. All the sequences in the street were shot with a crew of four. We literally jumped out of a van, shot the footage, and left (laughs).

Raman Raghav 2.0 debuts Friday June 24 in worldwide release.