At one point in Animal, Vijay (Ranbir Kapoor), asks his wife Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna) that if she could forgive him for killing hundreds of men, why could she not reconcile with him copulating with another woman? After all, both are on the wrong side of the moral boundary and respond to the same ethical itch — of Vijay wanting to protect his family. The anxiety of giving a complimentary pass to this conservative male angst and the inherent misogyny that is stitched into it, will inevitably raise the heads of those wanting to occupy a moral high ground. Director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s frustrating preoccupation with both drawing out an empathetic portrait of his delinquent alpha male hero while absolving him of indiscretions, emits a warped energy. He claims the men of his filmography are portraits of obsessions, rather than examples of masculinities that need to be emulated. Yet he gently tends to his protagonists when they cross the proverbial line, unable to separate himself from these very portrayals.
Two things are locked in an aggravated tango in Animal: Our presumptive apprehensions around the film after witnessing the inadequately remitted intimate partner violence in Reddy Vanga’s previous films, and the director’s preoccupation with carving out an anti-hero on a gory, manic quest to be seen by his father. This haywired Vanga film flits between immodestly pumping up the muscular bravado of its protagonist, and then bonnily undercutting Vijay’s cockiness with the reverberations of this same flex. One could argue that the director is so excruciatingly transparent in the delight he takes in lathering and twisting his critics’ moral convictions, the provocations in Animal end up poorly resembling a floaty, teenage angst rather a dangerously organised worldview that destabilises the tilt of our world.
The hero of Animal seesaws between being glorified for his monumental masculinity even while being cut down to size by the everyday. After having survived an epic battle, he is reduced to being the patient standing in a puddle of pee when his urine bag is the casualty of a fight with his sibling (he confesses the truth about murdering his brother-in-law; his sister reacts by hitting him). The moment is played for laughs with Vijay telling her to not worry about the urine and justifying murdering her husband in almost the same breath. Are these punctuations where Vijay postures as the ‘alpha male’ — his heart is literally failing him at this point — indictments, or do they soften to make the titanic bravado consumable? From the film’s perspective, it’s the latter. The texturing in the otherwise chest-thumping narrative underscores a softness: The skin can be wounded and these wounds are corrosive.
Returning to what our hero imperviously asks of his wife: Why should infidelity chafe, if not murder? The answer lies in one of the organising principles of the hero in mainstream Indian cinema — his redeemability is located in his romantic equations where he reigns in his vile whims to allow for tenderness, warmth. His capacity to love is a heroic vulnerability. It’s curious that film that is so determined and belligerent about being provocative, turns coy when it comes to showing desire. Vijay has no compunction talking about sex, pubic hair and his penis, but Reddy Vanga shies away from showing Vijay and Geetanjali doing anything more than kiss. There’s arguably more eroticism in the way Vijay and Abrar grapple with each other, stripping off their shirts, than Animal allows Vijay’s and Geetanjali’s pure romance to have.
In the haze of bullets and blood spray, Vijay’s decision to remain unflinchingly loyal to one woman is his moral centre. He had vowed to never lie to Geetanjali, or cheat on her at the beginning of their courtship. That Vijay sleeps with Zoya (Tripti Dimri) — interestingly, we do get a hint of a sex scene as well as more of a post-coital tableau with this couple in the nude — even if it is as a strategy to uncover who is plotting against Swastik Steel, is crossing a line that’s considered sacrosanct in the genre. Although Vijay later tells Geetanjali his infidelity was triggered by a virtuous intention, Vijay and Zoya’s relationship is not shown as a utilitarian transgression — he orders his cousins to treat her with the same respect as they do his wife.
It isn’t until we’re introduced to Abrar Haque (Bobby Deol) that it becomes clear that in Animal, Vijay occupies the higher moral ground, despite his indiscretions. Abrar, with his three wives, 10 children, three brothers from other mothers and casual attitude to extreme violence, is distortion personified and Islamophobic tropes come to life. A man who assaults his wives on his wedding night; who thinks nothing of walking through a neighbourhood in a dressing gown and gunning down innocents, Abrar is deliberately brutish. Initially he flaunts vices with an obnoxious obviousness that contrasts with Vijay — Abrar’s polygamy stands in opposition to Vijay’s monogamy; his emerald necklace and jewel-coloured outfits are a contrast to Vijay’s monotone palette; his lack of concern with ethics versus Vijay killing only those against whom he has evidence of wrongdoing.
These dividing lines are slightly blurred in just two instances. One is when Vijay chooses to break his promise to Geetanjali by having an affair with Zoya. The second is towards the end of Animal, when our hero uses a kirpan (dagger) to inelegantly and obstinately cut through Abrar’s neck. Yet even here, there are metaphorical safeguards that Reddy Vanga puts in place. After all, the kirpan is no ordinary dagger. It’s prescribed by the Sikh code of conduct and given to Vijay by a Sikh man to end a hand-to-hand combat that has been raging for hours between Abrar and Vijay. Intentionally or otherwise, this feat of stamina ends up being played as a tragicomedy with all the men on screen watching the fight seemingly bored by it.
Here is the thing about obsession, which is a thread that connects the three films in Reddy Vanga’s filmography: It demands we obliterate our tedious impulse to moralise. It demands that these strategised fits of rage, acted upon with impunity (social media is thronging with questions about the absent law enforcement), are exonerated, leaving the hero in his cloud cuckoo land of daddy issues.