The shock therapy of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s ‘Animal’

Across human culture, from film to poetry, there have always been those who have offended popular sensibilities. However, of any piece of volatile art, we must ask a few questions

December 08, 2023 06:20 pm | Updated 06:20 pm IST

Ranbir Kapoor in ‘Animal’

Ranbir Kapoor in ‘Animal’

Like clockwork, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animalhas become a huge smash in theatres after being dismissed, with notable exceptions, by film critics. “Ranbir Kapoor plays one of the vilest protagonists in cinema history,” declared a headline in The Guardian, two days before the film crossed ₹300 crore at the global box office; it is already past ₹500 crore. It is a fast-riser among the top-grossing Indian films of 2023, which includes Jailer, Leo, Gadar 2 and the two Shah Rukh Khan juggernauts, Jawanand Pathaan. The audience response has been undeniably overwhelming. Animal, in short, has made a killing.

The thing is, almost nobody expected a different scenario, least of all film critics. It’s disingenuous, and wholly unnecessary, to wave box-office numbers in the face of hardened reviewers, some of whom — at least in India — proudly double up as trade analysts and trackers. They have a keen sense of commercial trends and a near-endless capacity to compartmentalise; it comes with the job. In 2018, after the Will Smith-led cop fantasy action film Bright emerged as a hit on Netflix despite being critically panned, the company’s co-founder and then-CEO Reed Hastings famously stated: “The critics are pretty disconnected from the mass appeal”. Hastings’ remarks betrayed two assumptions: A) that film criticism must reflect popular taste. B) that ‘mass appeal’ encapsulates cinematic worth.

Ranbir Kapoor, Sandeep Reddy Vanga on the sets of ‘Animal’

Ranbir Kapoor, Sandeep Reddy Vanga on the sets of ‘Animal’

Yet where a film like Bright wasn’t exactly chasing after critical consensus (good or bad), Animal is almost paralysed by its disdain for the woke and hyper-vigilant film critic. Ostensibly, Vanga’s film is a story of a troubled father-son relationship, and how that festers into a cross-generational saga of violence and revenge. Told straight, it would have worked as a new-age spin on The Godfather, which inherited several of its themes from Hamlet. But the director goes out of his way to needle those who took exception to his last two movies, the cult Telugu film Arjun Reddy (2017) and its blockbuster Hindi remake Kabir Singh (2019). The grandstanding, the misogyny, the sexist quips... it all feels baked in. The film is tricked out with provocations and baits, a giant Bras d’honneur four years in the making.

Also Read: Sandeep Reddy Vanga interview on ‘Animal’

The lack of substance

Across human culture, from film to poetry to advertising, there have always been those who have offended popular sensibilities. They are an essential part of any society at risk of becoming too complacent and self-satisfied. They shake up the zeitgeist and reconfigure how we perceive and relate to art. They also confront moral and societal hypocrisies. Cultural commentators, far from being snobbish and moralistic as generally presumed, have often rallied to the defence of these agent provocateurs. The landmark American film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was reproached by establishment critics for its excessive violence; yet, it was writers like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert — names now almost synonymous with the art of film criticism — who sensed and celebrated its revolutionary power.

The question we must now ask is, what is revolutionary about a film like Animal? What complex social order does it upend, and what formal or aesthetic ground does it break? The three-hour-plus runtime is a mishmash of gangster and action movie clichés. The violence is laid on thick, but also stylised and made palatable with music. If one watched Scarface, Goodfellas and the three Godfather movies in one go and registered only the cool bits, this is probably the film they will make. The script is not particularly illuminating about human behaviour or relationships. Its assertions that we are all products of our upbringing, that men act violently and territorially under duress, and that women can find such men attractive — these are not deep psychological insights. Rather, they reflect and validate the belief patterns that a vast majority of the audience already carry within themselves.

Al Pacino and Simonetta Stefanelli in ‘The Godfather’

Al Pacino and Simonetta Stefanelli in ‘The Godfather’ | Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection

The ‘shock’ factor

It’s perhaps this lack of storytelling depth that compelled the makers to rely so heavily on shock. It recalls the marketing games employed on a much larger scale by Todd Phillips’ Joker some years ago. Outrage, in the case of both films, becomes currency. Controversy becomes fodder. There is, of course, something to be said about disgust and revulsion as legitimate cinematic sensations, like horror or humour. Acclaimed and well-loved directors like John Waters, Lars Von Trier, Harmony Korine and Quentin Tarantino have often delighted in discomfiting and grossing out their viewers. Yet shock is not all they offer: Waters and Korine, for instance, celebrate the degenerates and outcasts of society; Tarantino has style and wit to burn.

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker’, the first R-rated film to gross over $1 billion

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker’, the first R-rated film to gross over $1 billion

Tarantino and Scorsese are two names that pop up in spirited online discussions about Vanga. If they can do it, why can’t he? More than these names, a director closer home may serve as a more interesting comparison point. Anurag Kashyap rose to prominence with his uber-stylish Dev.D (2009), a clear influence on Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh. Kashyap’s films have not witnessed the kind of commercial success enjoyed by Vanga (though he remains an influential cult figure). He has been supportive of Vanga’s work, defending both Kabir Singh and now Animal. In a recent interview, the director said that while he was yet to watch Animal, he was aware of the conversations it was generating online. “People in this country get easily offended with films,” Kashyap was quoted as saying.

Is Vanga the Kashyap 2.0? Is he simply walking down the path shown by the director of Gangs of Wasseypur and Sacred Games? It seems unlikely, for now. By no stretch of the imagination are Kashyap’s films or shows feminist masterworks. Nevertheless, he has a knack for writing memorable female characters in an otherwise crude and hyper-masculine world. His heroes have genuine weaknesses, they are left tongue-tied in the presence of the women in their lives. Furthermore, Kashyap’s films (and public statements) tend to punch up, be it against caste oppression or the current political establishment. Who or what is Animal trampling upon? The film inveighs against caste and religion, yet panders to far-right sensibilities. Its politics comes across as altogether garbled. For all its cheekiness, the film second-guesses itself, explaining at one point how the swastika logo featured throughout is not the Nazi variant. It’s almost cute.

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