Theatrical release posters of Jawan (Red Chillies Entertainment) and Animal (Bhadrakali Pictures Production).

Jawan & Animal: Violence, Fatherhood, & Two Recipes to Challenge the Capitalistic System

Ankush Banerjee

Note: This work contains spoilers.

One can’t help but notice how two of the most talked about films of 2023, namely, Atlee’s Jawan, and Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal, had at their narrative core, the resolution, or lack thereof, of a father–son relationship. Traditionally, the father–son relationship, in popular imagination, has been associated with, and emblematic of, either the struggle for, or succession of power between one generation and another. While Classical psychology had articulated such patterns under theoretical frameworks such as Freud’s Oedipus Complex, contemporary scholars like Deleuze and Guattari radically argue how the same Oedipus Complex and its associated frameworks are used to suppress and control human desire and perpetuate the capitalist system itself.

Coming to the films, I argue (and illustrate) how both are in conversation with, and complement each other, and what binds them is their fundamental resistance to the contemporary capitalistic system, which they accomplish in their unique ways.

To briefly recollect, Jawan is a multi-generational story of an Army officer, Vikram Singh Rathore (Shah Rukh Khan),and a nefarious businessman and arms dealer, Kalee Gaikwad (Vijay Sethupathi). Rathore ensures Gaikwad’s company is blacklisted for supplying defective weapons to the Army, which have caused a crucial mission to fail, leading to the death of several army officers and soldiers. Driven by a strong sense of justice, Rathore convinces the government to blacklist Kalee’s firm. As an act of revenge, Kalee kills Rathore and implicates him in a false case of treason. When the Police come to arrest them, Rathore’s wife, Aishwarya (Deepika Padukone), kills two of the corrupt policemen. She, thereafter, receives a death penalty, leaving behind their son, Azad, who grows up in the same women’s prison. Azad emerges as a vigilante who, supported by a group of women convicts, compels the government, through their daring acts, to address issues of corruption (in healthcare, farmer loans, voting etc.). We realise that Kalee has been hand-in-glove with the government, and Azad and his troupe are the real heroes trying to disrupt the corrosive, corrupt connections between Big Businesses (aka Kalee) and the government, and the ways this nexus profoundly affects marginalised people i.e. farmers, lower-caste groups, women etc. Only later do we realise that Rathore isn’t really dead, but had lost his memory. He is resurrected to reunite with Azad. And together they clear Rathore’s name. In the end, we see not only Rathore regaining his memory, but the father and son hanging Kalee in the same jail where Aishwarya was hanged.

Thematically, Jawan carries echoes of the Angry Young Man era of India Cinema (late 1980–early 90s) that witnessed Amitabh Bachchan’s characters rebelling against both State apathy and dubious, corrupt businessmen. Jawan similarly pivots around fighting the State–‘bad capitalist’ nexus, wherein the latter is Dickensian in scope. Kalee is all evil. Though early on, we realise the film’s moral vocabulary needs exactly such an all-encompassing ‘bad capitalist’ to convincingly portray the deleterious after-effect of Capitalism poisoning the Welfare State with neoliberal ideologies. Just as it needs a vigilante interpellated within the State system i.e. Azad, to epistemologically challenge State–Capital collusion, from within.

To elaborate, Rathore was an Army officer. The subtext of the film relies on the fact that Rathore, as a State subject, is tied down by the State system to cause not more than a passing dent upon Kalee. The military, effective as it is, is an instrument of the State. At best, what Rathore could do, and eventually did, was to deploy a State mechanism against Kalee i.e. getting his arms manufacturing business blacklisted. We realise that the real protagonist has to be something more. And here comes Azad.

Curiously, like his father, Azad too is enmeshed within the State matrix as In-charge of the Women’s Prison. He, too, is a devoted subject of the State. But there is a fine difference. Azad has something that Rathore doesn’t, and eventually even loses i.e. access to collective memory of the pre-revolutionary event of his mother, Aishwarya’s hanging, passed on to him by maternal figures such as Kaveri amma, and other women inmates, who bring him up. It will be important here to recollect how feminist historical discourse has emphasised the importance of oral traditions as a source of knowing about women’s lives, given that traditional sources often neglect this aspect of history. The story of Aishwarya’s wrongful hanging being passed down to Azad through the aunts and didis (sisters) is also significant to recognise how a counter-argument to pervasive hegemony (in this case that of State–Capital collusion) can be forged i.e. through the preservation of collective memories of trauma. Seen this way, Azad’s characteralso signifies a sensitive, empathetic masculinity forged and moulded through feminist practices.

To add, film scholars have highlighted how in numerous films, the woman/mother-figure is symbolic of the nation, and vice versa. A film like Mother India (1957) starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt and Raaj Kumar is the most telling example of this. In this context, Aishwarya’s hanging at the behest of Kalee becomes symbolic of the ‘bad Capitalist’ strangulating and triumphing over the State. And Azad becomes an extension of how the State responds to this.

Coming to Animal, its plot consists of a busy-as-hell businessman and millionaire father, Balbir Singh (Anil Kapoor), who neglects his son Ranvijay (Ranbir Kapoor) to a point that his son’s infinite admiration and love for his father, unreciprocated since childhood, becomes an angry bruise. This bruise manifests as acts of extreme violence, to a point that such violence becomes the structuring element of the film’s (and the protagonist’s) social reality. At some point, Ranvijay’s behaviour becomes unacceptable to Balbir. Ranvijay is told to leave home when he can’t stop doing what he does — mercilessly beating up his sister’s bullies, and getting into confrontations with his wily brother-in-law. Eight years hence, when Balbir is attacked by unknown assailants, Ranvijay returns to avenge the attack, orchestrated by sons of the Haque family i.e. Abrar (Bobby Deol), and Asrar (Prithviraj). Haque Sr. had been humiliated and chucked out from Balbir’s Company. This humiliation haunts the Haques, who want to kill Balbir. When all the cards are laid on the table, Ranvijay and Abrar are locked in a full-blown tale of revenge. Later, Ranvijay kills Asrar in a horrifying 18-minute sequence of violence, and then Abrar, in a nine-minute harrowing physical, shirts-off, brawl.

If in Jawan we meet the ‘bad capitalist’, in Animal we come across the ‘good capitalist’ i.e. hardworking entrepreneur Balbir Singh leading a company full of dedicated, loyal workers.

However, unlike in Jawan, the figure of the State is conspicuously absent in Animal’s filmic landscape. Violence is committed. People are killed. Some stabbed, others shot. One wonders, why the State doesn’t interfere, ever! And one realises looking closely, that the film is located within the very unconscious of the capitalistic realm. And the clue to this comes from understanding what Ranvijay symbolises. At the face of it, he is the perfect son. He is devoted to a fault.

Through each act of his, while we are convinced what he does is wrong, we can’t help but tell ourselvesthat it was the justifiable, though not morally correct, thing to do in that situation (according to the narrative logic underpinning Ranvijay’s character). And this conflict is what the plot plays on.

Perhaps the clue, both to disentangle this conflict and explain Ranvijay’s character, lies in recollecting what Freud wrote about the fantasy object, when he said, “If what subjects long for most intensely in their fantasies is presented to them in reality, they nonetheless flee from it.” Ranvijay, in his ruthless devotion to the capitalist–patriarch (Balbir), in his killing efficiency, and in his terrifying amorality and misogyny, is Capitalism’s most delectable fantasy. Albeit, a fantasy it can’t face, much less stomach, or rid itself off. Hence Ranvijay becomes a challenge for the Capitalist system, arising from within its very core.

If Jawan is premised on the power of collective memory being passed to the son and later healing a father’s amnesia to redeem them both, then Animal pivots on a son’s raw, unadulterated obsession with the father (the symbolic, authority figure), for whom forgetting is not possible. Ranvijay’s dogged admiration for his father borders on neurosis from which he can’t recover. There is no space for feminine intervention here, only misogyny. Remember, when Ranvijay’s wife, Geetanjali (Rashmika Mandanna) points this to him, he holds her by the throat.

This is also the root cause of why violence unleashed in Animal is so destructive, whereas that of Jawan is redemptive. In Animal, the use of violence ultimately tends to reify those very power structures Ranvijay aims to overturn, by enmeshing him into that very same system. And that is why he is not, and cannot be, a good father to his own children (he fires a gun while his children are sleeping in the same room) — something he has fervently desired from this own father. This is the most compelling of contradictions at the heart of the plot, as well as the clearest key to dismantle and understand what Ranvijay symbolises.  

Jawan ends with a sense of deliverance because the violence committed in the dénouement (Kalee’s hanging) occurs within the confines of a legitimate, State-sanctioned space i.e. the prison, and Azad’s acts are imbued with a sort of moral legitimacy he derives from the collective memory of his loss — something Ranvijay doesn’t have access to.

However, to be sure, while both Ranvijay and Azad symbolise a challenge to the capitalistic system, Ranvijay is more threatening of the two because he is located within the unconscious of the system, unlike Azad who operates from outside the Capitalistic system, albeit with State-sanctioned legitimacy.

Ankush is a poet, Masculinity Studies Research Scholar, and Reviews’ Editor at Usawa Literary Review

X: @ankushbanerji09

Instagram: @banerjee.ankush99