In the opening minutes of Liger, a voiceover describes the title character as a slumdog from the streets of Mumbai who is aiming to win on an international podium. Though overused, this underdog template can still make the cut if a writer-director has a story that stays true to its milieu and engages the audience. Liger, helmed by Puri Jagannadh and headlined by Vijay Deverakonda, however, comes across as a lazily written film that moves from one song/stunt sequence to another.

Liger (Vijay Deverakonda), whom his mother Balamani (Ramya Krishnan) describes as a crossbreed between a lion and tiger, is good at mixed martial arts (MMA). Hailing from Karimnagar and raising him on her own, she has moved to Mumbai to see him as an MMA national champion; the mother and son make ends meet by managing a tea stall. They seek the help of a coach (Ronit Roy), though they cannot afford the fee. Balamani is a feisty character who does not bow down; she reveals an emotional story that cuts the ice with the coach. 

Puri gives Liger a handicap — a stutter. He can land several punches in the time he strings together a sentence. Predictable scenes follow in which Liger is ridiculed by the students of MMA and he has to fight to earn their respect. 

Once Liger’s potential in MMA is established, the story introduces the leading lady who is characterised as a dimwit who is both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious, and annoying. Tanya (Ananya Panday) is portrayed as a wealthy brat who desperately seeks social media attention. One of her friends suggests posting ‘hot’ videos to attract attention; but a few scenes later we see her lip-sync M S Subbulakshmi’s rendition of Suprabatham. She is game for anything that can get her traction. The entire scene in which Liger’s mother describes the kind of girl whom he shouldn’t fall for and she reflecting all those traits is one of the many cringe-inducing scenes that are passed off as humour.

In another scene, Balamani loudly vents on the phone and asks Tanya to leave her son alone and not mislead him, asserting that she wants to see him as a champion. Tanya’s immediate reaction after the phone call is to ask, “Where is my vodka?” And it cuts to the foot tapping ‘Akdi pakdi’ dance number. Soon after, she is woken up by friends who tell her that her Instagram post has become a rage and fans have gathered downstairs. She goes to the balcony and waves to the crowd in a manner similar to SRK from Mannat. So was that song a dream, did it really happen and were those videos posted and went viral? The transition in the narrative is so random. Some sort of a reveal about Tanya’s true reaction to the mother’s angst comes much later but by then, nothing matters as the film goes on a downward spiral.

The one who tries to hold the shaky narrative together is Vijay Deverakonda. His physical transformation makes him come across as agile and fit enough to pull off the stunt sequences. A pre-climax fight sequence involving women trained in Krav Maga sticks out like a sore thumb. Was that Puri’s way of showing the power of women after a string of glam doll characterisations of the leading women in his last few films? Who knows!

The much-hyped combat between Liger and Mike Tyson has its moments, but coming at the fag end of a shoddily-written story, it is too little and too late. Cast in a fictional character, Tyson is shown as Liger’s idol but the climax reveal of the other side of the champion is a mockery.

A big letdown, apart from the story and screenplay, is the language of Liger. Understandably, some of the characters are men and women of Telugu origin who live in Mumbai. An easy mix of Telugu and Hindi would have been apt. Instead, we get the feeling of watching a partially dubbed film in which the Mumbai-bred characters are mouthing Hindi dialogues but we hear them in Telugu. A cursory explanation of the use of language would have made it less awkward.

Indian cinema has had much better sports action dramas. Here the characterisations and storytelling are so banal that it is tough to root for the underdog story. Forget the physical transformation and the action episodes, we have seen better performances from Vijay Deverakonda in Telugu cinema. The stutter also appears forced in some scenes. Ramya can pack a punch as a courageous mother but she is mostly made to scream and shout. Chunky Pandey appears in a brief character that begins as glitzy and fizzles out. 

This big-ticket film that aimed for pan-India attention ended up as an embarrassment. At the start of the film, the protagonist says that he is not good at narrating a story, but he will try. Perhaps that was a warning about the film. Thankfully, Liger does not end on a note that allows room for a sequel.