Auteur or provocateur? Animal and the event of hypermasculine cinema

The Ranbir Kapoor-starrer is merely the latest in a series of ‘strongman’ films. But where does this archetype come from and why now?

WrittenBy:Shwet Pandey
A still from the movie showing Ranbir Kapoor in a blood-soaked shirt

A cinematic event has been invented to mark the beginning of the end of 2023. It has been carefully crafted by master filmmaker Sandeep Reddy Vanga, and meticulously aided by a blatant disregard for substance and wilful defenestration of empathy. The formula was tested in laboratories and has been deployed despite concerns that it may be unfit for public consumption.

So go on a blood-soaked guns-blazing, axe-wielding, arm-ripping, woman-hating, chain-smoking tirade that becomes a monstrous juggernaut at the box office.

And there you have it in the form of Animal, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Anil Kapoor. “It’s a man’s world,” as the protagonist proudly declared just after dismissing his wife’s menstrual cycle as a cry for attention while constantly talking about his penis as a measure of his manhood.

And you know what? He’s right. It is a man’s world. What else happens when slapping your partner is an ‘act of love’? So let’s not fall for the rage-bait of describing the gratuitous misogyny in Vanga’s films. That is the intent to “show them what a violent film will be.

This is what Vanga – the new poster child for deranged edgy cinema in India – does. Merely three films old (two of which are basically the same), he has established himself as a filmmaker who admonishes the viewer from even entertaining the thought of restraint. Remember when Kabir Singh threatened a woman to strip at knife-point? Or when he chased his domestic help for accidentally breaking a glass? Or stuffed his pants with ice cubes? Vanga uses his artistic freedom like a sledgehammer with which he batters the brains of his audience down to a pulp till they too descend to the nadir of barbarity he revels in.

There has been a consistent gravitation towards the idea of the ‘strong man’. Or as a Sanjay Dutt-ified Ranbir Kapoor puts it – an “alpha male”. You have them in Salman Khan’s movies (from Tere Naam to Tiger 3), an angry and visibly evil Ravan played by Saif Ali Khan in Adipurush, Ram Charan and Junior NTR’s characters in RRR, Kamal Haasan’s character in Vikram, and Shahid Kapoor in Bloody Daddy. Even a film like Vikram Vedha was repurposed for the star power of Hrithik Roshan who brings an effortless machismo and physicality through his role as compared to Vijay Sethupathi’s original portrayal. Even Shah Rukh Khan’s two latest outings (and biggest successes) Pathaan and Jawan were event films that capitalised on the hypermasculine. 

And for good reason. It is seductive for the audience, meaty for the actors, and it makes money.

The conversation we should be having instead is the tilt towards hyper-masculinity in cinema and why it has happened. Are we just becoming angrier?

Yes, Indian cinema is rife with machismo going back to the days of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man. But it also had a tryst with substance. Aye, there’s the rub!

The angry young man was a symptom bred by the malaise of systemic injustice. His anger was a righteous anger that manifested in ways that transgressed the law. His machismo was a maladaptive coping mechanism, a facade to protect himself from vulnerabilities that brought him down this violent path, and he almost always faces the consequences of his actions be it legal, physical, emotional, or spiritual. Remember Deewaar? Or Agneepath? Or Baazigar? The angry protagonist fuelled by bloodlust meets a brutal end.

What’s irksome is the impunity with which the new age ‘strongmen’ or so-called ‘massy characters’ operate. How about slaughtering hundreds of goons in an Oldboy-inspired corridor massacre with no legal consequence? How about cheating on your wife and catching no flak even from your grandfather? How about entering a school with an assault rifle? How about demolishing a hotel with a contraption that can only be described as the lovechild of a Gatling gun and a golf cart, which is interestingly enough heralded as a product of atmanirbhar Bharat?

What Animal gets maddeningly wrong is confusing violence in the plot with violence as the plot. And to paraphrase Aamir Khan’s words from a now viral 1990s interview– the directors who aren’t creatively talented resort to using violence and sex to make their movies work.

Why? Because outrage is the easiest emotion to instigate in an audience. It’s how social media algorithms work to get us to stay on their platforms longer. Don’t take my word for it. Believe it when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said in the British Parliament that “anger and hate is the easiest way to grow on Facebook.”

That’s what the ‘strongman’ professes– anger. He can severe hand pumps with his bare hands, or punch holes into walls, and always roars when he can talk. And it sells. We live in an age of sensory overload. It sells on social media. It works wonders in politics. Seems like it works for movies too. Does the commercial success of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files and Sunny Deol-starrer Gadar 2 tell us anything? We live in a state of outrage and paranoia. We look for a scapegoat, a villain. And we look for a broad chested messiah to deliver us from these imagined threats.

Interestingly, in the very same it’s-a-man’s-world meltdown in Animal, a reference is made to the protagonist’s broad and hardened chest while deriding his wife. Does anyone remember a certain someone flaunting their 56-inch chest? There is a massive crisis of masculinity that underlies Vanga’s filmmaking (read: tantrum). And it’s the same crisis that fuels radical right-wing narratives that dehumanise, discriminate, and foster violence. 

Is it any surprise that the antagonist (played by Bobby Deol) is someone who belongs to a family that converted to Islam? Or that their way of ‘defence’ is “ghar mein ghuske maarna” or a surgical strike? Does it really shock us that the manly protagonist is all about an abundance of aesthetic (read: hair) to make up for a certain lack of substance (read: character)? Or that he dismisses psychiatric evaluation for gaumutra instead? Or that there is a call for massacre and pledge of execution complete with a Nazi salute and Swastika in the background (albeit acknowledged in a throwaway joke)?

With underwritten characters and an undercooked plot about daddy issues, the only thing arguably in Animal’s favour is Kapoor’s unhinged performance – from the simmering to the explosive – a few well-executed jump cuts, and title drop. Perhaps, what allowed me to make it through all 201 minutes of it is how removed it is from reality; as if it were the fantasy of an edgy 16 year old boy who didn’t get to go to his favourite musician’s concert.

But then again, to hark back to Aamir Khan’s words, violence and sex are the easiest emotions to provoke in an audience. By capitalising on this, Vanga joins the league of the Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world while his fans hail him as an equivalent to the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. It’s a shrewd business tactic, not a responsible artistic choice. This film is an Andrew Tate-ian utopia preaching prehistoric roles for men and women. Animal relies solely on shock value and vicarious pleasure for misogynists (closeted and open). The self-indulgent runtime, non-linear storytelling, and gratuitous violence (physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual) violence reeks of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America where elaborate and horrific rape scenes are grotesquely used as a plot device to fuel voyeurism.

Although it hinges on a premise that packs potential for an exploration and deconstruction of masculinity, Animal is far more interested in doing anything but. The complicated relationship between a father and a son could have been a fascinating exploration of violence and the trappings of masculinity. Think Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti starring Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan. Since the movie starts with an aged Ranbir Kapoor looking back, it could have been a man lamenting the barbarity he wrought – akin to The Irishman. But no. Not an iota of remorse. He embraces his destructive machismo and heralds it as ideal. It’s as if the ‘alpha male’ has descended from prehistory to unleash a rapacious testosterone-fest that is virulent, vile, and dangerously addictive in times as polarised as today. All of this created by a director who believes he is above criticism. But at least he does press conferences, am I right?

Animal is the kind of film that gives platform to the most primal, debased instinct; the manifestation of every intrusive thought you’ve ever had brought to you larger-than-life amped up to 1000x; designed to trigger, not introspect. Which begs the question: is Sandeep Reddy Vanga an auteur or provocateur?

But what do I know? I’m just a ‘woke feminist’ who rose to the rage-bait just like I’m on social media. 

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