When you’re watching a 203-minute film, time tends to feel like an illusion, but somewhere in the middle of the first half of Animal (2023), a furious Ranbir Kapoor storms into the laundry room of his palatial family home to complain about itchy underwear. It turns out that the film’s big, strong, alpha male hero is actually a softie who needs “special hand-crafted underwear” because his genitals need to be cradled in an obscenely high thread count. In sharp contrast to Lux underwear and baniyan’s famous tagline, mouthed by generations of Bollywood heroes, this is not “andar ki baat (secret)”.
It’s an intentionally hilarious scene in Animal that works because it’s self-deprecating and Kapoor plays it as earnest, deadpan comedy. What’s not to love about a macho hero whose manhood is also his most vulnerable bit?
After having spent years abroad, Ranbir Kapoor in Animal is the prodigal son who has returned to uncover the mastermind behind an attempted assassination of his father Balbir Singh. We’ve just seen him strangle his brother-in-law to death. (One might argue that it would have been smarter to have interrogated the brother-in-law in order to procure some clues about the mastermind behind this plot, but our hero is a man of action, thank you very much.) Now, he’s striding towards a group of uniformed service staff and there is an air of fearful anxiety around the moment — except he’s not here to kill anyone or even beat them up for using the wrong detergent. He just wants to preach the gospel of comfortable underwear, whine about having a rash down there, and urge you to not shave your pubic area.
At this point, we only know Kapoor as the nameless son of millionaire industrialist Balbir Singh (Anil Kapoor). He is the grown-up, bum-flashing, body hair-embracing avatar of the boy who had once wanted to christen himself Balbir II. Just before the interval, we get a dramatic reveal of the son’s name: “Ranvijay Singh Balbir,” growls Kapoor, while shoving the barrel of a gun into the mouth of a bad guy who is on his knees. (One moment’s silence for the shivers of validation and pleasure that Sigmund Freud would no doubt have felt at the sight of this confluence of phallic imagery and daddy issues. Before you can smirk smugly at the similarities between “Ranbir” and “Ranvijay”, Animal lets us know that Kapoor’s character is known as Vijay.)
Here too there is an underwear-related sub-plot. Thanks to his staff using the wrong detergent, our hero has gone commando which ironically is not advisable when handling the guns that he’s come to buy. When they’re ambushed by bad guys — who are, naturally, wearing suits and animal masks — the kurta-clad Vijay puts on (another man’s) (used) underwear. The waistband reads “X TIGER X” and has on the crotch area the head of a tiger (which might just be rhinestone-studded. This writer must confess she failed to note this sartorial detail). We can assume this made-in-India underwear is not scratchy since Vijay roars into action and kills the equivalent of a small country’s population while around him, his brothers-in-arms become ferocious cheerleaders and sing “Arjan Vailly”. At the end of the scene, when someone roars “Salute the champion!”, Vijay wilts with all the grace of a Victorian heroine.
Sandeep Reddy Vanga is routinely attacked for celebrating toxic masculinity through his heroes, but in the first half of Animal, what we get is perhaps as close to nuance that the writer-director can manage. At the heart of this coming-of-age story is a rejection of the traditional father figure and through Vijay’s teary gaze, Animal demands a father be an involved parent rather than a distant patriarch. At the risk of making Reddy Vanga and his critics break out in hives, it’s almost feminist in its critique of the father figure.
Unusually, instead of continuing tradition by modelling himself on his father — like, for example, in Virasat (1997) — Vijay is not a chip off the paternal block, despite his unwavering love for his father. While Balbir stands for restraint and icy calm, Vijay is uninhibited and fiery. Balbir’s time is past and Vijay acknowledges this by taking charge at every opportunity. Despite not having either a guide or roadmap, Vijay is desperate to establish himself as the alpha male by grabbing whatever accessory he can lay his hands on, whether it’s the virgin with childbearing hips or the gun with the most bullet-spitting calibre. Both the audience and Vijay know he’s fumbling and stumbling in his efforts to be the man he needs to be. In fact, at intermission, Vijay has very literally swooned, exhausted by all that it’s taken for him to establish himself as the alpha in his pack.
Chauvinism may be a normal part of the masculine identity in patriarchy, but Animal doesn’t let it go without prodding at it with moments of mockery and vulnerability. In a scene with his wife Gitanjali (Rashmika Mandanna), Vijay boasts that he can “be on just like that”. He snaps his fingers to show libidinal speed. Gitanjali throws him a withering look and issues a challenge by snapping her own fingers. Vijay is unable to immediately rise to the occasion — he does manage a little later, but by then Gitanjali is no longer in the mood — and in theatres around the country, audiences laugh. Perhaps it’s relief at seeing this larger-than-life hero being felled in ways that feel familiar to the everyman.
Unfortunately, all this is just half of Animal and post-intermission, the film embarks upon a campaign to refashion the portrait of flawed masculinity into one that glorifies Vijay’s toxicity and indulges in propaganda rather than storytelling. The cracks in the heroic personality are given the kintsugi treatment when Bobby Deol’s Abrar Haque is held up as Vijay’s warped mirror image. The scion of Swastik Steel — the Hindu iconography is unmistakable — goes up against a Muslim brotherhood, led by one who wears kohl in his eyes and a Mughal-style emerald necklace. One of villainous Muslims goes so far as to use the phrase “ghar mein ghuske maarenge (we will infiltrate and kill them)”, repeating the anti-Muslim rhetoric favoured by WhatsApp university graduates.
Charismatic and sexy as Deol may be as Abrar, there’s no turning a blind eye to how the character is an unmitigated villain whose surname may translate to “right”, but he wants much more than is his due. Abrar’s goal is to destroy Swastik Steel and the family who consider it their birthright. To this end, he kills with a careless abandon that makes Vijay’s pre-interval massacre seem measured — after all, Vijay only takes the lives of those who threaten either him or his family. Abrar also lives up to the stereotype of Muslim fecundity by having three wives and 10 children while Vijay’s immediate family follows the more respectable “hum do hamaare do (the two of us have two kids)” model. Vijay elopes with the woman he loves, promises to kill anyone who invades their privacy, and “teases” her by twanging her bra strap. Abrar has sex with his new bride in front of his wedding party, tears off one wife’s clothes, slaps another, and forces all three into a foursome. While Vijay inspires loyalty and love in Gitanjali, Abrar’s wives say they tolerate him because he’s rich and mute. With every scene that Abrar appears in, it becomes clear he is less of a character and more of a composite of negative, Islamophobic clichés. During their first and last showdown, Abrar and Vijay are shown as almost equal in their physicality, but starkly different in terms of attitude and personality. “If I stop, will you stop?” asks a bloody and battered Vijay to an equally mangled Abrar who replies by unzipping his pants and pointing to his crotch. The whole point of a villain is to make the hero look good, but Abrar’s role in Animal is as much to elevate Vijay as to add an unmistakable political layer to its narrative.
The saffron tint reduces Animal, which otherwise had the potential to offer a fascinating portrait of what it means to be manly in contemporary India.
Reddy Vanga’s popularity comes from his ability to articulate what many feel wary of articulating for fear of censure or incapable of putting to words. The circumstances, dialogues and plot points may be ridiculous and over-the-top, but the feelings anchoring his heroes’ behaviour resonate deeply with audiences. Reddy Vanga writes of men who are uninhibited and demand their right to express themselves. Vijay is a man-child who is broken, hurting and who thinks commenting on a woman’s pelvic bones counts as a pick-up line. If he’s rewarded for his inane actions, it comes with suffering. Sure, he’s swaddled in insane privilege, but it doesn’t insulate him from either physical or emotional pain. Vijay suffers concussions, gunshot wounds, broken bones and heartbreak in the course of the film. Despite being in crowded rooms, he’s invariably alone and misunderstood. His is a masculinity that is cracking under pressure and in the early chapters of Animal, Reddy Vanga reminds us of this again and again.
Masculinity is not an impregnable slab of muscle and conviction in the first half of Animal, but rather a labyrinth with a minefield that Vijay must navigate — that too without a proper role model since his father is just an absent presence in his life. Surrounded by social expectations, familial obligations, desire and deep-rooted insecurities, the hero in Animal is faced to confront his demons and navigate challenges that emphasise to him how alone he is. As respectful as he may be of tradition, it doesn’t help him find his way out of problems and Vijay is a hero who is trying to look ahead rather than turn back time. He’s also keenly aware that his strength and masculinity are a performance, which Reddy Vanga shows through scenes featuring underwear and juvenile dick jokes. Vijay doesn’t try to hide his vulnerabilities. Instead he talks about them, bluntly and provocatively, turning his candour into a challenge. He’s ready to talk about his feelings, but are you ready to listen?