“My head is an animal...,” goes a line in a famous song from the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men. Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s protagonists — thick-headed creatures of privilege and entitlement — are all badly-behaved men who could easily pass for monsters. After Arjun Reddy (2017) and Kabir Singh (2019), two films about a chain-smoking doctor with anger issues, the director returns with Animal, his second Hindi feature, about a chain-smoking engineer with deep-seated daddy issues. Yet no matter how bleak and paleolithic his view of human instincts, he also wants us to stand in awe of his heroes, even admire and empathise with them.
Ranvijay (Ranbir Kapoor) is a rich Delhi brat who grows up idolising his father, industrialist Balbir Singh (Anil Kapoor). Balbir is stern and emotionally unavailable, which messes up Ranvijay’s circuitry from childhood. He steals away from school for his dad’s birthday; years later, when his own brother-in-law addresses Balbir as ‘papa’, he gets angry and territorial. Familial terms annoy him in a general sense too — for instance, his childhood crush Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna) calling him ‘bhaiya’ (brother) publicly. Now a grown man, with a bike and bun mullet, he commands Geetanjali to break off her engagement with another dude and marry him instead. It’s unexplained why Geetanjali responds so fast (perhaps she has watched Kabir Singh and understands the consequences if she doesn’t).
Ranvijay and Geetanjali emigrate to the US, raise two kids, spend their initial marital life in unaltered bliss; not a glimpse of which Vanga has the patience or delicacy to show. His films are charged and propelled by twisted notions of love, but he has no real knack for the mechanics of love stories. Even a simple romantic interlude, without a tease or a snub or an unprovoked sexual boast, becomes too difficult for the director and his co-writers Pranay Reddy Vanga and Saurabh Gupta to handle. Instead, they cut directly to six years after, when Balbir is shot by unidentified assailants on a golf course. Returning home post-haste, Ranvijay, now a bearded brute, takes charge, his intentions to fortify his family’s safety clashing with his all-consuming thirst for revenge.
Kabir Singh, a monster hit, was widely criticised for glamourising misogyny and toxic masculinity (the hero slapped his girlfriend, OD’ed after a heartbreak, spouted self-pitying gasconades like “I’m not a rebel without a cause... nor a murderer with a hand blade). Ranvijay, very much a murderer with a hand blade, is Vanga’s cheeky expansion of this cinematic landscape. There is a stream of steadily escalating provocations that are pure critic-bait. The word ‘toxic’ is uttered in the opening minutes. There are two kinds of men, Ranvijay proclaims to Geetanjali: ‘alphas’ and all the other poetry-writing wimps. His father’s company — Swastik Steel — is not a ‘Nazi’ enterprise, the hero takes pains to point out. It’s a juvenile, self-aggrandising approach to filmmaking: a commercially successful director showboating to fans while keeping his detractors fuming.
Unlike The Godfather, an obvious model for this film, Vanga isn’t ‘investigating’ chauvinism or codes of honour in a large patriarchal household; it seems ingrained in his general approach to plot and character and dialogue. Ranvijay’s territorialism — he is Michael and Sonny rolled into one — naturally extends to all female members of his family (“You are a strong, independent woman,” he tells his elder sister, having killed off her equally-cruel husband). His mother stands by on the edges of the plot. Geetanjali is a more vociferous character than past Vanga heroines — there are a handful of lengthy fights between her and Ranvijay — but it is revealing that her breaking point in the story comes with him leaving the marital bed; a more crushing offence in the writers’ conception than the violence or neglect.
For all the bluster and self-contradiction in Vanga’s stories, he appears somewhat on track when exploring and unclasping the male psyche. Because, each time Animal becomes an action film, it loses its edge. An extended battle in a hotel lobby is suitably messy but has the overall design of music videos. Kapoor hacks and slashes over music, blood splattering everywhere, yet the scene lacks the pizzazz and punch of a Tarantino or a Karthik Subbaraj. It’s left to Bobby Deol —details of whose role are better left unrevealed — to introduce some much-needed ferality to this film.
Vanga has a circuitous way of editing that occasionally pays off but often stalls and annoys. The film is simultaneously too bloated and too thin for its three-hour-plus runtime. Ranbir Kapoor spins a career mixtape: the swagger of Sanju meets the cockiness of Bombay Velvet meets the angst of Rockstar. Anil Kapoor does much of the emotional heavy-lifting with those tired, regretful eyes. There are a couple of intriguing performances on the fringes; our picks are Shakti Kapoor as Balbir’s soft-spoken consigliere and Babloo Prithiveeraj as a comically-outsized heavy.
Animal had the chance to claw out a fresh, psychology-driven path for Hindi action movies, at a juncture when it’s challenged (and frequently outstripped) by superior products from the South. The raw, lacerating violence that Vanga promised his critics, he hardly delivers. Like many before him, he seems more tempted by franchise potential than telling a controlled, coherent story. “Confidence is a medicine but...,” a doctor tries to tell Ranvijay. She can’t finish her sentence. He has already shut her off.
Animal is currently in theatres