‘Animal’ dares to ask: Do we crave violence?

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Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s mammoth blockbuster, Animal, has ignited a firestorm of polarising opinions that continue to simmer. It’s hard to recall another film in recent times that has sparked such fervent debates. From deliberately depicting toxic alpha masculinity and anti-feminist themes to its controversial dialogues, the movie continues to fuel heated discussions. This isn’t a review of the film, but rather an experience I had watching it twice (yes!): once in a high-end multiplex in India’s capital, and then again, in a quaint single-screen theatre in a small town.

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What struck me was how, despite the contrasting settings, the audiences cheered and celebrated the ultra-violent, blood-soaked scenes in Animal. The reaction, spanning vastly different demographics, has left me contemplating: What does this strong fascination to violence signify?

In Animal, violence takes centrestage. It is no longer a mere plot device but the primary attraction. Here limbs are shredded, eyes extracted, and heads severed from bodies in agonising slow motion. Blood, once a symbol of transgression, is now savoured, spilled across the screen with sickening relish. We’ve been exposed to gratuitous violence on screen repeatedly, but with Animal, it seemed like the film communicated beyond Hindi or Punjabi — it spoke the language of violence itself. It’s raw, unrelenting, delivering a gut-wrenching impact that lingers even in scenes where physical fights aren’t taking place.

Vijay (played by Ranbir Kapoor) demanding his girlfriend to lick his boots, his cohorts cracking indecent jokes about her, or Vijay strutting naked in his garden and his sidekicks firing bullets in celebration, the indirect violence too, is relentless. Even after the credits roll, a nauseating scene lingers, challenging sensibilities. The stark intensity of violent masculinity stares back at you, leaving an impact that’s hard to shake off. Astonishingly, this disturbing post-credit scene depicting human slaughter received a thunderous applause from the audiences leaving the theatre.

It reminded me of another Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), the ‘angry young man’ from Deewar (1975). But his anger was the anger of disillusioned youth, who rebelled against the perceived injustices of society in the 1970s. While it was also often misdirected and destructive, it stemmed from a genuine sense of frustration and alienation. In Animal, the hero is the son of the ‘wealthiest businessman in the country’. His anger is not rooted in social injustice, but rather in his own narcissism. Even his idea of romance is toxic. Meeting the girl on her engagement day, he asserts belonging to the alpha male group — protectors of women since ancient times. He suggests that non-alpha males, unable to impress women, introduced softer concepts like poetry and gentler forms of love.

Before Animal, several recent films like Leo (2023), Jailer (2023), Vikram (2022), KGF2 (2022), RRR (2022), Pushpa (2021), and Vanga’s earlier creation Kabir Singh (2019) have spotlighted toxic masculinity or disturbingly intense violence. While these themes should ideally provoke alarm or desensitisation, the audience’s resounding reaction and overwhelming support indicate that not only are we embracing it, but also applauding its brutality. Despite social media debates, there seems to be little real action taken to address or mitigate this trend.

Compare this with the legendary action film Sholay. Ramesh Sippy had originally shot the climax where Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) brutally kills the dreaded dacoit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) — a moment that felt like poetic justice. However, the censor board objected strongly, believing that such brutality from a sane protagonist like Sanjeev Kumar could negatively impact viewers. Consequently, the climax was altered, with Gabbar being handed over to the police — an entity that doesn’t even exist in the universe of Animal. The absence of legal repercussions minimises the seriousness of the violence, reducing it to a mere spectacle.

What does this collective interest in graphic violence say about us? Interestingly, it taps into the phenomenon of alpha male rage — an anger devoid of concrete context. The facts and reasoning take a backseat, giving way to an emotional narrative meticulously crafted to validate the protagonist’s (Ranbir Kapoor) fury. But if you notice, this emotion isn’t confined to the realm of cinema. In an age where anger seems to be on the rise, fuelled by social media echo chambers and political polarisation, it reflects an underlying societal desensitisation to brutality. The lines between reality and fiction blur, leading to a society where acts of violence are viewed with a chilling indifference. The echoes of fictional brutality can be heard in the real world, where hyper-masculine violence becomes a form of entertainment and even a tool for amusement.

Curiously, this cinematic violence echoes the gore of the action films of the 1980s, often regarded as the bleakest decade of mainstream Bollywood. The eccentricity reached its peak in 1987 when a 52-year-old Dharmendra starred in six mindless but successful action films in a single year. These included the ultra-violent Hukumat, the biggest hit of the year by revenue, and Watan Ke Rakhwale, in which Dharmendra ripped the villain’s stomach open with his bare hands. However, two years later, the landscape transformed with the emergence of two romantic superstars: Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. If history repeats itself, there is hope. Yet, before that, we may witness a full cycle of gore and its box office celebration (including the sequel to Animal). That prospect should provoke unease and concern.

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