Puri Jagannadh has issues. His career spans for over two decades, so it wasn’t exactly possible to cover everything that he wrote, directed, and produced before watching “Liger.” But I did manage to watch eight of his films: “Rogue,” “Nenu Naa Rakshasi,” “iSmart Shankar,” “Pokiri,” “Paisa Vasool,” “Chirutha,” “Bujjigaadu: Made In Chennai,” and “Neninthe.” Out of all these, no matter what the story was, Puri seemed to be hyper-focused on denigrating women, stereotyping them, engaging in egregious amounts of navel-gazing, and straight-up encouraging harassment. And the women in his movies only found their footing if they experienced some form of sexual harassment or violence or if they fell in love with a “strong man.” He showed some signs of commitment to the story at hand with “Neninthe.” However, with “Liger,” he has proven that he’s on a downhill slide of sexism and general regressiveness.
Directed and co-written by Puri Jagannadh, along with co-writers A. Sreedhar and Thatavarthi Kiran, “Liger” opens with the kidnapping of Tanya (Ananya Panday) and Liger (Vijay Deverakonda) trying to rescue her while his name is being announced at an international MMA competition. Then, after admitting he doesn’t know how to tell this story, Jagannadh tracks things back to the day Liger and his mother, Balamani (Ramya Krishnan), arrived in Mumbai from Benaras to work as tea-sellers and train Liger to become a national champion in MMA. Since they don’t have any money, Balamani guilt-trips the Master (Ronit Roy) of the dojo named Jeet Kune Do into training him. One day, Tanya mistakes Liger for some guy who trolls her on social media. After he sexually harasses her, she follows him to the dojo and falls in love with him due to his fighting skills. And then, unfortunately, the rest of the movie happens.
The entirety of the first half of “Liger” is dedicated to degrading women. Not women, in general, no. But a specific kind of woman. Those who hail from affluent backgrounds. Those who like to post their photos on social media. Those who drink and party. Those who are considered “unattainable” by the likes of working-class men like Liger. Those who are considered to be witches by “sanskari” mothers because they wear revealing clothes, apply make-up, and “entrap” men in their web of lies. These kinds of women are Puri Jagannadh’s sole target (and he readily puts MMA in the backseat to give his sexism the center stage). So, while Balamani tells Liger to stay away from Tanya (because she’s a walking stereotype), Liger’s friends tell him to “park his bike on her Mercedez” (because she’s a walking stereotype). If you need to puke your guts out at that metaphor, please feel free to.
Once you are done puking, brace yourself because there’s more. According to Jagannadh, only men are capable of achieving great things. Their dedication to their work (which is MMA), their mother, and their lover is undiluted. And while the former two offer support and accolades in return, the latter always takes advantage of the man’s simple-mindedness. To make matters worse, Liger gives a seemingly endless rant about how men like him need deceptive women like Tanya. Because that’s how they’ll get the urge to do better in their lives and prove these women wrong. After all this when Jagannadh allows Tanya to call out the toxicity and ego in men or shows that Tanya did what she did “out of love,” it comes off as superficial. But that’s not accidental. It’s very intentional. He wants the stereotype to stick so that you can disparage anything sensible that women do or say. Surprisingly, “Liger” does have a “girl power” moment as a group of women use Krav Maga to beat Liger. At that moment, it feels like Jagannadh is about to subvert his stereotypical representation of women. But then Liger tells the women that their aggression towards him makes it seem like they are taking their revenge for being impregnated by him. So, there’s that.
At this point, you must be wondering, “isn’t this movie supposed to be about MMA?” And you are right on the money because that’s the question that I asked at the interval point and when “Liger” thankfully ended. The answer is that it both is and isn’t about MMA. It’s used for fight montages, philosophizing, beating goons, and some more fight montages. So, if you are looking for something on the level of “Warrior,” “Bruised,” or even “Never Back Down,” please lower your expectations. The fight scenes in “Liger” are incompetently shot and horribly choreographed. Yes, Telugu action cinema gives its fight scenes a sense of unrealism and makes the heroes seem like superheroes with their wirework. But it feels so jarring in a movie about MMA. Then again, maybe Jagannadh doesn’t care about properly representing MMA because the final set piece takes place on a ranch with Mike Tyson instead of the Octagon.
Let’s talk about the performances. Vijay Deverakonda is clearly the worst of the lot, even though the film features Ananya Panday and Chunky Panday. The way he plays off a neurological condition, such as stammering for laughs, is a travesty. He shifts between the same two-to-three expressions—all of which fall under the umbrella of severe constipation. It seems like the only piece of direction Ramya Krishnan has received is that she has to do what she did in “Baahubali.” Her over-the-top performance in S.S. Rajamouli’s epic worked because it was an over-the-top, mythological action film. “Liger” isn’t that, and hence her performance feels cringe-worthy and hilariously bad. Going by the regressive roles she’s taking, Ananya Panday has clearly appointed herself the brand ambassador of Indian cinema’s anti-feminist movement. Ronit Roy is the only silver lining on this pitch-black cloud. Everyone else is simply horrible, and they should reconsider their professional choices before signing another film.
With all that said, is “Liger” problematic or merely a reflection of what the general audience wants to see on the big screen? Puri Jagannadh’s previous film had a scene openly glorifying a sexual assault. And it became a massive box-office hit, thereby indicating that people liked it. In the aforementioned scenes where Liger and Balamani insulted Tanya and when Puri sexualized Ananya Panday, a similar sentiment echoed through my theater. And that scared me to my core. Artists get very riled up while reading reviews critical of their work. But they should sit in the theater during the last screening of the day and listen to the things people want to inflict on those around them in real life while watching their movies. If they get disgusted, then they should make some changes in their work. If they don’t, then they should seek therapy. Because, right now, they aren’t creating entertaining cinema. They are only stoking negative attitudes against women they aren’t responsible for.
“Liger” is a 2022 Indian Action Drama Film directed by Puri Jagannadh.