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‘Animal’ review: Calculated ugliness

Sandeep Reddy Vanga's ‘Animal’ is one of the ugliest Hindi films ever, cynically engineered to court audience outrage

Ranbir Kapoor in 'Animal'
Ranbir Kapoor in 'Animal'

“You have a big pelvis,” Ranvijay (Ranbir Kapoor) tells Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna) after she leaves her fiancée for him. “Are you calling me fat?” she asks. This is a compliment, he insists, it means you have child-bearing hips. Several years and two kids later, the couple has hit a rough patch. He’s sick, obese, paranoid. He pinches her roughly, she slaps him. Somehow this rekindles a fire. In their living room, he motions to her to come over. She complies, shedding her kurta in full view of the help. Somewhere between pelvic praise and exhibitionism lies Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s idea of romance. 

Animal is a film about toxic relationships. Yet also, the very act of watching it is to enter into a toxic relationship. If you’re not a raging incel, chances are you’ll be appalled by much that you see. But then Vanga has designed it to provoke. He wants you to call for a ban, to say the film is misogynistic and upsetting. And when you do, he’ll say, what did you expect, the film’s called Animal. So you grit your teeth and try not to be triggered. The film keeps pushing your buttons. And so on, until 201 minutes of runtime are done and you stumble out of the theatre, vibrating with unreleased anger.   

What are we even doing here? Who benefits from this one-upmanship? Vanga is like a magician pulling mutilated rabbits out of a hat and asking if you’re shocked yet. It’s staggeringly immature artistic practice. Yet it feeds his cult, which is built on staggeringly immature responses to criticism.     

Ranvijay’s father, the tycoon Balbir Singh (Anil Kapoor), has never shown him the slightest affection. After one flare-up too many, the slacker son is exiled. He settles down with Geetanjali in the US, but an attempt on Balbir's life brings him back to the homestead, and onto a path of bloody retribution. It’s like the bit in The Godfather when Vito is shot and Michael returns to the family fold, except here the revenge killing of Sollozzo is replaced by the slaughter of hundreds. 

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Vanga has a way with genuinely bruising set pieces. Animal turns on a bloody battle in a hotel with shades of Oldboy and Scarface. It starts as a gunfight, then Ranvijay picks up an axe and starts dicing men in shiny masks, before finishing off with a modified Gatling gun. When the axeing starts, his army of Sikh toughs hang back and start singing the martial anthem ‘Arjan Vailly’. It’s a whacky decision but Vanga sells it, probably because he has no fear of audience contempt. 

After Kabir Singh, Vanga knows people are waiting to see if Ranvijay slaps Geetanjali. He keeps that threat dangling through the film while having Ranvijay threaten his wife, grab her throat, point a rifle at her. Ranvijay is Kabir on steroids, a monstrous monogamous Dionysus whose excuse for every transgression is that his papa didn’t love him. Late in the film, he has Balbir roleplay the neglected son while he assumes the part of absent, callous father. Therapy for dumbos, sure, but there’s a feral anger to Vanga’s films that gets under your skin. Kapoor channels all the misunderstood sons and lovers he’s played into a dead-eyed performance that feels somehow unclean and makes me wonder if we’ll ever see the light-footed performer again.

There will be chatter in the coming weeks about Geetanjali’s calm acceptance of her husband’s outbursts, his murder sprees, his humiliations of her in the guise of straight-talk. I felt true revulsion, though, at the film’s treatment of another female character. At first it feels like a cruel joke on Mandanna’s lack of presence to cast the superior Tripti Dimri as a sad, mysterious woman who turns Ranvijay’s head. But it turns out the joke is on viewers who think there could be a challenge to total male control in this film. Dimri willingly subjects herself to one indignity after another. There’s no place in a Vanga film for a female who isn’t pliable.

Bobby Deol enters the film late, another terrible man bent on revenge. Abrar is barely fleshed-out, has a flimsy connection to the main plot—he’s only there to make Ranvijay look less unhinged, and to supply a ‘name’ antagonist. Animal starts to fray once it becomes clear Vanga has nothing meaningful to say about unloved sons or inherited cycles of violence, and is only interested in deploying Ranvijay and Abrar as shock jocks until they clash. 

Throughout Animal, there are remarks about strong genes, the dominance of alphas, the capacity of women to bear children. This sort of master race talk would be suspect in itself, but then there’s Balbir’s company: Swastik. There’s a scene where Ranvijay addresses workers in front of a giant swastika and raises his hand in salute. Vanga can argue all he wants that it’s the Indian swastika, not the tilted Nazi one; that it isn’t a Nazi salute because the fist is clenched. The fact is, he’s playing with fire because he can. It doesn’t get much lower than that.

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