Arjun Reddy

That it’s a rickety, confused film aside, the fulgurant popularity of Arjun Reddy, Sandeep Vanga’s debut about a macho young doctor’s failure in love, his suffering, his suffering, his suffering and his salvation needs consideration: Kabir Singh, its Hindi remake, is the biggest hit of the year and the film is being remade in other languages as well. At a point in time when public imagination is mostly occupied by films “inspired by true events”, the success of Arjun Reddy seems almost anomalous. The negative publicity around the film, with protests from the moral brigade as well as women’s groups, which felt it necessary to attack it by policing young people dating, can explain the box-office, but not the film’s apparently genuine acclaim, especially among women. It’s perhaps that the protagonist, Arjun Reddy (Vijay Devarkonda), represents the self-image of a new generation that knows what it’s doing, “doesn’t see caste”, and questions the values the previous generation took for granted, but he is far from the first to do so, being only the next step in the evolution of the modern Indian male Nagesh Kukunoor portrayed in his debut film Hyderabad Blues twenty years ago.

While the key to the film’s popular triumph might simply be the combination of a handsome lead actor, angsty music, edgy violence and a wily marketing campaign, part of the film’s appeal, I think, also derives from the oppositions Vanga brings into play. Arjun is a genius surgeon with a character flaw. We first see him dipping a bottle of alcohol into the apartment tank to dilute the booze—an epigrammatic image of self-centeredness. He constantly smokes or drinks; the only time his mouth is free is when it’s under the surgical mask. The first time we see his face, it emerges from wisps of smoke, as though he were literally on fire. Hot in his pants, he barges into a neighbouring apartment, brandishes a knife at a friend-with-benefits to force her to remove her pants. He is interrupted, so he tosses a handful of ice into his trousers to cool down. But a while later, he heads to the hospital, where he explains the imminent procedure with great patience to an elderly man in Hyderabadi Urdu. This split image assures us that, personally tarnished he may be, he is professionally unimpeachable and, since his profession involves people, morally too. The flaw, which changes through the film, only serves to reinforce his righteousness and certitude.

Even though she is only half a foot shorter, Shalini Pandey (as Preethi, Arjun’s romantic interest of a higher caste, Tulu background) seems diminutive in comparison to Devarkonda—a difference in perceived height that gives a paternal dimension to the motherless Arjun. The film cuts back and forth between Arjun’s ruined present and his halcyon days at the medical college, between the clean-shaven boyish youth of the university and the brooding Apollo of emanating locks of today, between the upright man of action and the horizontal, inertial being. Vanga has a taste for tonal contrasts: a fight scene at the college quickly turns into a man-to-man talk over cigarettes; Arjun and Preethi’s first meeting is cut to a Carnatic song; even the film’s upbeat ending is scored to a wistful score denoting a bitter victory. It may be that the audience takes an instant liking to outrageously good-looking people put in dark situations: it gives the feeling of being closer to otherwise unapproachable figures. Just as when Arjun later sulks against pretty landscapes of Europe later in the film. Vanga rallies his scenes around the firsts of Arjun’s life—the first glance, first kiss, first smile, first sex, first slap, first drink, first drug, first accident etc.—the endless repetition of which renders them banal.

Arjun Reddy has been taken apart for putting Arjun’s obnoxious behaviour on a pedestal and for its apparent misogyny. It’s an important, valid objection, but one that doesn’t take into account how the film’s formal strategies work against prevalent misogynistic principles of Indian cinema to an appreciable degree. It is true that Preethi is a docile cipher with no character—par for the course—but it is also true that the character is intentionally hollowed out for the film to present an idea of ghostly romance in which a strong, fully-formed personality completely takes over a weak, unformed one. Except for one false scene at her home, where she vainly imitates Arjun, the film is never about Preethi and always about him. There’s no courtship involved in their romance, only Arjun’s compulsion to protect her from perceived threat. The film clearly registers the discomfiting quality of their dynamic: till her smile following their first kiss, the baby-faced Preethi is completely passive to Arjun’s actions. Shots of her huddled with her equally hapless classmates, combined with the lack of any approving reaction shot from anyone to Arjun’s behaviour, cut a sorry—not romantic—image.

Preethi is harassed by a guy from another college. It is of note that the harassment itself—which would have been photographed in all its sordidness in another film—is elided and the viewer is not given the chance to partake in that humiliation. All we see is Arjun’s reaction to the event and Preethi’s ensuing relief. Arjun slaps Preethi once in the film. The action is presented in two shots joined by a cheat cut: we see him moving his hand and then we see her flinch. Again, the film refuses a chance to make the slap seem more ‘realistic’. (Preethi slapping Arjun earlier, in contrast, is part of the master shot). The scene in which he forces a woman at knife-point is played as a comedy, but not without turning it back on to Arjun, who remembers his dean’s warning about the scalpel turning into a weapon in his hands. Finally, unlike most Indian film heroes, Arjun doesn’t turn hateful of all women when his romance fails. Sure, he still loves her, but the film doesn’t present this failure as some injustice meted out to him. This is one reason the unending stretch of Arjun drinking, drugging himself don’t elicit pity as much as a low-key disgust.

Another reason these passages don’t settle into self-sympathy is because the film is too much in love with the actor to reduce him to that. Arjun Reddy is wholly a film about Vijay Devarkonda. Like the title that fills the screen edge-to-edge, the actor suffuses the film with his very being. Vanga’s camera is fixated on Devarkonda walking, sitting and, more often, sleeping. When he is seated on a chair after a surgery with his bloody gloves on, talking to a nurse who crouches in a mix of fear and maternal attention, the camera also crouches and the actor appears like a king on a throne. It’s curious how reluctant the director is to cut away from shots of Devarkonda. A good part of his scenes takes place in the master shot where actors come into the frame to talk to Arjun rather than getting their own shots. In an exchange with a college administrator, the camera remains on Arjun’s face—again, photographed from below—even when it’s his interlocutor that’s speaking. Elsewhere, Arjun scares his friend away from the bathroom and, even though the dialogue between the two is underway, the camera is fixed on Devarkonda speaking to his friend screen.

The director demonstrates considerable trust in the two principal actors to hold their shots, which results in far fewer edits than mainstream films hurl at us. The film’s central scene of the couple arguing (about others) is mostly a single shot, with the two actors approaching the camera as the argument grows more dramatic. It’s a dumb idea of blocking that imitates a passer-by’s point of view, but it holds our attention in its dumbness. In the subsequent shot, she clings to him, begging him not to go, as he tries to writhe out of her grasp—he wants to only hold, not be held. It’s a key image of the film, for it’s the first (and maybe the only) time we see him uncomfortable in his space. Brought up in a mansion in Banjara Hills, Arjun is a master of the universe for whom there are no barriers. He gets to any place just by wanting to: lecture halls, women’s hostel, shooting spots, other people’s houses. He wills private spaces into being and the rest of the world enables it for him. Even when he’s thrown out, he makes it clear that he leaves of his own accord.

Arjun is, however, a static character—he remains the same from start to finish. In one early scene, his grandmother (Kanchana) tells her friends about Arjun being persistent about finding a lost toy as a child. Bizarrely enough, her friends interpret this symptom of pig-headedness as a sign of hope against hope. You expect that his character arc will involve him learning the importance of letting go, of learning that the world is not always for his taking. But no. Persistent, Arjun is till the end. Even as a grown up, he behaves like an entitled child, complete with a diaper at one point. He points at people and they come and go per his wish. The girl he chooses to fall in love with, too, first appears before him among a row of other girls, like products at a toy store window. Preethi is a toy, and he moves her limbs like an action figure. Arjun’s selfishness is amply underscored throughout the film; he attempts suicide on the day of his brother’s wedding. Back in medical college, the dean scolds him for turning a football match into a bloody skirmish and shaming the institute, Arjun tells him that the fight was justified and he did it for the sake of the institute. “That’s how I am”, he tells the dean.

And so, despite its vivid detailing, the film turns out incurably blinkered. It wants us to see barriers when none exist. It sidesteps the chief question the plot poses: why does Arjun’s romance fail? He thinks it was the caste system and the tradition of arranged marriages that did him in. For a character who is proven to be above institutions and people—all those invisible barriers real people have to put up with—this faux-victimization doesn’t cut it for a moment. There’s no answer, for instance, as to why Arjun doesn’t go pick Preethi up the day after he’s been thrown out of her wedding. (Her consent was never a question anyway.) The real answer is that the film needs time to wallow long in the sorrow of a man whose only grief in life so far is a lost toy. “Suffering is private”, says Arjun’s grandmother understandingly. But Vanga makes a show of it: the spectacle of a vampire left with nothing to feed on but itself. Because nothing really changes at the end of the whole ordeal, pretty much anything can (and does) go into the final one hour of the film. Scenes ramble, organization goes haywire and filler shots abound. Secondary actors get more work in entirely dispensable scenes: there’s a particularly trying set of scenes with a housemaid.

Through all the physical and professional degradation Arjun goes through—he gets into trouble after he operates under the influence—he remains morally and philosophically sound. The more he goes into the dumps, it appears, the more he is capable of seeing things better than others. He maintains that it’s only a phase that he’s going through; the very conviction that it’s only a phase bestows on him a wisdom superior to the clamouring crowd around him. It’s evident that the film will snap out of this stupor only with a sacrifice: it’s predictably his grandmother, the only person with an intellect and moral sensitivity comparable to Arjun. They are given a tender final eyeline match that doesn’t correspond with the film’s reality. Her death cures everything—in other words, nothing was wrong in the first place—he reconciles with his family and friends, and goes on an Italian vacation. In a self-parodical, incredibly hackneyed sequence, Arjun stares into the infinite indifferent to the pretty sights of Cinque Terre (the film isn’t indifferent though). We are supposed to read this as some sort of grieving and maturation, wholly at odds with the static character of the picture. The film is wrapped up with a glibly conservative photo finish as Arjun, non-ironically, is shown assimilated in the same structures he earlier railed against.

I think Sandeep Vanga is justified in making Arjun Reddy all about its titular character at the expense of others. But his belief that the spontaneous combustion of an absurdly overprivileged male is of interest in itself is not backed up by the insight required to validate it. Between defenders who champion it as a film that goes into sticky territories of human experience in disregard of liberal holy cows and critics who have objected to its narrative politics, I tend to favour the latter. Asking filmmakers to be more morally accountable and to interrogate the choices they make is not antithetical to a pursuit of truth. Images don’t simply translate reality according to the artist’s ideas. They inscribe themselves into a representational history that modulates their meaning and affect. It would do well for filmmakers to be aware of the language they speak.