Spoiler alert: This article contains major spoilers of ‘Animal’ including story and plot points.
In the initial days following the release of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal, much of my time was spent reading reviews of the film from various sources. The liberal mainstream media shared its views on the toxic masculinity depicted on screen to an extent. Film critic Anupama Chopra said she missed Kabir Singh, Vanga’s previous controversial protagonist, who she said “felt like a stable functional human being” in comparison to Ranbir Kapoor’s character in Animal. Despite the assigned low ratings ranging from 1 to 2.5 on average, theatres were consistently packed, and the film is expected to surpass the seemingly unattainable target set by Pathaan.
The recurring themes in most reviews of the film included the father-son conflict, traumatic pasts, misogyny and its violent forms, bloodshed, extramarital affairs, and the embodiment of alpha masculinity, among others. But many chose not to address a pertinent element in the film: the ‘Muslim villain’ archetype.
If the general argument against Animal’s hyper-masculine celebration of misogyny and violence is that it may contribute to a larger societal issue, and that repeated exposure may normalise such violence, it prompts a critical question. Has our society reached a point where the demonisation of Muslims on screen is virtually imperceptible to them?
At this point, it’s not the Islamophobia or the propagation of anti-Muslim sentiments in these multimillion-dollar Bollywood films that is alarming. It is that very few are talking about it.
The father nation and the returning Muslim
Let’s depart from Animal’s non-linear narrative and unveil the story sequentially. Two Sikh brothers, Rajdheer Singh (played by Suresh Oberoi) and his unnamed counterpart, jointly establish the Swastik company. Their partnership sours due to the unnamed brother's treacherous intentions. After enduring a series of betrayals, Rajdheer expels his brother, who leaves Indian soil and immolates himself at a later stage. Upon the company's inheritance by Rajdheer’s son Balbir Singh (Anil Kapoor), the estranged brother’s son reemerges, unwarrantedly demanding a share in Swastik. Balbir, however, claims this man has no rights to the company.
This son then undergoes a religious conversion to Islam, engaging in three to four marriages and fathering numerous Muslim children. The eldest, Abrarul Haq (Bobby Deol), becomes the film's central antagonist, relentlessly seeking vengeance for perceived wrongs against his father and grandfather. As the climax approaches, Balbir’s son Ranvijay Singh (Ranbir Kapoor) confronts Abrar, posing a pivotal question: “Tell me that you won't go after my father.” As Abrar dismisses it, Ranvijay decisively slits Abrar's throat in a bid to save Balbir. In this poignant moment, the father figure symbolically represents the nation itself, under threat from avenging returning Muslims.
The concept of ‘fatherland’, in contrast to ‘motherland’, was envisioned by Hindutva ideologues to establish subjects connected by a ‘bond of blood’ and not ‘by birth’. For Hindu nationalist leader VD Savarkar, anyone who is born in India can call it the ‘motherland’, but it becomes ‘fatherland’ only through ancestry and love for the land. In his book Essentials of Hindutva, Savarkar says that even if Muslims have a claim on this ‘fatherland’ because their fathers converted to Islam in India, they still can not be considered Indians/Hindus. This, according to him, is because a staunch desire to serve the father emerges only if they have a ‘sacred’ relationship to the land, which he says is lacking in Muslims, Christians, and Jews, because they have different ‘holy lands’. Savarkar claimed that only Hindus, whose pitrubhu (fatherland) and punyabhu (holy land) are both India – the cradle of their culture, can be true nationalists of the country.
As per this masculine imagination of the nation, the safety and service to the father/fatherland becomes the primary responsibility of the son, despite any historical conflicts that may have arisen between them in the past. It does not matter if the ‘son’ had to face anti-Sikh, anti-Christian, or caste-based violence in the country.
Animal visualises a specific characteristic about its protagonist Sikh family – their ability to seamlessly embrace Hindu, Christian, or Sikh identities. This fluidity is exemplified through their participation in pooja rituals, consumption of cow urine, and attendance at church. Thus, these three identities become mutually exchangeable and embraceable occasionally.
Savarkar identifies Sikhs as Hindus in the larger sense of Hindutva, because their fatherland (cultural/ancestral origin) and holy land are inside the geographical imagination of India. For Christians, he gives a ‘concession’. Though they are not connected ‘by blood’ to India as their holy land is elsewhere, he claims they are amenable to the political cause of Hindutva, are less fanatic, and behave as ‘honest citizens’. So for Savarkar, Sikhs are an integral part of Hindutva, and Christians can be a part of it too without being portrayed as a millstone around the necks of ‘nationalists’.
These multiple degrees of mutual exchangeability is depicted in the film, where the Hindu ritual of drinking gaumutra becomes an easy and respectable act for Ranvijay, whereas in the church, he gets suffocated and ends up disrespecting the priest.
In stark contrast, the Muslim identity is portrayed as a partition and complete departure, achievable only through conversion, as exemplified by Abrar’s father. This Muslim is also a global figure with many homes, with connections to Iran, emphasised through an Irani song during his third marriage, and references to Istanbul. This Muslim also keeps coming back to his land which he left by choice, once asking for share and then as someone loaded with revenge. Then how can this return be stopped?
The recurring trope of ‘returning Muslims’ reflects the persistent political discourse surrounding a perceived threat to the nation of India since the 1947 partition — an idea encapsulated by the ‘betrayed Muslim brother’ character. The Union government’s solution to this ‘Muslim problem’ was the discriminative Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, which defined the expected ‘returnee’ in Indian body politic as Hindu, while the Muslim became the supposed ‘deportee’.
In a scene in the film, Balbir Singh says his issue with Abrar’s father was that he returned to ‘demand’ his share of the company, and not to seek Balbir’s help — drawing a parallel with a statement made by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the Constituent Assembly, in response to a motion seeking the continuation of a separate electorate for Muslims. “You have got what you wanted. You have got a separate state and, remember, you are the people who were responsible for it, and not those who remain in Pakistan. You led the agitation. You got it, what is it that you want now? I don’t understand. In the majority Hindu provinces you, the minorities, you led the agitation. You got the Partition and now again you tell me and ask me to say for the purpose of securing the affection of the younger brother that I must agree to the same thing again, to divide the country again in the divided part. For god’s sake, understand that we have also got some sense… There will be generosity towards you, but there must be reciprocity,” Patel had said.
The subsequent generation of ‘returning Muslims’ is depicted not as demanding, but avenging. The next generation of Patel is always claimed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) more than the Congress. Balbir’s son Ranvijay’s solution in the film, of slitting Abrar’s throat to cut off all possibilities of him reaching his father, gets realised through BJP’s CAA project in the case of the Muslim and the nation.
The CAA is not just exclusionary to Muslims, but also inclusionary to everyone else in the larger fold of Hindu India – the nation’s embrace of all returning individuals except Muslims. To put it simply, from the old slogan Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, Aapas Me Sab Bhai Bhai, one ‘Bhai’ has been cut off. In this context, various identities – Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian – become mutually exchangeable and embraceable under the broader umbrella of Hindutva, mirroring Ranvijay's adaptability to multiple religious identities except Islam in the film.
The aesthetics of Islamophobia
In Animal, Ranvijay strides through the crowd in the company’s grey uniform, a luminous ‘swastika’ adorning the stage awaiting him. He positions himself in front of this emblem, delivers a sombre speech, and is met with resounding cheers of “Shakti, Pragati, Vijay” (power, progress, victory) from the crowd. The scene is starkly reminiscent of how another ‘son of the nation’ once stood in front of another swastika in the west of Europe, delivering his fervent speech to an audience that echoed his words. Does this collective cheer resonate with Nazi Germany’s haunting echoes of “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!" (“one people, one realm, one leader”)?
Sandeep also seems to aesthetically refurbish Islamophobia right from the introduction of the character Abrar. A violent, polygamous Muslim is portrayed amid beautiful flowers, accompanied by a traditional Iranian song ‘Jamal Kudu’, which roughly translates to “Oh my love, my beloved, my sweet love.”
The film’s anti-Muslim tendency is further exemplified in the evident sexualisation of Zoya (Tripti Dimri) in comparison to Ranvijay’s wife Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna), the violence unleashed by Abrar’s brother Aziz, the sequences of marital rape, and also Abrar’s wild and irrational bloodlust – as illustrated by his killing of the man who brings him bad news during his wedding.
The Islamophobia embedded in Animal’s aesthetic choices, however, has largely gone unseen by critics, with the discourse around the film being reduced to misogyny and alpha maledom. The thematic essence of the film delves not merely into misogyny but extends further into Hindutva, its inherent Islamophobia, and the resulting misogyny intertwined with the concept of a ‘fatherland’. In terms of aesthetics, it aligns with Nazism and Fascism.
The necessity of a Muslim villain
Let’s reimagine now, if the returning son of Rajdheer Singh’s estranged brother had not converted to Islam and remained the same lineage, like in the 1992 Tamil film Thevar Magan or the 2010 Hindi film Raajneeti, how would it have affected the story line? The answer is, it wouldn’t have. But clearly, a Muslim villain, without being outrightly anti-Muslim, was a necessity for the movie’s makers, for which conversion has become a tool here.
So what is the necessity of a Muslim villain in a movie, which for the first time uses the words “Superstar Ranbir Kapoor” in its credits? In an industry that has been dominated by the ‘Khans’ for multiple decades, especially after the 90s, the right wing in India has made multiple attempts to attack these Bollywood superstars due to their Muslim identity. A Hindu Bollywood superstar has been an eternal longing for the right wing in India, and over the years many Hindu heroes have become poster boys for these efforts, pitted against the superstardom of Shah Rukh, Salman, and Aamir.
This was first attempted with Hrithik Roshan, who made his debut as a lead actor with Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai in 2000. At the time, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray had praised Hrithik’s performance, publicly claiming that he was better than Shah Rukh Khan. The Shiv Sena celebrated Hrithik as the ‘Hindu superstar’, with Thackeray asserting that he would support Hrithik if he faced any trouble at all within the film industry.
Islamophobia became concomitant to Hrithik’s films after Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai, as is visible in both Fiza (2000) and Mission Kashmir (2000). The portrayal of the ‘Muslim woman’ in both of these films is especially noteworthy.
Similarly, in a film that presents Ranbir Kapoor as a ‘superstar’, the Muslim villains and Islamophobia, and the highly sexualised Muslim woman who bends down to lick the boot of the superstar, are tropes employed for a specific reason. A Hindu superstar can only be imagined by defeating the Muslim villains. The villain’s conversion to Islam is not just about aesthetic additions, it is also meant to create a new superstar for Bollywood.
Faseeh Ahmad EK is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad.