Animal and the alpha beta

The Sandeep Reddy Vanga film erupts beyond sexism, forcing a raw reckoning with modern Indian masculinity.

Published : Dec 14, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

A still from Animal (2023).

A still from Animal (2023). | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

There is a thick layer of anger and resentment as well as broad-chested fandom around Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal. People have come to the film with their expectations and arbitraments so heavy on their shoulders it is impossible to see the film through this haze. Scrape at it, however, and what you get is a gleaming object of cultural resonance—a road map for, or if you are so disposed, a roadkill of, fractured masculinity.

About Vijay (Ranbir Kapoor) and the violence he unleashes when his father, a steel magnate, is shot, a scene from its blood-specked surface keeps ricocheting back to me, which, strangely, puts the film in perspective. A married couple, Vijay and Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna), have fallen into a sexual slump. He is alpha. She is fated to misery. She complains of their lack of sex. He says, confident in his libido, snap your fingers any time you want sex, and I’ll be ready.

Annoyed at his exaggeration—clearly a performance she sees through—she snaps her fingers in front of his face.

Nothing. He stands there, exposed.

He always knew he couldn’t “perform” at that moment. But what he could do is perform his capacity to perform—to make it sound like he is a bull, always raging to go. Her snap cuts him to size. What we now see are his peacocking, empty gestures.

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The film’s surface suddenly bristles with undercurrents. What we had assumed was an innate immodesty based on his big-penis syndrome is now recast as perhaps a small-penis complex, with the classic overcompensating largesse in his speech. That excessive machismo, those dialogues parched of rhythm and meaning but dripping in male fantasy, that stern posture, that know-it-all tone, is all exposed as a careful compensatory facade. It is almost as if the film cracks into place in that one moment, hours into its ear-splitting runtime.

Carefully calibrated performance

Shannon Philip, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge, makes one of the most profound ruptures in the way we think of men as a species at large in his book Becoming Young Men in a New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations and Violence in the Postcolony, an ethnography of young middle-class men in Delhi, where Animal is also set.

Rashmika Mandanna and Ranbir Kapoor in Animal (2023).

Rashmika Mandanna and Ranbir Kapoor in Animal (2023). | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Unconvinced of the activist and historian V. Geetha’s argument in her essay “On Bodily Love and Hurt” that “men do not have to worry about the consequences of ‘being a certain way’ in public”, Philip pokes holes at the idea of men as innately and comfortably sprawling beings. When they sit, their legs are spread out. When they talk, they are the loudest. What Philip asks, as he looks at the men that he spends time with, is this: What if all this is a carefully calibrated performance as opposed to a “natural” posture towards the world? What if “men’s bodies, too, have discourses of honour and respectability attached to them that operate socio-spatially”?

Examples of such respectability are the need to look “tough”, the need to not smile too much, a limited movement of hands and hips. Philip notices men when they stand smoking, facing the main market, sombre-faced; when they smoke behind the thela (cart), outside of public view, it is a looser facial landscape. To see them when they are being watched versus when they are by themselves, or in the company of just their friends, is to see a facade clap into place, a constant need to be someone else. A permanent estrangement from the self.

It is also why we do not have a single scene in Animal of Vijay by himself—what he is doing, how he is standing, that is, Vijay when he is smoking behind the thela. The whole film is a scaffolding around this performance of an alpha man. But the performance is tiring, almost silly, steeped in creepy and deliberate provocativeness. It is the gaffes that are fascinating. 

False promise

Vanga, throughout the film, keeps pushing forward moments like the finger-snap, where Vijay’s bravado wears thin or where it can be seen for what it is—pathetic. That Vanga wraps this pathetic-ness, framing frailty with pheromones, and presents it as a masculine ideal comes across as an experiment but also slips into the same peacocking as the film. In his previous films, Arjun Reddy and its carbon-copy Kabir Singh, the performances were seen as their being—this was who the men were, notwhat these men were pretending to be. Towards the end of Animal, however, when the protagonist is trying to persuade his father that his late-stage cancer can be cured, you see again that false promise played out as invincible, unshakeable selfhood.

It is also why we do not see him have sex, only hear him—and all the men around him, his gun-toting Greek chorus of an entourage—speak of sex constantly. We do not know who he is as a sexual being, or if the pleasure he gives is proportional to the pleasure he gets by crafting this performance.

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It is this performance of being male in Animal that I find both reckless and ravenous. It is easy to dismiss the film by flatly reading sexism into its provocations of sexism, reading ideology into its cinematic tantrums. Easy, and true. But the film’s text also offers a strange, harrowing possibility of modern Indian masculinity that we must grapple with, with intellectual honesty. Why are so many men, across the urban-rural, socio-economic, and even political divide, reaching out to this particular model of masculinity? What is it offering that has not been offered so far?

Sexist, problematic, violent. Animal invites these accusations gleefully, but builds something that is as yet unseen on the carcass of these accusations. The iconography of blood-drenched white dhoti with white Steve Madden sneakers spray-painted salmon pink is to see Indian and Western collide in a crimson blood rush. To see Animal insist on body hair is to counter the image of the smooth hairless body that the West has seeped into the self-image of the modern Indian man. (Philip speaks in his book of men for whom “shaving their chest hair becomes an embodied sign of their ‘modernity’”.) Reams of dialogue are spent on explaining these choices. The underwear, its thread count, and the fabric softener make for an extended cameo, milked not just for laughs but to express the fragility of this man, a delicate metrosexual icon. A babe Bachchan if you will.

None of this is meant to give the film a sociological intention. It is to give its intention—whatever that is—a sociological foundation. Vanga wants to show us broken men, as though their brokenness is what makes them flash into modernity intact and roaring. It is not Vanga’s act of fashioning the brokenness of the Indian male into rippling machismo that is the issue with his cinema.It is what this brokenness is used as an excuse for, what violence he is allowing, accessing, and making endearing under the garb of this diagnosed brokenness. What do we do when a disease—masculinity—throws a tantrum?

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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