As the world awaits the octagon return of Jon ‘Bones’ Jones as a heavyweight, India has got its ‘pan-Indian’ star, Puri Jagannadh’s Liger, up in the MMA Cage. And he has beaten his role model, Mike Tyson in a no-holds-barred match. Yes, the legendary, if controversial, boxer is not an MMA player but the character he plays in Jagannadh’s world is. Maybe an equally dramatic Conor McGregor was too expensive for the director or maybe the director decided that boxing and MMA are ‘same-to-same only’.
But, Liger is not a movie where you should try to find logic. For this is a movie that raises many questions but answers none. Why is this guy, born to a regular, a very angry woman, and a dead MMA fighter, called a crossbreed? Why would a woman from Banaras repeatedly address her son as saala? Why would a hip Mumbai teenager wear feathers in her hair? Why would Ronit Roy explain what is MMA to students who have been already training for MMA? Why wouldn’t a billionaire have the ransom money or be able to arrange for it to free his abducted daughter? Why would someone carry an empty suitcase instead of putting papers at the bottom and fake notes on top? Why would a journalist randomly appear at Marine Drive with a boom to interview Liger? Why is a dubbed movie being peddled as a Hindi movie? Why is it the ‘Bollywood debut’ of Vijay Deverakonda? Why is he a Pan-India star? What were the cast and crew members smoking when they agreed to work on this project? But, the question that will really haunt you is… Why does this film exist, especially in 2022?
It is a story of a Mumbai migrant. It is the story of an underdog. Our hero comes to the city of dreams with his mother, the hero opens a chai thela, a local bhai comes for hafta and the hero beats up the goondas, the hero wants to become a fighter, the hero finds a coach in Ronit Roy, the hero takes panga with fighters of a rival gang, the hero falls in love with a rich girl, the hero wins the championship, the heroine is abducted, hero saves heroine, etc.
Now, the plot is as unique as a ’90s movie, and the treatment is as jaded. Even the clothes the heroine and her friends wear seem to be picked up from a retired kabadiwala’s vintage stock. And in the center of this world is the crotch thrusting wannabe thirst trap, Vijay Deverakonda, in and as Liger–an underdog playing an underdog. Now, Deverakonda is treated as a phenomenon– the outsider who has made it big in the insanely nepotistic Telugu film industry; he is the star who is so down to earth that he wears chappals to public events. But my problem is that often we get too invested in and swayed by backstories and off-screen shenanigans. Is Vijay Deverakonda really as good an actor as he is projected to be? Based on just his performance in Liger, the answer is a resounding NO. In a time and age where most actors take their craft seriously and are mostly a talented bunch, Deverakonda can at best be regarded as a sincere but mediocre actor. In Liger, he is given a speech impediment and his stammer here is even more irritating than that of Aamir’s (another hugely-overrated actor) hmmmss in Laal Singh Chaddha. But probably the worst thing about Deverkonda, the actor, is that the emotions he portrays seldom reach or reflect in his eyes and this lend a rather inauthentic vibe to the scenes, especially in the first half of the movie. Yes, he has built a gorgeous body for the role, but so did Aditya Roy Kapoor in Rashtra Kavach Om. Acting is not a fancy dress competition and there is a bit more to it than just looking the part.
Now, on the other side of the spectrum of the insider-outsider debate is the heroine of the movie, Ananya Pandey. She plays Tanya, the rich bimbo, papa-ki-pari stereotype, and her act oscillates between varying degrees of ‘irritating’ and cringe. I honestly want to like her and I think she faces a lot of flak just because of her backstory—her being the daughter of an actor and being born in a film family. But she makes it so difficult. She has zero chemistry with Deverakonda and is mostly seen prancing around and making cute faces like a pre-teen. But then, the script hardly gives her an opportunity to redeem herself as an actor. More than her acting skills, she needs to focus on her movie choices.
Ramya Krishnan as Liger’s ‘tiger’ mom is the worst character in the movie and her performance is unnecessarily loud and over-the-top. She seems to be acting in some folk theatre or Raamleela. Then there are times when you can almost hear her scream Amrendra Baahubali instead of Liger—the pitch, the mood, the vibe, and the widened, rage-filled, pink eyes, eyes are the SAME. And it doesn’t work.
Ronit Roy, Bollywood’s favorite coach, is the only actor who does his job well. It is difficult to fault this dimpled actor in the role of the MMA instructor. However, he hardly has much to do apart from mouthing some motivational quotes.
However, the real problem of this film is not even the sub-par acting by the majority of the cast members. It is the story. No, the story doesn’t have plot holes but is in fact a fish net—plot holes are strewn together with near-invisible threads of the storyline.
There is a rich-girl-poor-boy love story, an underdog story, a sports drama, a story of a person with a speech disability, a story of an Indian conquering the world, etc. But the writer/director rushes through every scene investing zero time or effort in building or fleshing out any of the ideas he is trying to incorporate into the plot. The result is an exasperating tale of sound and fury signifying nothing. He believes in easy and convenient resolutions of conflicts thwarting the audience to build any emotional connection with the characters. The underdog hardly has to struggle, he gets everything, including a free coach and free private jet, almost on the platter alienating the audience from his journey.
Moreover, the story sold as that of an underdog’s fight to become an MMA fighter is essentially that of a guy with a stammer and a toxic mother trying to land a rich girl. There are hardly any scenes of hardcore training that an MMA fighter needs to undertake, the actual MMA fights are shown as rushed montages which are so boring and lackluster that during one such fight scene I found myself googling Mike Tyson’s height, the fake Undertaker scene in Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi, the speed limit on Princess Street flyover, before wondering if Makarand Deshpande’s curls are better than Deverakonda’s, and moving on to read a rather raunchy Whatsapp conversation of the guy sitting in front of me and mentally correcting the typos (that’s why you should not WhatsApp while sitting in a movie theatre, people can actually read what you are typing).
And the icing on this layered shit fest is a robust dollop of misogyny. Liger’s mother constantly calls women churails and talks about them in the most disparaging ways possible (also, in a bizarre way she thinks it is ok to try and motivate her son by asking him to think of every opponent he faces as his father’s killer…I mean….whaaa!). Given the upbringing, it doesn’t come as a shock that Liger has zero respect for women (unless it is his mother or it is someone he randomly decides to call sister) and on multiple occasions is on the verge of physically assaulting women. There is a scene where he grabs the neck of her shirt in a café and then there is one where he tries to attack Tanya with a hockey stick. While surrounded by women fighters, he asks ‘Maine tujhko pregnant karke chhora kya?’ as the reason for their rage and tells them they won’t find a husband if they don’t mellow down (because of course that is the sole purpose of a woman’s existence).
That a Puri Jagannath would be steeped in misogyny and there would be random objectification of women is a given, but what is hilarious is one scene where the director tries to be woke– it is so contrived and out-of-place that it is almost cute!
This Liger is hardly the sprightly animal teeming with the raw energy that the trailer had promised. The only agile beast that manages to pack a punch is the camera of D.O.P Vishnu Sarma. I didn’t mind Sunil Kashyap’s background score or the songs—the lyrics are quirky if a tad problematic. But in a movie stacked with concentrated lumps of misogynistic cringe, the songs work as breaths of fresh air. The Hindi dialogues by Prashant Pandey have gems like ‘chal todfod kar’, ‘aaj gadbad ho gayi…let’s party hard’ apart from the ludicrous and cringe-inducing churail monologues. He also pens the most poignant dialogue that sums up the entire experience that is Liger: “Mein kahani sunane me kamzor hu par try karunga.”
Well, one should have tried much harder.