Liger Review: An Abomination that Can’t be Saved by Vijay Deverakonda’s Mass Appeal

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Liger Review: An Abomination that Can’t be Saved by Vijay Deverakonda’s Mass Appeal

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Puri Jagannadh’s Liger could have been a solid mother-son drama. Or a reasonable guru-shishya story. Or a toxic romance that ignited social media but still filled seats in theatres. Or even a slick no-brain MMA actioner. At various points, I sincerely yearned for it to commit to being any one of these. Alas, as it stands, it qualifies as even a movie only on a technicality – there are moving images and sound, and people have to buy a ticket to watch it on the big screen. So yes, technically it’s a movie. But it is such an incoherent, poorly imagined one (not to mention just casually offensive on so many counts), it made me scathingly question why I spent so much time looking for threads to hang on to – the little positives that nearly every film has, which suggest it would appeal to someone, anyone at all. By the time Liger reached its beyond-bizarre climax, my only thought was that this was a waste of a great movie ‘title’.

By the time Liger reached its beyond-bizarre climax, my only thought was that this was a waste of a great movie ‘title’.

There is one big positive, to be fair. Vijay Deverakonda. No matter how awful a film is, he is rarely the problem with it. He ups his game here, as a mass-movie star. Deverakonda scorches the screen when he moves or throws about his shaitan-may-care swag. For viewers of a certain disposition, he is the Dolo the film offers as relief, along with the pain it inflicts. Its substantial 140-minute runtime goes by quicker than you’d expect, only because Deverakonda is always all-in, expressing and exploding with abandon, yet somehow relentlessly bubbling just under the surface at the same time.

He, of course, is at the centre of the film’s token plot. A mother-son duo arrives in Mumbai all the way from Varanasi (in the Hindi version), because they have a dream. The late husband/father was an ace MMA fighter himself, but he couldn’t win the national championship. And so, the boy wants to fulfil his dead dad’s dream by winning it himself. He is named Liger because his parents are ostensibly akin to two vastly different but equally ferocious big cats. The unseen father was the lion, we’re told. Ramya Krishnan channels enough Sivagami (from Baahubali) to be effortlessly believable as the tiger. In Mumbai, they seek out a particular coach (Ronit Roy) who can train him and help him become champion. The coach agrees to do so, but he warns young Liger that with championship-level ambition, focus is everything. Specifically, ‘no girls’. Cut to – the girl. From the moment Ananya Pandey’s Taniya turns up, all bets are off, because the film becomes nothing, nowhere, all at once.

For viewers of a certain disposition, Vijay Deverakonda is the Dolo the film offers as relief, along with the pain it inflicts.

The heart goes out to Ananya Pandey, because she is fully committed to the ditzy, wannabe influencer with a gold-plated heart. But then, it doesn’t feel like anyone involved in the film thinks too highly of women in general. There are two different monologues, one in each half, about women as ‘chudails’ who only exist to trap innocent men and then break their fragile hearts.

They’d argue that Pandey’s character gets a redemptive arc with a late twist, plus the only fight scene where Liger is shown to properly lose is when he’s taken down by a gang of women. I’d argue in turn that the very first lines spoken by your protagonist in the film before you flash back to the actual story, refer to the woman as a ‘khilona’ for the man to play with. We’d go back and forth on this argument with no resolution, but your film could still possibly end up promoting the notion of women as mostly toys or witches with a redeeming factor or two thrown in.

Even the stereotypical training montage is a bland one that ends soon after it begins. This film can’t even do clichés properly.

Instead of the moronic love story it spends so much time on, the film could have built on the many masala-entertainer elements it dabbles in. Like the protagonist with a stammer, who can only say the word ‘fighter’ without a hint of difficulty. (The stammer is, instead, used throughout the film for lame comedy.) Or the coach who agrees to train an unruly but talented fellow for free, only because the boy’s father was the only one who defeated the coach back when he was in his.

Any martial arts trainer will first tell you about the importance of self-control. This one does too, but the entire coach track in general is completely irrelevant. There’s no real growth in the protagonist, because he just doesn’t seem to need it. Liger is a fully formed fighter from the get-go, but he doesn’t gain an ounce of self-control through the film. Even the stereotypical training montage is a bland one that ends soon after it begins. This film can’t even do clichés properly.

I tried to justify it to myself on the makers’ behalf, by thinking about how the film has so many scenes without a head, tail or context, that the grand finale deserved to be the crappiest of the lot.

Despite myself, I was somehow invested in the ‘fulfilling father’s dream’ angle of the story. But the national championship is quickly breezed through, so that the film can squeeze in a ‘deshbhakti’ angle. Our hero must prove that Indians are no less than anyone else in the world, by winning at the international level. Then, after deciding that not one of the goals and ambitions established for the protagonist have any importance at all, the climax involves an absurd fight sequence with a geriatric Mike Tyson. I tried to justify it to myself on the makers’ behalf, by thinking about how the film has so many scenes without a head, tail or context, that the grand finale deserved to be the crappiest of the lot.

Then of course, there’s the ‘everyone speak whatever language you want, we’ll just dub over it’ treatment of the film. Deverakonda himself mouths lines sometimes in Telugu, other times in Hindi. It’s hard to imagine how they got this one so wrong. Just a straight-arrow, underdog sporting drama with predictable beats would have been so much more fun with a lead like Vijay Deverakonda to root for. His stardom will survive this film, but the injustice to a cool title like Liger will hurt for a bit.

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