I watched the telugu movie Arjun Reddy, and felt conflicted the moment I walked out. Should I submit to its charms or do I give form to the discomfort I felt while watching some portions? Do I declare it a masterpiece or exhume its flaws. Or could it be both at once--flawed and great. It has been weeks, and I have had problem letting go of the movie. This review is my trying to resolve the conflict.
Arjun Reddy (Vijay Devarakonda) is in final year medical college. He is a brilliant student, with a promising future. But, he has anger issues (imagine what would happen if you drop a 200 kg bag of dynamite into a raging volcano--you roughly start getting the sense of the rage Arjun Reddy is capable of). He is on the verge of getting kicked out of Medical college for refusing to apologize for beating up the rival team in a football match. He is willing to throw away his career, his future as a doctor--all because he believes that he is who he is and there is no point bending one's principles, no matter what. But then he sees Preethi (Shalini Pandey), first year student, walk in to the college. It takes about fifty screen-seconds-thinking for him to decide she is his future wife. He promptly apologizes and starts pursuing Preethi.
This section, where he pursues the girl, is quite troubling. He lets everyone in the college know that she is his girl and no one else is to pursue her, rag her etc. Then he just inserts himself into her life--visiting her in her hostel, planting a kiss (on his first one-on-one meeting, before even completing a full conversation with her), deciding whom she should be friends with, pulling her out of classes and conducting his own private coaching sessions in scenic locales by drawing anatomy diagrams on her limbs. One night he just drops by her dorm and shoos away the friend with whom she is apparently studying and rests his head on her lap and goes to sleep. The heroine's response to all this is even more dumbfounding. We hardly know how she feels about all this. The best case, generous interpretation is that she is terribly attracted to him and doesn't express it (though the screenplay gives little indication of this). The worst case interpretation is she acquiesces to all his shenanigans because she is scared, doesn't know what to do, how to respond, until she genuinely starts to fall for him. Either way, we are not witnessing two people fall in love. We are witnessing one person's will browbeating another into passive submission, into love (?).
But the movie progresses. They fall madly in love. They become inseparable. How can we buy this, root for this--such a lopsided, deranged relationship? Because they are good looking people, good actors and the director does a good job of selling the romance, staging the scenes. Also, the secondary characters (their friends) are sympathetic and believable to a large extent and we believe it because they also believe it.
Eventually, the parents get wind of this. Arjun is a rich Telugu guy and the Preethi hails from a conservative, Tulu, middle class family. The girl's parents are outraged by the relationship that crosses caste, language, class, and throw Arjun out of their home. Arjun and Preethi confront each other in front of Preethi's house, in one of the best scenes in the film. They try to come to terms with the reality, of their upbringing, of their parents, their own will, self-respect and struggle to reconcile all this with what they feel for each other. This scene has genuine emotional resonance -- in one unbroken long-take (or at least feels like it), the walk, talk, cry, scream and throw everything they have (emotionally) at each other. Every word that comes out of them pushes them a step closer to irresolution. You are left dreading the consequences, hoping that they would somehow find a way to work things out. This is a triumph for the movie and its actors and director--they draw you in, make you nervous, make you root for the characters (even if they are flawed).
But it doesn't work out. Arjun overdoses on drugs and falls unconscious for 36 hours, during which Preethi is forcibly married off to some random guy. Arjun wakes up, realizes what has happened and gate crashes the wedding home to somehow get Preethi back, and when he realizes that it is not possible, shatters and recedes to living a drug, alcohol, sex fueled life while serving as an orthopedic surgeon in a hospital. The second half, almost in its entirety, captures in gut wrenching detail Arjun's downward spiral as he burns and crashes and tries to come to terms with his loss. It is painful to watch him go down the drain of substance abuse and implode. The movie presents a flawed character and makes no apology for it. There is a scene where Arjun threatens a girl at knife point to have sex with him, before realizing what he is actually doing and dropping the knife. This is the movie's way of telling us that Arjun is indeed an assole, a dangerous one at that.
What keeps us engaged is the assortment of extremely likable array of secondary characters, Siva, Arjun's closest friend and probably the most abused character in the movie, and Arjun's paternal grandmother, who comes across as the perfect antidote to all the mayhem, a sane-jane, looking at everything clear-eyedly and commenting ('Suffering has to done alone. Leave Arjun alone.'). And Arjun's other friends, who only wish good for him and dote on him, root for him and shower him with love and attention. Also Arjun is played by Vijay--a star-making, career-making turn--he invests the role with so much authenticity and naturalism and gusto, he makes you root for him, in spite of all the shenanigans his character does. [Some women who have watched the movie remarked to me that he is 'YUM'. So, I guess, the 'YUM' factor also helps in making him likable.]
Coming to the questions--does the movie have any problems. Unfortunately it does, major ones. The problem is not that the protagonist is an assole. That is alright. Characters don't have to be flawless. But the problem is that Arjun (and unfortunately the movie also) is obsessed only with himself (and with Preethi, only because she is the object of his want, love). No one else matters. He unleashes unspeakable abuse and bad behavior against everyone who cares for him--his family, friends, no one is spared. He rips their soul apart and tramples on it. And they also put up with it, without much of a protest. Even a couple of scenes where he is shown bonding or honestly interacting with others is used to espouse his theories and impose his world view on them. For example, his brother visits him and sees the squalor he lives in, and starts exchanging words and blows--there is an honest moment when the brothers fight it out and in the end share a drink. Even here, the final word is Arjun's, who gives his elder brother marital advice on why couples shouldn't 'plan' their pregnancies and how it should 'just happen' 'out of love'. Also, the scene is staged and framed in such a way that the movie and its director honestly believe that what Arjun says is the gospel truth and that his conformist brother is no match to Arjun (if the character condescends, we can forgive, but if the movie condescends then there is a problem). And this continues throughout. No other character (barring Arjun's grandmother) has anything of importance to say. Even when they chat (like the hilarious scene between Siva and his dad) it is about Arjun--to narrate Arjun's chronicles. Arjun is the sun, the moon, the solar system and the universe and all the universes there are. No one else exists, matters.
Another problem is the ending. It seems forced. The entire second half is spent showing us how Arjun struggles with his loss and how helpless and hopeless he is. And his grandmother's words --suffering has to done alone--sets up the stage for his redemption. But redeem himself he doesn't. He gets back with Preethi, who has been waiting for him to come back, bearing his child. This ending completely makes irrelevant the entire movie. Arjun isn't changed one bit in the end--the world comes around to him and proves him right! All that mumbo-jumbo and pseudo-macho dialogues he has been espousing is not something he grows out of--we are asked to accept that as the norm. Arjun is not an assole--he is a visionary who is way ahead of his time. It is the audience who is lacking the emotional intelligence to understand him--this is what the movie and its ending says. What a world that would be where Arjun sets the tone and agenda and we all have to follow!
The movie is made by a first time director (Sandeep Reddy Vanga). And it is a spectacular debut. The casting, the staging, the cunning deployment of razor-sharp non-linear editing (the football ground fight scene), avoiding the impulse to over-explain, extracting the best from his actors, even the minor ones--all of which points to a major talent. As a film fan I rejoice at Sandeep's arrival on the scene. I am thrilled to see what all he has in store for us. But I have a problem with the vision--it is terrifying to imagine a world populated by narcissistic megalomaniacs like Arjun, let alone imagine one shaped around his worldview.