By Poulomi Das and Aditi Sharma Jun. 20, 2019
Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy – arguably the most polarising Telugu film in recent times – is not without its problems. It has managed to sustain the attention and outrage of audiences across the country. Even in 2019, people just can’t seem to stop talking about Arjun Reddy. And that’s why we have Kabir Singh releasing tomorrow.
In the hyper-connected times that we live in, where opinions on pop-culture has swiftly transcended into social currency, we don’t watch films as much as participate in them. Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy – arguably the most polarising Telugu film of the last two years – is a prime example of this all-consuming investment that wilfully disregarded nuance for frenzied hype. In the two years since it came to be exalted as a phenomenon, the movie has birthed two remakes: a Tamil adaptation called Adithya Varma, that is still in production, and Kabir Singh, a glossier Hindi remake, directed by Vanga himself, starring Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani that releases tomorrow.
Yet the seamless crossover aside, the true extent of Arjun Reddy’s unchallenged dominance to our mind, probably lies in how it has managed to command – and more importantly sustain – the attention and outrage of audiences across the country. Even in 2019, people just can’t seem to stop talking about Arjun Reddy.
At the time of its release in 2017, Vanga’s three-hour-long debut outing was almost unanimously credited for being a game-changer, if not for subverting the rules of a mainstream Telugu entertainer. But on paper, the movie’s storyline and its themes, seem worthy of neither. At its core, Arjun Reddy can be best described as a retelling of Devdas, but without the accompanying consequences. It follows its eponymous lead, Arjun (Vijay Deverakonda), an alcoholic, abusive, and short-tempered surgeon who is allowed to use heartbreak as a justification for his toxicity and is ultimately gifted his happily-ever-after.
Essentially, in this version, the proverbial “Devdas” is encouraged to have his cake and eat it too – a tale of male entitlement and man-childishness, that is as old as time. But translated on screen, Arjun Reddy assumes an entirely richer life, which is aided in part by its stylish packaging. The plot is elevated by the casting of the attractive Deverakonda as the self-destructive male lead who flits between being a hero and victim, fluid cinematography, and a sly screenplay that wholeheartedly commits to provocation.
Arjun Reddy’s irresistibility is perhaps, rooted in this very dissonance: the film’s fetishisation of male misbehaviour against all common sense.
Divided in events that unfold in flashbacks and in real time, the movie operates in the pre- and post-heartbreak universe of Arjun Reddy – an evolution that is single-handedly indicated by the cameo appearance of Deverakonda’s beard. Arjun Reddy opens in present day with an introduction sequence that should have ideally been labelled dangerous: In the scene, a shirtless Arjun wakes up on a terrace, reaches straight for a bottle of alcohol, and then after a phone-call “makes an entry” in a woman’s house to have casual sex. Mid-action, when the woman changes her mind due to the impromptu arrival of her fiancé, he is visibly angered. Despite her explicitly declining his overtures, he surrenders to his lust and forcibly tries to take her pants off before threatening her to have sex at knife-point.
The moment lasts a few seconds, until better sense prevails, and he leaves her house. But by then, the picture that emerges of Arjun Reddy and one that the film crafts of him couldn’t be more different. If you read this scene as sexually violent one, the film justifies it as comic relief. If you think Arjun was abusive, the film paints him as an angry young man, who only had a moment of weakness. And if this scene makes you scared of Arjun, the film, on the other hand, uses it to ask you to admire him.
Arjun Reddy’s irresistibility is perhaps, rooted in this very dissonance: the film’s fetishisation of male misbehaviour against all common sense. In scene after problematic scene, Arjun readily loses his temper and mercilessly beats up people or at least, threatens to, with a potted plant. These people include rival college students, an old man at a wedding, his maid, a nurse, and his love interest, the meek first-year medical student Preethi (Shalini Pandey), who he falls in love after making eye contact with him. If anything, the movie paints a familiar portrait of the impunity that accompanies male anger. In all of the scenarios, where Arjun ends up indulging in unnecessary violence – including a scene where he slaps Shalini in a fit of anger – he is never penalised or branded as the villain. It’s not even a dealbreaker.
Instead, his anger is treated as a temporary inconvenience that stems out of his passion for Preethi and is whitewashed against his achievements, including but not limited to his presumed brilliance as a surgeon, the fact that he was a college topper, and that he is a loyal lover. The film dedicating screen time for its male lead to perform his anger betrays arguably the most important takeaway of Arjun Reddy. It’s the fact that anger is a privilege only men have, that male anger has no boundaries and that it is a birthright. Think about the last time you encountered a man whose default language of communication was violence, and then, correspond it to the number of times you’ve encountered a woman – whether onscreen or in real life – acting out without being too conscious of how the world would perceive her. Chances are that the former scenario will be as common as the latter would be uncommon.
Besides celebrating the entitlement of men, Arjun Reddy reinforces that women are wholly dispensensable.
It’s exactly the worldview that the film takes of its women too. Besides celebrating the entitlement of men, Arjun Reddy reinforces that women are wholly dispensable. Preethi is the classic damsel in distress. Earlier infantilised by her father and then by her lover, she exemplifies the archetype of a “pure” and naive woman, a common trope in Indian romance. She never utters a word during Arjun Reddy’s first half and we’re left oblivious to her inner thoughts, so much so that we know more about Shiva, Arjun’s best friend and the film’s supporting character than about its female lead.
Arjun Reddy is so obsessed with its hero, that it doesn’t even deem Preethi as an equal: She doesn’t fall in love with him as much as adjusts to his toxicity, becoming a woman who is infatuated with her abuser. It’s why it’s futile to see Arjun Reddy as a love story. In fact, it is the antithesis to love, that stands as a warning for relationships built on abuse and power. Arjun’s “love” is built on constantly victimising himself, seeking Preethi’s sympathy while reinforcing the idea that there are no boundaries in love.
Arjun Reddy might be a Telugu film, but its invincibility lies in the fact that it takes a leaf out of real life and endorses the normalisaton of men considering their anger as their badge of honour and women as their property. No wonder it’s getting a Bollywood remake in Kabir Singh.