by Leher Sethi December 21 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins, 36 secs

Leher Sethi walks us through the many reasons why as a society we are to blame as much for the toxic misogyny and sexism in the film Animal, as the makers are!

ANIMAL has got to be one of the most reviewed Bollywood movies. The reviews I’ve read can be broadly categorized into three types:

  • Reviews that call out the toxic misogyny in the movie and completely trash it
  • Reviews that acknowledge the glorification of toxicity and misogyny in the movie, but give space to creative freedom, while appreciating the acting, direction, and production quality
  • Reviews that appreciate the movie in its entirety, finding nothing wrong with the “completely normal” showcasing of toxic behavior, failing to identify any misogyny

What is concerning is that the third type that our society at large identifies with.

In December of 2019, four years ago, I gave a TedX talk about the need for breaking gender stereotypes and biases while bringing up children. The ongoing debate on the movie ‘Animal’ made me revisit the topic to try and assess if things are any different today.

TOXIC MASCULINITY SELLS: I heard about the director, Sandeep Reddy Vanga, in 2019, when his previous film, Kabir Singh, hit the theaters. It was a Hindi remake of his Telugu-language film “Arjun Reddy” - about a rich, alcoholic surgeon with anger management issues as the protagonist. Despite having been called out for glorifying toxic misogynist behavior, the movie became a box office success and was remade as a Bollywood movie with Shahid Kapoor in the lead role. The Hindi movie was an even bigger hit, becoming Shahid Kapoor’s highest grossing solo-lead film. In fact, it earned the distinction of becoming one of the highest grossing Indian films of all time.

It is said that the first creative work of fiction by a filmmaker is likely to reflect his or her own lived reality and experiences, and it seems to be the case with Sandeep Vanga - if his interviews are any reflection of his life and worldview. Here is a man who unabashedly justifies violence in relationships, going as far as to state that if there is no violence, there’s no passion or love. Fast forward to 2023, when he makes another movie with bigger stars, even bigger budgets, more toxicity, more abuse, more misogyny, and a lot more violence, almost like Kabir Singh doubling up on steroids. And the result is India’s highest grossing A-rated movie of all time! Go figure!

It is obvious that the public seems to agree with Vanga more than they do with those demanding gender equality. The audience seems to be in awe of the angry gun-wielding toxic anti-feminist, chauvinist, toxic misogynist anti-hero. Just as much can be gauged by the reaction of the people as they come out of the halls calling the movie “amazing”, “awesome’, “great”, “paisa-vasool” etc.

Violence, blood, and gore have been shown before by many others, in Hollywood and here at home as well. There are plenty of slasher movies out there to prove the point. But the justification of the sexism and toxic misogyny while portraying ‘abuse as love’ has never been venerated this way. And while I agree that it is ugly, I beg to differ with many others who seem to think that this “A-rated” movie will push young impressionable minds into aping the actions of the protagonist and becoming like him. Young people are more likely to learn and pick up behaviors from their surroundings, their family and school than from watching a one-off movie. A child who has seen others around him handle negative emotions, and grown up with empathy and compassion will most likely be repulsed by such content.

Therefore, the most likely reason Animal is drawing in the masses is because it reflects our own prejudices against women and our obsession with strong, albeit toxic and chauvinist, yet successful men. A woman is only as good as the kind of wife, daughter, sister, or mother she is to her family, and in her ability to sacrifice, to keep the man pleasured and happy.

A lobby of the urban elite have spoken and written against the movie, calling it out for its misogyny, but how does that matter? Their reviews are likely to echo within their chambers, while the producers will laugh all the way to the bank.

EXPOSING INDIAN SOCIETY’S UGLY HYPOCRISY: The success of Animal holds a mirror to the ugly hypocrisy within our society, wherein we love to talk about women’s empowerment while being inherently sexist and misogynist. The truth is that we live in a patriarchal society, and while some of us understand the intricacies of dysfunctional and toxic relationships, to most of us, these are not just familiar, but normal. That is why hitting children and degrading and disrespecting women is not something that raises a red flag for most. And that, to me, is the real issue here!

Here’s a film that confidently shows women as mere objects to be manipulated, used and discarded, while hating them, ridiculing them and kicking down any iota of the feminist idea of equality. As the movie tells you, unapologetically, that “It’s a man’s world, after all!”

Women aren’t just conditioned to think that this treatment of them is okay, but in many cases, they are enablers. Violence is considered a perfectly fine way to deal with wayward daughters in law and women who need to be ‘shown their place’. As the ninth-most dangerous country for women, India ranks fifth for intimate partner violence, which is 37.2%. About 45% of Indian women surveyed agreed that a husband or partner is justified in beating their wife or partner under certain circumstances.

India continues to be one of only 32 countries where marital rape is legal. A few days back, the Allahabad High Court noted that there is no criminal penalty for marital rape when the wife is 18 years of age or older. While the case against Marital Rape was being heard in the Supreme Court, Nageshwar Rao, who served as director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had written in 2022, “What’s the purpose of marriage at all if husband was to be sent to jail for sex against his wife’s wish, doesn’t it destroy family, ruin children and break their marriage?” He went on to say that a system where this happens is “anti-civilizational” justifying a wife’s rape. Erstwhile Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde’s observation in March 2021, on a plea filed by a man accused of rape by a woman who was in a relationship with him for two years, was “however brutal the husband is...when two people [are] living as husband and wife...can sexual intercourse between them be called rape?” In fact, the Chief Justice of India had asked a government employee if he would marry the woman who had accused him of repeatedly raping her. And to top it all, our government continues to support the exception in the Rape Law for Marital rape while citing the Indian society’s view of “Marriage Sanctity”!

Not surprisingly, there is a marital rape scene in Animal and the actress who enacted it defended it by saying that the character “couldn’t think straight” due to his brother’s death, thus justifying it. In fact, the said character violates “three” of his wives, who continue to be with him. And this, mind you, is not the worst that’s shown in this film!

MISOGYNY AND ABUSE: Abuse has been normalized in our society since ages. Our Women and Child Minister, Smriti Irani, had once put up an Instagram story saying, “When I was a kid, they didn’t take me to a psychologist… My mom was able to open my chakra, stabilize my Karma and clean my aura with one tight slap” (Read report here). Not only did she normalize child abuse, but also made fun of those who seek help through therapy. We have no dearth of celebrities and politicians making fun of mental health issues.

Every child psychologist who is worth their mettle will tell you that it is NOT okay to hit a child, and that it plays a huge role in their development. The trauma a lot of Indian men and women go through is real and painful, it continues to manifest and exist because we live in a society that normalizes toxic dysfunctional family dynamics and relationships as being okay.

It is one thing to say that the behavior of the protagonist is misogynist and problematic, but that it’s a form of artistic expression and creative freedom of the makers, and should be viewed as such, and a completely other thing to say that there is no misogyny in the movie’s treatment of its female characters. There are many saying the latter, and that is where the problem lies.

The film Animal had great potential to teach us about the effect of dysfunctional father-son relationships, and its effect on one’s mental health, but instead, it makes a joke of the entire premise. It is normal for a child to seek love and approval from a parent, and to carry the wounds of child abuse into their adult life, until they seek conscious healing through therapy or otherwise. The cycle of abuse continues through generations and generations unless it is consciously broken. But the alpha male of our society seems to think such experiences help them “man-up”. Haven’t we all heard that boys don’t cry?!

BOYS DON’T CRY: I have often said that the feminist movement and gender equality stand to benefit both sexes, male and female. One of the things that surprised me while doing research for my TedX talk was the data available on suicides. The incidence of suicide is vastly higher among men as compared to women, among all age groups, all over the world.

Almost two-thirds of worldwide suicides are committed by men! As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, in 2021, in India, the male-to-female ratio of suicide victims was 72.5:27.4. This, in a country with a society that conforms to patriarchal norms and tends to be lenient towards and even encourages toxic masculine behavior.

If men are so strong, then why are they being pushed to take this extreme step? While women are encouraged to be soft and emotional, men are most often taught to internalize their emotions, hide their feelings from their family and friends. The constant need to provide for everyone and to support the family puts pressure on men, especially while not being able to communicate the burden. Both men and women suffer from the stigma of toxic misogyny. We have been misreading fear for respect, love for blind obedience, control, and co-dependence as care for far too long!

Banning or boycotting films is not the answer. The fact is that films like Animal will continue to be made as long as people pay to watch them. It’s a simple demand and supply equation. The day the halls are empty, they will cease to get made.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.