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Sandeep Reddy Vanga Wants To Make Toxic Films – But He's Not Okay With Criticism

The smear campaign Vanga has (at worst) engineered & (at best) encouraged is deeply disturbing.

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When I was young, adults around me would often leave me with an aunt and go watch films in theatres. They would then read a review in the newspaper, agree with it, and move on with life. Sometimes, they'd read a review in the newspaper, disagree with it, and move on with life.

A gesture so routine that I didn't quite dream up a scenario where I'd actually end up missing it. Just like the times when filmmakers made art believing in an ethical responsibility, times when the word "intellectual" was a good thing we aspired to become.

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Rifts between what critics think of a film and one's personal opinion have always existed. But what is new is the tactic wherein a filmmaker fans a troll army as it unleashes a series of extremely vicious attacks on critics who have reviewed his film unfavourably. And the reality is way more bitter than a case of sour grapes.

Unleashing an Army of Trolls

I haven't watched Sandeep Reddy Vanga's Animal and I don't intend to. So this is not a review of his film, but a review of the way he has attacked film critics for not liking his film. What is even more disturbing is the widespread smear campaign Vanga has (at worst) engineered and (at best) encouraged. 

On 1 December, independent film critic Sucharita Tyagi called Animal a "desperately dull" and "terrible" film. The film team waited a good 16 days to then quote-tweet her to post its box office earnings. Their "untamed cinematic brilliance" had made Rs 817.36 crores. They even slipped in the word "Invictus," perhaps not knowing how the 1857 William Ernest Henley poem had been quoted by Nelson Mandela, but also by men who have bombed churches and gunned down people in mosques.

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Days later, a video snippet from an interview with Connect FM Canada started making rounds on X, where Vanga names critics Rajeev Masand, Anupama Chopra, Tyagi (who he calls "That Tyagi girl" in spite of having said her full name several times in older interviews) and claims they are "literally illiterate" and "uneducated" when it comes to films.

Apart from the fact that it is deeply unprofessional, it is a calculated tactic to direct trolls at the direction of these critics who have made the grave mistake of not liking a film this man spent a billion making.

If I had made Rs 800+ crore on something I think is a masterpiece, would I even care about what three critics – two of them who are independent of any publication – even think of my film? 

This gross pettiness isn't even the main problem here. Vanga fans – all of whom use words like "feminist" and "critic" with contempt – seem to be deeply rattled at critics calling out the toxic masculinity in Vanga's film (yet again). Their problem is not that there is this all-pervasive misogyny in the film but the fact that this toxicity isn't seen as a good thing.

There is a demand for alpha men to be celebrated, worshipped, and be surrendered to. Any critic that refuses to acquiesce to this, is "pseudo" in the books of Vanga and his followers.

When you don't say what they want you to say, they'll flex their big bucks, throw a tantrum, call you names as if their very existence depended on it. The emperor wears no clothes but a pox on you and your mother if you call him naked!

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"People get angry when you question their belief systems," Vanga had said in an interview with Chopra after the release of his earlier film, Kabir Singh, perhaps issuing a prophecy unwittingly. His belief system enshrines the right of a filmmaker to make films with no ethical responsibility – fine, each to his own – but it also demands that he is allowed to do so with no consequences.

Vanga wants to make toxic films but also wants to be adored for making them. His fans want to be called "alpha men" but also want to be praised for being one.

All the while hiding behind fake accounts with a minuscule number of followers, cheering on a man who says, "If you can't slap or touch a woman wherever you want, I don't see emotion there" in a country with one of the highest incidences of domestic and intimate partner violence.

The Larger Picture

The aversion to criticism and the reluctance to engage with consequences is, of course, not just a feature of misogyny; it's also a highlight of the project of tyrannical nationalism and censorship.

The same men who go after Ranbir Kapoor for saying he likes to eat beef later turncoat to praise a film which ends with the actor pointing to his crotch (allegedly Vanga's message to his critics).  

For people who have, for the last nine years, heard, "Why don't you go to Pakistan?" for expressing any word of dissent, Vanga's attack on his critics with, "The way they talk, they should go to China to teach English," will seem eerily familiar. (The latter, of course, has an added flavour of racism, but I digress). None of this is surprising. Not even the number of tweets that accuse these critics of favouring "films like Pathaan and Jawaan."

It's not even a dog whistle and a quiet stand-in for Muslim actors anymore; it's an out-and-out bold proclamation of a State-ordained bigotry.

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It is of course, a part of a larger, insidious project. On 10 November, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published the draft of the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 which aims to regulate the content that is streamed online – this includes independent YouTube channels (notably, this is Chopra, Masand, and Tyagi's main outlet along with journalists like Ravish Kumar).

It will institute government-approved committees that will need to certify content before it can be released on OTT platforms and will establish a Broadcast Advisory Council that will report program code violations to the government.

What these codes will be, will obviously be decided by the whim and fancy of stakeholders who stand to gain from a selective censorship that silences naysayers and dissenters. Men like Vanga call critics "parasites" because he believes he is being denied the king's share of power that was never his to begin with.

"I will show them what violence is," Vanga had promised Chopra at the end of his interview. And with Animal, he has delivered.

In a society with an ever-diminishing space for dissent, where every last dissenter is bullied by an army of nameless, faceless, homophobic (the trolls will repeatedly make fun of X accounts that display gender pronouns) bigots who make threats and live up to them, criticism is not important but necessary.

Film criticism reflects a society's relationship with its arts and with censorship. Many kinds of cinema and its critics have ended up playing mouthpieces to the State and its rule that is markedly violent and masculine (yes, women have been co-opted into this project too, that doesn't make it any kinder to them).

Naturally then, journalism and criticism (of any kind) has been weaponised and used as a means to either further the narrative of the State or as a means to attack anyone who stands in dissent. State-sponsored censorship inhibits the creation of courageous cinema, and therefore it also births timid criticism. 

It is in perpetrating this timidity where the axes of nationalism and misogyny meet. The fight against timidity will not be won by sheep who feel brave hiding behind fake accounts, it will be won by writers who will wake up and choose to pick up a pen, a camera, a ring light, or a cell phone and call out the absolute moral bankruptcy of an artist. It will be won by editors who stand by their reporters, and it will be won by members of the audience who refuse to be amused by rape jokes and Nazi salutes.

The ugliness of it all may not let it seem like it, but we'll keep winning as long as the words we write and say compel men to look into their pants deep in the throes of insecurity – either to point at their crotches or to fetch out wads of cash their film has made. It may be a lot of money but all too meagre.

(Bedatri D Choudhury is an independent journalist. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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