Director: Puri Jagannath
Writer: Puri Jagannadh, Prashant Pandey
Cast: Vijay Deverakonda, Ramya, Ronit Roy, Ananya Pandey
Can we assume Liger's writer and director, Puri Jagannadh, hates women? Actually no, that can't be true. He is indifferent to them. Because even to hate, you must first consider them worthy of bestowing feeling, any feeling. A few days ago a clip from his last film iShankar (2019) was being swapped on Twitter, of the hero and heroine using rape as mating call. The woman in the scene calls the police, moaning a complaint that a man is about to rape her, but she isn't serious about this allegation, heaving and giggling in horny abandon between feeling threatened. By the time the police arrive, the man and woman are in love, coiled on the bed together. It is as though Jagannadh, who has made 34 films in his 22-year career, never considered what a woman's relationship to the word rape is. Like when Imtiaz Ali makes his heroine walk drunk on a lonely Delhi street at night, it is clear that these directors think of their female protagonists as catalysts, rather than characters.
In Liger, Taniya (Ananya Panday) plays catalyst to the titular Liger's (Vijay Deverkonda) ambitions of being a mixed martial arts (MMA) champion. In the words of Liger's sidekick, while he is hakla, she is halwa; he stammers, she sweetens. After flirting egregiously with him — and by egregious I mean one vodka-fuelled gibberish jaunt and one romantic romp punctuated by a hand-job hookstep — she ruthlessly breaks up with him. So he sees her face in all the men he pummels in the ring, and wins a national MMA championship. Love, that rotten thing that drives men mad, that women spew like a web of conceit.
That Ananya Panday would want to do this role — of a bimbo who craves social media fame, clapping her hands like a seal every time a selfie is on the cards — speaks volumes of how she sees herself as an actor. If Panday cannot but see herself as a meme, what else is left for the trolls to do?
Jagannadh has been called out in the past for the misogyny in his storytelling and keeping that in mind, how he frames Taniya's character doesn't come as a surprise. In a scene where her brother confronts her about her affection for Liger, instead of the usual over-the-shoulder shot, the director deploys a behind-the-hips shot, where the camera is looking up at the brother, foregrounding Panday's waist, bare throughout the film.
There is a fight sequence in the latter half, where women trained in Krav Maga beat Liger up. As revenge, he stalks one of them — who's surprised that Jagannadh picks a bald, black woman as Liger's target? — and then puts her in a chokehold after beating her up. That producer Karan Johar would bankroll this film casts severe doubt on his decision to never have item songs in his films. Feminism is merely a trend that producers like him are excited by. The economics of being boycotted by the urban audience is too much for producers who made their money as the multiplex revolution took over cities. Feminism isn't a value, because values don't exist to make your life easier, your business meatier.
In Jagannadh's pandemic project, a podcast on his life philosophy called Puri Musings, he dedicated an episode to girls (not women; girls). This was his advice: "Don't look for six-pack abs. Don't wait for the rich guy. Prefer comfort over style. Reduce heels and lipstick. Don't project yourself like an item girl." Jagannadh tells them to be educated, get a job, be a strong and independent woman, and when you are on your period, prone to making bad decisions, make sure you have a guide.
Why is Taniya, then, the antithesis to this advice? Is that why he refuses to humanise her? Since her character wears lipstick, high heels, short dresses, refuses to labour in any respectable way, and giggles, he can move her around the story as he wishes? Like reverse engineered sexism, there seems to be a certain brand of incel culture that Jagannadh, like his mentor Ram Gopal Varma, has tapped into. It is not just comfortable sexualising a certain kind of woman — which itself isn't wrong, for desire is a thing, too — but also proud of it, thumping its chest as though its reactionary stance makes it iconic.
Let me not pretend to either be horrified or offended by the film. All I had was a vague feeling of being glued to a screen, armed with irony as a defence mechanism, for Liger's 140-minute runtime. The film's promotion had an unhinged quality that was so compelling, stylish and memorable — remember just the image of Deverakonda, naked, with a bouquet of red roses as his fig leaf; a poster with no text, no information, just raw sexual energy? The music videos had this manic thrust, of seeing limbs move in a permutation and combination never thought of before. Deverakonda's loud, staggered tossing of words into the air seemed like a performance pitched beyond the barometer of good or bad. The dichotomy here was entertaining or not entertaining.
Billed as a bilingual film, apparently shot in Telugu and Hindi, Liger is instead partly shot in Hindi, partly dubbed in Hindi. Ronit Roy, Ananya Panday, and Chunky Pandey all speak in Hindi. Liger's mouth is sometimes dubbed over or synced. He is supposed to be from Benaras. A chaiwala in Mumbai. Doesn't matter. These aren't backstories to deepen character but to assure us that these people did not drop from the heavens as half-formed manifestations of herohood, of a man who runs towards fire. Each relationship — with Liger's mother (Ramya Krishnan), with his coach (Ronit Roy), with his lover (Panday), with his idol (Mike Tyson) — is, similarly, not given the space to sculpt into anything resembling affection, awe, acid, anticipation, anger, or arousal.
After Liger wins the national MMA tournament, he insists on competing in an international one. When he is flown to Las Vegas, the film tumbles into another patchy purgatory, of love for the nation and of Taniya being kidnapped by one Mark Anderson — in the opening credits, Tyson's five-minute cameo is given a billing above Ananya Panday. Both are immediately forgotten under Jagannadh's directorial thumb. The pride angle is entirely discarded and Panday smiling and pouting as a kidnapping victim saps any possibility of worry, sympathy, or concern. This is not a film we can feel through, merely endure.
So what begins as a sports drama loses that seething edge quickly because unlike Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz (2017), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Toofaan (2021), or Pa. Ranjih's Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), Jagannadh does not have the capability to stage a tense, rousing sequence. Instead the pummels are played out in the ring to a song not a score, with hypercuts. There is even humour to mask this simple cinematic incapacity. A fight sequence — without any of the tension, any of the stakes, any of the sweat — begins to have the texture of comedy, and when the jokes and gestures don't stain, the scene crumbles to dust. It is an entirely separate grouse that Jagannadh cannot distinguish between being funny and being silly. We can never laugh with his characters, only at them. Similarly, he is unable to stage love as anything but funny or sticky. There is no desire in this film because how can a meme and a moth make love?
There is this general insolence in the script because Jagannadh is looking for moments that can be, somehow, stitched together. And he does spend considerable attention and time crafting these moments — like Taniya being kidnapped and her looking out of the slick black jeep, windows down, wind in her hair, screaming for help; like Liger smiling with wicked charm bulging in his black mouth guard; like him thrusting in the boxing ring as a victory dance; like him shoving a stick on the ground, dust rising. Svelte moments in a story that does not know what to do with them, packaged with the brashness of a filmmaker whose filmography has begun to look like hotbed of sexist fantasies and half-formed stories, a conveyor belt of money made to horrify the weak-willed snowflakes who just want a kinder, more charming world.