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Liger review: Caveman cinema

Puri Jagannadh’s film seems to delight in anticipating what might infuriate its critics and then doubling down on that

Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Liger’
Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Liger’

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Everything you need to know about Liger is there in a few seconds of the musical number ‘Aafat’. After the chorus (“jawani teri aa-fat”), Ananya Panday mimes to a sampled female voice that pleads “bhagwan ke liye chhod do mujhe”. Now, any viewer of Hindi cinema knows this is what a heroine says when she’s fighting off a rapist. Liger is well aware this will irritate critics of its gender politics, yet it inserts the line in a horny love song. As a gesture, it’s childish, it’s self-aware, it’s parody, it's provocation. 

I’d assumed that since Vijay Deverakonda plays a MMA fighter in Puri Jagannadh’s film, his ring name must be Liger. Silly me. That’s his birth name, given to him by Lion Balram (also a fighter, long deceased) and Tigress Balamani (Ramya Krishnan, who spends another film yelling at everyone about her son’s abilities). In the Shel Silverstein country number ‘A Boy Named Sue’, a father gives his son a girl’s name so people pick on him and he becomes tough. If Balamani's strategy was along these lines… well, it works. Liger grows up unbeatably tough, graduating from the streets of Karimnagar to Ronit Roy’s dojo in Mumbai, where he’s given the MMA training he barely seems to need.

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As if going through life responding to 'Liger' isn’t bad enough, our hero also has a speech impediment. This wouldn’t be a big deal, except the film treats the condition like an incurable, shameful disease. Liger’s stammering is made relentless fun of. Well-wishers complete his sentences. Tanya breaks up with him because of it, telling him, “What if I give birth to someone like you?” We later find out she has other reasons, but by then the film has revealed enough of itself for the audience to know where its heart lies.

This is caveman cinema. The first words we hear, via voiceover, are: “To make man’s life hell, god created dolls called women.” Instagram celebrity Tanya (Panday) rejects Liger at first, but then finds herself hopelessly attracted after watching him beat up the entire dojo. Tanya is a collection of Telugu cinema’s worst impulses, so airheaded and shallow she doesn’t realize her boyfriend stutters until halfway into the film (she says things like “I feel like giving you a pappi”). But Balamani is worse, a smothering matriarch constantly screeching about the mini-skirted devils who will seduce her son away from his life’s purpose. 

When they first meet, Tanya gets into an argument with Liger and grabs his collar. Of course, he grabs hers’ back. She’s threatened twice with hockey sticks, first by her brother, then by a jilted Liger. It’s only right that Arjun Reddy is namechecked—it’s the fount from which this tepid stream emerges. That film made Deverakonda a star, and it’s not surprising Liger has the same template: prodigiously talented man yells a lot as women mess with his head. In fact, ‘Arjun Reddy’ has become shorthand for such a recognizable kind of jock that Jagannadh can afford to briefly send up the type. As Liger is being pulverized by female krav maga fighters, he asks them “Who will marry you?” and “Did I get you pregnant and abandon you?”. 

Liger demolishes everyone he comes up against, in marketplaces and trains and amphitheatres, and more productively, in the national and world MMA championships. The latter tournament takes him to Las Vegas (Chunky Panday turns up for a few glorious minutes), and then to a ranch where he meets hastily drawn-up villain Mark Anderson, played by Mike Tyson in a cowboy hat. Their climactic grapple is silly, but the fights that come before are largely effective, with Deverakonda a lanky, attractive brawler (the krav maga beating is a nice piece of action choreography). 

Liger's mother refers to him as a ‘crossbreed’—a weirdly derisive way to describe your son. The film, too, is crossbred: produced by Dharma and Jagannadh, shot simultaneously in Hindi and Telugu, with one Tollywood and one Bollywood lead. But the crude energy and the gleeful anti-wokeness is decidedly not-Bollywood. If the pan-India film is to grow, it won’t be by bankrolling each other’s worst tendencies. 

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