White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Hindi Movie Review: Animal may end up being a mess, but it’s often a rousing one, with a truly wild lead performance

Ranbir Kapoor stars in Sandeep Reddy Vanga's Hindi-language "Animal," here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

Clocking in at three hours and 22 minutes, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal is the kind of sprawling opus that wins a baseline level of audience admiration through scope of ambition alone. Even as its soap opera-esque dramatics occasionally make it feel more like a television miniseries strung together for theatrical consumption than a bona fide movie, there’s something undeniably bold about the sheer amount of plot that writer/director Vanga squeezes in here.

Even if the material isn’t exactly the most cinematic at the script level, Vanga’s stylistic influences are clearly the kind of films that occupy the biggest screens: The Godfather, Scarface, Kill Bill, John Wick… not to mention all the Bollywood references I certainly missed as a very recent convert to Indian cinema. The term masala film is typically used to describe Indian movies that blend multiple genres into the same work; Animal doesn’t necessarily qualify in the traditional sense, but it combines so many stylistic reference points, watching it can sometimes feel like you’re being pulverized by an immersion blender to the head.

The movie’s strong sense of swag becomes increasingly apparent as it ramps up to its high-body count action sequences, but even before this point, Vanga indulges in his excessive, decadent sense of aesthetics as he introduces and develops the title character. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen exposition this grandiose – and I mean that as a compliment. It helps that Vanga’s leading man, “Superstar Ranbir Kapoor” (as the opening titles credit him), is incredibly game to play in his director’s depraved, pulpy sandbox. His character’s name is technically Ranvijay Singh, but if there ever was an antihero who earned the moniker “Animal,” he is it.

Ranvijay’s character arc is pretty compelling for the first half of the film, largely because Kapoor sells it with such conviction as he inches towards outright psychopathy. He’s the only son of Balbir Singh (played by Anil Kapoor), the owner of Swastik Steel and the richest man in India. From an early age, Ranvijay’s father is his entire world, but this love is not necessarily well-reciprocated, with Balbir working long hours and often neglecting his family. This dejection shapes Ranvijay into a young adult who, to put it very mildly, has some impulse control issues.

Ranvijay is able to keep the animal inside of him at bay as he spends most of his early adulthood alienated and distanced from the family after a shotgun wedding with childhood crush Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna), even as he continues to desperately yearn for his father’s approval. But when he returns to the family compound following a near-successful attempt on Balbir’s life, Ranvijay – now a father himself – begins to transform at an accelerated rate. The ensuing power trip is not so much about protecting his status as heir, but rather Ranvijay’s warped sense of the measures he must take to preserve the family’s name and influence. Ranbir Kapoor’s performance is equal parts magnetic and terrifying as his character increasingly resorts to violence to protect the empire his dad and grandfather built before him – often in a manner totally incongruous with his father’s wishes, but one that his primal, disturbed brain sees as the only path forward.

As the threat to the Swastik empire crystallizes and Ranvijay staffs the front office more like a turban-donning mafia outpost than a steel company, life grows increasingly violent. The film boasts several of the bloodiest, most breathtakingly constructed action sequences since John Wick: Chapter 4 at the beginning of this year. By far the most memorable is the showstopping set-piece just before Intermission that sees Ranvijay fight hundreds of men – first with a machine gun, then an ax, then hand grenades, and then finally the luxury version of a tank gun (imagine the Tesla of tank guns, emblazoned with the words “MADE IN INDIA”). Unfortunately, much of this absolutely stunning stretch of film violence was spoiled in the marketing for the movie; if you haven’t already seen this, go into the film cold and prepare for your jaw to drop.

Sadly, for as compelling as the first half of Animal is, carrying a real head of steam going into Intermission, the second half fails to serve as a truly satisfying payoff. Filmmaker Vanga always keeps things suitably epic, but it feels like he does not truly know where he wants to take the main character or the story. The film certainly flirts with continuing Ranvijay’s spiral into animalistic madness; even when he requires a heart transplant, he doesn’t skip a beat in his violent conquests to preserve the family’s dominance. But Vanga stops short of letting Kapoor go “full Nicolas Cage” in the role, preferring to preserve a bit more traditional approach to a mob boss saga. This feels safer and more conventional than what we were initially promised.

The characters that enter the mix in the second half also aren’t very well-developed, instead coming across as plot-movers when Animal already has more than enough plot for one movie. Without spoiling too much, we learn that the man responsible for the threat to Balbir’s life – and the family empire – is a relative with unfinished business. Unfortunately, there’s not much of a compelling backstory here to shine more light on the characters within the family; the villain really could have been anybody. There’s also a second love interest for Ranvijay as his marriage wilts, Zoya (played by the stunningly beautiful Tripti Dimri), in a subplot that will surely elicit groans from many.

As I reflected on how hollow these second-half additions to the story were, I realized that no character in the film beyond Ranvijay – even Balbir – ever had much dimension. Ranbir Kapoor’s lead performance was simply so captivating during the first half that I didn’t actively notice that those around him weren’t really given much to do. They are simply archetypes servicing the larger crime story; only the central character has real texture. In particular, Ranvijay’s wife Geetanjali is shorted meaningful nuance as she watches this man descend into barbarism before her eyes. There was real potential for her character to meaningfully reflect on her husband’s transformation, especially given that his more moderate impulsivity in their youth was what initially drew her to him, but instead she retreats into the nagging wife archetype.

The supporting cast’s lack of development would be less of an issue if it felt like Ranvijay’s arc developed and concluded in a powerful way in the later stages of the film. But as I suggested earlier, Vanga and Kapoor struggle to stick the landing for the antihero. It seems that for as exciting as they find Ranvijay’s violent mania and his complicated feelings revolving around his father, they don’t truly know what they want to say with the character. As a result, rounding out his arc proves to be an issue. They ultimately decide to have Ranvijay actively talk through his “Daddy issues” in a way that feels way too on-the-nose in a film built on intrinsic character development. This proves neither illuminating nor satisfying.

Still, despite an especially meandering final hour, including a mid-credits sequence that comes across as unrelenting overkill, Animal remains a technical achievement. There’s a ton of good stuff in here that makes it compulsively watchable, even if it never coalesces into the film that it could have been. The craftsmanship on display is impressive – not just in terms of the action sequences, but the cinematography in general, as well as the dynamic music by JAM8, Vishal Mishra, Jaani, Manan Bhardwaj, Shreyas Puranik, Ashim Kemson and Harshavardhan Rameshwar. I cannot necessarily endorse a movie that feels as scattered as Animal does in its second half, but I also concede that the film is so epic and so ambitious that you still kind of have to experience it for yourself. Go forth.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

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