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Blog: Dear Daughter, Beware the 'Rizz' of 'Animal' And Toxic Masculinity

2023-12-26 07:15:14

Hey Ira,

A Merry Christmas to you in Canada, with truckloads of snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Here in India, as we ring in Christmas and the New Year, we are also experiencing the season of the “Rizz” of ‘Toxic Masculinity’.

I’m sure even in Canada, this new film ‘Animal’ must be a talking point among the thousands of Indian students there. The Ranbir Kapoor- Rashmika Mandanna film is a super hit – it will have earned over Rs 1,000 crore globally by the time the dust settles. It has given Ranbir Kapoor some ‘Rizz’ at last. And it has taken the ‘Rizz’ of the director Sandeep Reddy Vanga to a new high.

Rizz is not just the word of the year, it also describes the times we live in – where the surface-level razzle-dazzle of anything or anyone is all that is needed for it, or the person, to become the talk of the town, and the flavour of the season. So it is with ‘Animal’ as well.

‘Animal’ has no Rizz, It’s plain Regressive

But if we look beneath the Rizz, ‘Animal’ reveals itself as highly regressive, a film that takes the depiction of toxic masculinity to a new level. Some of the critics and ordinary folk who have criticized the film have panned Vanga and his choices. And I agree with them. But for me, the bigger problem is the mindset of the lakhs of people in the audience that have embraced the film.

Vanga, by the way, is the same person who made Shahid Kapoor-Kiara Advani starrer ‘Kabir Singh’, in which he brought his ‘toxic masculinity spells box office success’ formula to Bollywood, after the success of its Telugu original ‘Arjun Reddy’ starring Vijay Deverakonda.

Not for the first time, a filmmaker has discovered that blatant violent male chauvinism sells, and sells really well. Vanga says violence can be part of a relationship. But what if that violence is one-sided? What if the violence is being used by a man to exert control in the relationship? What if the woman is given no agency? What if her ‘consent’ is coerced? And what if the violence in this relationship is not just one-sided, and the product of ‘manufactured consent’, but is also glorified? Surely that is not ok.

Old Toxic Cocktail in New Packaging

Vanga says he is trying to ‘engage’ the audience with such a provocative take on love. But is it provocative at all? It is actually as regressive and conventional as can be. Marital violence, domestic rape and sexual abuse of women within households is not new. Verbal abuse of wives, sisters, and daughters has been even more rampant. In India, the lack of agency for women, be it sexual, be it economic, or any other, is not new. So Vanga is not a ‘path-breaker’, he is just selling the same age-old toxic cocktail in new packaging.

The fact that this has attracted a fresh generation of cinemagoers is disappointing. It means that quite a few of our youth subscribe to such notions of masculinity. They may or may not take regressive violence and abuse in their own personal lives to the levels that we see in ‘Animal’, but it does appeal to them. It also suggests that this generation has been ‘parented’ and ‘schooled’ by a generation that also accepts patriarchy and violent misogyny as a societal ‘norm’, which our sons must carry forward, and which our daughters should simply submit to.

Expectedly, such ‘toxic’ patriarchy does play out in real life. For instance, the recently held elections for the Wrestling Federation of India. Quick backstory, as you were busy with your Class 12 exams when this toxic drama started –

‘Wrestling’ with Patriarchy, the Brij Bhushan Saga

In Jan 2023, some prominent Indian wrestlers – big medal winners like Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat – went on protest for weeks, alleging that Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, then president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), had sexually harassed at least six women wrestlers on multiple occasions between 2012 and 2022. Of course, Brij Bhushan denied it. The wrestlers protested again in April when the government failed to act. As Brij Bhushan is a very influential politician from Uttar Pradesh, it seems they didn’t want to ‘angry him’, as the saying goes. Politics and patriarchy ganged up to shut down these cases of sexual harassment.

It was only after the Supreme Court intervened that FIRs were filed. In fact, after filing its chargesheet, Delhi Police stated that the evidence against Brij Bhushan him was strong, and that he would harass these women wrestlers at every opportunity he got. The government suspended Brij Bhushan and ordered fresh elections to the WFI. After many dubious delays, these elections did happen, but were a blatant farce. The person who won, Sanjay Singh, was a close associate of Brij Bhushan, clearly his ‘rubber stamp’. A day later, Sakshi Malik broke down at a press conference, saying she would quit wrestling, and Bajrang Punia said he would be returning his Padma Shri award.

Please, Let’s Not Forget our Female Wrestlers

Fortunately, the government has responded by calling out the farce and has suspended the newly elected WFI body. But it is action taken too late. It was clear months ago that Brij Bhushan was going to field his proxies in the WFI elections, so why didn’t they act earlier? The bigger question – what about the 6 wrestlers who bravely came forward with the allegations of sexual harassment? They knew they were going up against a powerful man, they knew that in Indian courts every case of sexual harassment involves targeting the accuser as a person of ‘loose character’, they know these cases drag on for years, they knew they were putting their careers on the line – in return has their government and their federation supported them? Beyond lip service, hardly at all.

This is how ‘toxic’ and deep-rooted patriarchy can be. The Brij Bhushans of our society simply trample all over the extremely grave allegations of sexual harassment, we see them getting garlanded at election ‘victories’, we see their names being chanted by their hirelings. Meanwhile, our female wrestlers are forced to lie low, set aside the trauma of the abuse they faced, and worry about their future in the sport, and whether they will ever get a semblance of justice.

In this climate, getting blown away, or subscribing to the ‘Rizz’ of an equally regressive and toxic film like ‘Animal’, is all the more worrying, because it leaves you with very little hope. You would want a that a new generation of young Indians shrug off old thinking, but that has not happened. Instead, the opposite!

Ira, as you step into 2024, make a simple resolve – do not accept abuse in any form. Always look beyond the ‘Rizz’ in a person that you want to bring into your life. And, always demand respect from the men (or indeed anyone) in your life, do not settle for anything less.

Love, Dad

(Rohit Khanna is a journalist, commentator and video storyteller. He has been Managing Editor at The Quint, Executive Producer of Investigations & Special Projects at CNN-IBN, and is a 2-time Ramnath Goenka award winner.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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