I’m a Hardcore Feminist who LOVED Animal

I’m a Hardcore Feminist who LOVED Animal.

By Roopa Swaminathan

Sorry, not sorry.

If watching Animal was triggering enough for many, then I apologize for my take on the film which might trigger you enough to want to harm someone.

You’ve been warned.

I’m a raging, toxicity-hating, card-carrying member of the feminist club.

But… I loved Animal. Yep. There I said it. Stop reading now and call me names if you must.

But. I. Loved. Animal.

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 Is it flawed? Yes.

But is it bold and audacious and has a unique over-the-top hyper voice of a director trying something so outrageous that you turn to yourself at every stage (because no one else would watch it with you) and go, “Did this shit just happen or did I make it all up?”

Also. A. Big. Fat. Fucking. Yes.

Ranbir’s Ranvijay ‘Vijay’ Singh in Animal is intense. He is a psychopath. He is a sociopath. He has no filter. He says and blurts things that go beyond offensive. He kills at will. There are no consequences to any of his actions. He loves his dick – he makes that very clear to the women in his life and to us. He tosses the ‘It’s a Man’s World’ with utter nonchalance when he needs to get away doing some heinous shit he knows the woman will not let him do.

Again – Vijay is INTENSE.

Full Disclosure: I have NOT watched either of Vanga’s previous two films. So I have no idea about how his male protagonists exhibit distinctly toxic male chauvinistic tendencies that many have claimed. So I’m unsure if Vanga meant for Vijay’s behavior as part of his pattern of onscreen protagonist behavior or if he meant for Vijay to show us what a ‘hero’ should NOT do or he just didn’t know any different. Whatever, I don’t really care. Within the context of the film, Vijay is an inherently flawed character, and I was/am OK with it.

Ranbir’s Vijay of 2024 is the antithesis of every Amitabh Bachchan’s angry-young-man Vijay trope many know from the 80s and 90s. But this is 2024.

Vanga is consistent with his portrayal of Vijay. At no stage do we ever feel jerked or shocked by Vijay’s consistently bizarre and hyper-masculine behavior. That he is who he is established very early on. Vijay is the son of the richest man in India – literally a member of the world’s .0000000001% club – and runs around like a maniac distributing chocolates on his father’s birthday to firing a gun to protect his sister from being ragged when he is in high school and she is in college. He happily kills men for their perceived and real slights against his family and his father with impunity. At no stage do we even see the semblance of a khaki vardi who comes by to figure out who is behind the blood and gore being spilled on the streets. Vanga’s Ranvijay Singh lives an extraordinarily privileged life and is cushioned against any consequences – ostensibly because of the intensity of his wealth. He is not just rich. He is Rockefeller, Hilton, Russian oligarchs-level rich.

That this Vijay is a narcissistic psycho-sociopath in the making is made very clear to us.

Do you hate how he behaves? By all means. But to extrapolate his behavior to how all men are or how his hyper-masculine behavior will impact nubile young men is beyond ridiculous. My neighbor’s son is 9 years old. He knows what sex is, drops the f-word when his parents aren’t looking and is obsessed with watching blood-soaked Korean movies. While his parents maintain strict viewing and reading control at home, he has access to all kinds of material in the very Tony school he goes to.

Also, the post-pandemic world has democratized content. Today, everyone, from the posh Malabar Hill area in South Bombay to the proverbial Jhumri Thalaiya watches the same content on their phone for Rs. 199 a month. The argument that Vanga’s blood-dripping violence is more than Tarantino’s entire oeuvre or the Red Wedding and Ned Stark being beheaded on GoT or the zombies out to play on The Walking Dead or anime movies like Blood: The Last Vampire and Wicked City or TV shows like Vikings or Punisher or movies like The Passion of Christ or real-life war reporting on children and women being bombed and having their hands and legs and hands amputated on Instagram is laughable at best and tragic at worst.

When the same extremely well-respected film reviewer who has on-air orgasms eulogizing a stylized sword sequence while watching Korean men savage through a room full of people as being ‘bloody poetry in motion’ and then claims they wanted to puke at the end of Animal because of ‘its bloodiness’ – come on! Folks aren’t even pretending not to be hypocritical anymore.

This is not to justify gratuitous violence. For those who say that films need to be responsible and how a movie like Animal with its hyper-masculine violence and toxic male chauvinism can affect youths in our country – that is definitely a worry. The core question then is whether should art be responsible for what happens in the world or should we encourage art for art’s sake?

In an ideal utopian world, I belong to the latter. I don’t care how heinous a POV is – I want complete freedom of speech. But I also know what a slippery slope that can be.

But if we’re speaking specifically of Animal and its toxicity – here’s the thing. Animal doesn’t even remotely represent the world we live in. Tonally, the film takes a regular hyperbole and hyper-intensifies it 100 times more. This story is about a person who is literally the son of the richest man in India. So it’s not about a Tom, Sundar, or Hari that the average Indian dude can identify with. There are probably 13 dudes on this planet who can identify with Vijay. Also, the film is beyond filmi. It is such a loud, bombastic, and over-the-top film that if anyone even remotely identifies with ANYONE in the film – you need to check yourself into a mental asylum. Vijay single-handedly kills 200 men in the middle of the day and there is NO POLICE even to check in. He flies to Scotland and kills people in cold blood and no Scotland Yard is saying, “Uhhh…you just killed people. We are going to lock you up.” Not even a 4-year-old child will take any of this behavior seriously.

The Vijay of Deewar and Trishul and Zanjeer – while being very commercial movies still had an element of ‘reality’ in it. We have all seen versions of them in our family, in our father, brother, friend, cousin, uncle.  But the fact is that NONE of us have or will ever meet a person in real life who even marginally resembles Vanga’s Vijay. This Vijay is unique in his existence. This Vijay is a cartoonesque caricature and I am reasonably sure that the average male filmgoer (especially post-pandemic) watching Animal today will get it.

Let’s get to the other big elephant in this ‘Animal’ universe. Get it? Animal in the Animal universe? Yes? No?

Vanga’s toxic masculinity protagonists and their treatment of women. Again, I’ve only watched Animal. And I knew I needed to get past my joyous immersion in the film and pay attention to the many well-intentioned diatribes against Vanga and his heroes against the women in their lives.

But here’s the thing. Is Ranbir’s Vijay toxic? A male chauvinistic pig? A narcissistic asshole who seems to love his father first, his dick next, and then the women in his life? Yes, yes, and yes.

But within the context of the movie and Vijay’s character in the film – did it bother me? No. You read that right. NO. This card-carrying feminist who typically wants to annihilate toxic behavior of any kind did not have a problem with Vanga’s Animalverse.

Let me explain.

Vijay’s relationship with his lady-love and then his wife – Rashmika Mandanna’s Gitanjali – in the weeks leading up to my watching the movie, almost every review talked about how Gitanjali is portrayed as a wimpy young girl who is clueless about herself and the world around her, and how Vanga makes her dump her betrothed for a heathen like Vijay and this after he tells her that she has a ‘big pelvis that can give birth to multiple kids.’ There is also that dialogue about how women don’t like poets but are naturally attracted to the ‘hunters’ and not the ‘gatherers.’ Did these dialogues give me the ick? Absolutely.

But see…most reviews spoke about Gitanjali dumping her betrothed for Vijay as if it were in a vacuum. They made it appear as if Vijay only JUST saw this girl, said some highly inappropriate shit and the nubile young Gitanjali with stars in her eyes just lost her mind, dumped her fiancé, and walked off into the sunset – or in her case – flew up in the air with Vijay. BUT that’s NOT the whole story at all. What the reviews don’t mention is that Vijay and Gitanjali have known each other since they were kids. Vijay had always loved Gitanjali – to the extent of proposing marriage to her when they were in school. This was not some weirdo who just showed up at her doorstep. They have a shared history.

And as far as her fiancé of 30 minutes…they barely knew one another. Gitanjali had spoken to him on the phone for 30 minutes before she was betrothed. So she is not about to marry the love of her life or even Prince Charming. He is a stranger. So dumping him is not the big tragedy that everyone claims it is.

And neither is Gitanjali some damsel in distress who needs to be saved from her lack of choice. She is not unaware of Vijay’s out-of-control impulses – all of which she has seen and experienced her entire life. And when she says yes to running away with Vijay…she is barely 21. If I were to mention the number of men I was attracted to at 21…well, let’s fucking not. We are ALL governed by our hormones at that age and YES. Asshole men – the so-called ‘bad men’ appeal to many women.

Let’s not pretend that despite being 2024, with social media ready to pounce and call out any bad behavior – a lot of women still claim – very gleefully – that they only like ‘Bad Boys.’ If I had a rupee for every single snigger directed towards me when I mention how I like the boring good guys – I would have enough to visit Switzerland. Again, this is 2024, and many women still like the ‘bad boys.’ So what do they think bad boys do? We live in a world where free women voluntarily write, visit, get married, and have children with inmates on death row. ON DEATH ROW!

So, let’s not kid ourselves. The ‘bad men’ syndrome just didn’t happen out of thin air.

What offended me even more is that while Vijay’s extremely offensive statements to Gitanjali triggered many but the fact that she was going to sign her life away to a stranger – all to keep up the arcane tradition of ‘arranged marriages’ alive barely elicited a whimper.

Am I saying Gitanjali made the wrong decision? ABSOLUTELY. I don’t want there to be ANY misunderstandings regarding that. But do I firmly believe Gitanjali chose to make the wrong decision – and this distinction is key.

As far as Vijay’s extramarital dalliance with Tripti Damri’s Zoya and the infamous boot-licking scene – again, COME ON! That was a very specific scene about two players with their own agendas and who are in the relationship for very specific reasons. I did not – not for one second – find anything wrong with that scene within the context of the film.

Neither Gitanjali nor Zoya are women who need saving. That they make sketchy choices is very clear. But that they make their choices themselves is also very clear.

The other three important women in Vijay’s life are his mother and two sisters. While the mother tries to make up for her husband’s behavior by looking through her son’s increasingly demented excesses and his two sisters – both of whom try to stand up for themselves in an increasingly volatile world of Animal – while I repeatedly rued the length and almost caricaturist presentation of these women in the Animalverse, I was OK with it for it felt like it was just more in keeping with the overwrought nature of the movie itself.

PERFORMANCES

  • In terms of performance – every single person is on their A game. Ranbir Kapoor is a fucking marvel. Between him and Ranveer Singh and Ayushman Khuraana, anyone who says that the best actors in Hindi cinema are in the past – I humbly ask them all to take a hike and get their brains checked. Kapoor is a once-in-a-lifetime talent who surrenders himself to the part in its entirety. He deserves every award this year for his outstanding performance.
  • Rashmika Mandanna plays the part of a young girl crazily in love with a man she knows is a psychotic asshole. While I did have concerns with her constantly speaking with her lips pursed, she plays Gitanjali as not a girl who needs to be saved but as one who chooses to be with a sociopath and who is OK with her choice. If Ranbir’s Vijay is mad – Mandanna’s Gitanjali is equally crazy. This is not a lost soul who was taken by her man for a ride. She knows him and chooses to be with him.
  • All the supporting actors are brilliant. Anil Kapoor – a marvelously controlled performance by this brilliant auteur plays the clueless father who constantly wonders who Vijay is, how is this crazy lunatic his son, and what did he do to deserve the very one-dimensional, one-note, obsession by his son pitch perfectly.
  • Bobby Deol – a worthy and stunning antagonist as the villainous Abrar. I just wish we saw more of him. Unfortunately for him, by the time we see him, we see so much negative behavior from our protagonist himself that much of Deol’s Abrar’s impact gets diluted. Abrar felt more of a distraction, an afterthought, and a plot tool to wrap up the story instead of someone who was intrinsic to the story. I wish Vanga had done Deol more justice. That Deol was able to leave behind his impact on the audience is more chance and his skill as an actor than a plot point that overdeifies the main character over the rest. One of the best scenes is towards the end when these actual brothers-in-arms separated by family greed and duplicitousness come together as a mute Abrar fights for his life with a deaf Vijay – it’s almost as if together – they make for one solid human.
  • The doting uncle played by Shakti Kapoor, the myriad turbanned cousins-turned-henchmen, all of whom collectively make an impact as the ‘bros in arms,’ the weird psycho creator of the most imaginative and made-in-India machine gun ever, the psycho gun itself, the two first wives of Abrar – who are no dukhiyaari women – who sneak out from the bloody mayhem of their husband marrying and bringing a third woman into their lives and death and destruction to smoke a ciggy and give us an insight into their agendas while marrying Abrar, and who make it very clear that covered they might be from head-to-toe, they know who they are and why they are – thank you very much – everyone played their part to perfection.

WHAT REALLY WORKED FOR ME IN ANIMAL?

  • I like how Vanga plays with editing and ends up giving us answers for questions that we had no idea we wanted to ask a few scenes ahead of time. It jerked me when he moved between times and locations without any lead-up (in writing we use transition words to seamlessly flow from one paragraph to the next) and there was no seamlessness here. His edits take you from one scene to the next without locating you but slowly you understand what’s going on. Conceptually, it started to work for me. I hope that what feels more of an overambitious plot method that almost feels amateurish, will get better with his next offering.
  • Can I just say that as a woman – having so many chaddi scenes of men in Animal gave me a voyeuristic thrill? I’m thrilled that all the gratuitous sex scenes are with men and their bodies. And given that the film is filled with really hot dudes, thank you, Vanga.
  • I loved his band of Sardarji brothers. The pre-interval block – especially with Vijay annihilating his first group of opponents wearing Animal masks to the chorus of his Sardarji brothers singing was ludicrous when you pull back and watch it. But when you allow yourself to be in the world – it was exhilarating. Those kinds of over-the-top scenes are what make this larger-than-life cinema so thrilling.
  • Vanga also shoots from the hip and takes these massive swings in drama and storytelling. Do they always work? Maybe not. But did I have a rocking solid time watching the 3+ hours film? Yes. Did I love the manic and bonkers energy in the film and his over-the-top storytelling? Oh, absolutely, yes. YES.
  • This may not be politically correct. But to me – Vanga is perhaps the most insanely original voice in Hindi cinema in recent years. I may not agree with his perspective, but guess what? I don’t have to agree to appreciate and applaud a vision that pulsates with energy and is TRYING something different.

MY ISSUES WITH THE MOVIE:

  • It could’ve been crisper. I like that Vanga stages his scenes like it’s a play. He is not scared of letting the scenes take their own sweet time. Almost every scene feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. Maybe it’s because we are now used to crisper and stylish intercuts and want things to move faster. While I liked and appreciated the slow and steady build of each scene, I wished they were crisper.
  • I also wish we had seen more of the OTHER group of brothers. In the big fight between Vijay vs. Abrar, of the 3.21 hours of the movie, we see almost 2 hours and 40 minutes of Vijay and his men versus the minuscule final 30-something minutes of Abrar and his.
  • Speaking of the antagonist Abrar – what disgusted me was when the story conveniently uses Abrar as a way to ‘othering’ a religion. In today’s charged climate, to show the established antagonist belonging to a religion that is being targeted globally and to show them as being more debased and debauched – to me was by far the most unnecessary, exploitative, and weakest link in the film. As was Vanga’s faux patriotism to his country illustrated by the ‘made-in-India’ grandfather of a machine gun. It was all so petty and unnecessary.
  • Also, if you’re one of those who questioned the almost homo-erotic nature of Vijay’s obsession with his ‘papa’ – I get you!

FINAL THOUGHTS

Are there legitimate issues with the film? Sure. But I will not join the chorus that is calling the film out for its violence, its toxic male protagonist, and its ‘messaging.’ I find the hypocrisy overwhelming. If we can all collectively sit through, admire, and be awed by the ludicrous plots and violence of the many mainstream international movies and TV shows in the world today, where the lines between good and bad and the protagonist and antagonist are blurring, then I can buy the premise of a boy-child who becomes a boy-man and who will indulge in any amount of violence to protect his one-sided love affair with his father.

I’ve heard legitimate complaints from many that the violence in Animal is glorified and that the hero does not ‘pay’ for his sins. I get that. But, not all screenplays or story-telling need to follow the classic structure. The pro-antagonist may not always get his comeuppance. That may be dissatisfying to many. But again – that does not mean you cannot write a story about a deranged nutjob and not give him the kind of denouement that you think he deserves. AKA – him getting arrested and put in solitary confinement for the rest of his life. Or given the death penalty for his sins.

But for me – Ranvijay Singh DOES get his just desserts. Is it the way that most of us would want? No. But Vijay does pay for his sins and gets his comeuppance in the end. After all his machinations to protect his one true love – his papa – and succeeding, Vijay loses his father to cancer anyway leaving him a broken and bereft man. This is a tragedy that Vijay will never get over. Again…is that what YOU think he deserves? Maybe not. But does his heart get broken at the end leaving him a broken man? Yes.

To reiterate…should we stop making films about what society deems are sketchy behavior and subjects? For me – NO. Increasingly, I’m getting to a point where I feel that art should have NO boundaries. Recently, a streaming platform apologized and pulled a film because one community got offended that a female protagonist in the film eats meat. EATS MEAT. That’s where we are now. So I would rather we live in a world where everyone gets to make art about anything they choose to. And then we – the audience – can choose whether we want to watch said art or not.

I will admit – I did not watch Kabir Singh because of the overwhelming negativity surrounding the film. I almost did the same with Animal. I will no longer do that. I will watch everything and spew my brand of hate or love only after I watch it.

I LOVED Animal. And I cannot wait for Vanga’s next offering – the even more hyper and over-the-top Animal Park which will pit Ranbir Kapoor against Ranbir Kapoor. Everyone who has a problem with that, I appreciate your perspective. I hope you will do me the courtesy to appreciate mine as well.

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About the Author

Roopa Swaminathan - The Messy Optimist

Hi...I'm Roopa. I'm also a messy optimist! I'm an academic-cum-artist. I'm a writer, filmmaker and professor of creative writing. Academically, I've a Double Masters and a Phd read more...

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