Dhruv Vikram and Banita Sandhu in Adithya Varma for Review
Director: Gireesaaya

Cast: Dhruv Vikram, Banita Sandhu, Priya Anand

There’s no getting around this: Sandeep Reddy Vanga‘s Arjun Reddy and Gireesaaya’s faithful Tamil remake, Adithya Varma follow the grand literary and movie tradition of Romantic Abuse: the self-absorbed, self-destructive Byronic hero (Dhruv Vikram) inflicts as much pain on others as himself. On the one hand, thinking rationally, you’d wonder who in today’s times would identify with a Heathcliff (from Wuthering Heights, a story whose characters are even more messed-up than the ones in Arjun Reddy) or a Devdas! Which woman would throw herself over a perpetually drunk masochist like the latter, the way Chandramukhi does? (The equivalent, here, is an actress, played by Priya Anand.)

And yet, the film was a blockbuster in Telugu. The Hindi remake, too. What is it about these “types” — and make no mistake, they are archetypes — that people keep flocking to them again and again? Do we love the glorified wallowing? Are we guiltily drawn to the Grand Passion™ in these characters, whom you’d slap a restraining order on if you met them in real life? So many “types” fall out of fashion over the years — say, the weepy mother at the sewing machine, who sacrifices everything to raise her children. (Today, we’d roll our eyes at such sentimentality.) But something in us keeps wanting Devdas to find himself back in Paro’s arms, even after she has married someone else, out of spite!

Long story short, you know by now if you want to put yourself through Adithya Varma. I did not watch Kabir Singh, because I knew the story was being remade in Tamil and I wanted it to be as “fresh” as possible. But the unending — and important — discussions over that film (and, of course, Arjun Reddy) have kept the narrative… “fresh” in my mind, and I have to admit I watched this perfectly competent version with a bit of a remove. I didn’t expect to be surprised, exactly, because — well, why fix a film that ain’t broke at the box office? But something’s missing, and it isn’t just the looming shadow of Vijay Deverakonda. (If you haven’t seen either of the earlier films, of course, your mileage may vary.)

Like Arjun Reddy, this is a beautifully made film. The director allows it to breathe. Ravi K Chandran doesn’t romanticise the already Romantic story

So on to the plot. Adithya’s grandmother (Leela Samson) sums up his stubbornness with an incident about a childhood toy. In medical college, Adithya finds another “toy”, a shy girl named Meera (Banita Sandhu), who he decides is his. This man-child is a topper in college. He’s a rock star who — later — saves lives on the operating table even while dead-drunk. (Rarely have the statutory warnings about cigarettes and alcohol seemed such a joke. You exit the film with a mild hangover and lungfuls of second-hand smoke.)

But Meera is not the scared college fresher from Sethu, which was Dhruv’s father’s take on the Byronic Hero. In an early scene, Adithya shows up at this girl’s hostel and lies down on her lap. Instead of shrieking and shrinking back in horror, she quietly calls a friend and asks for a blanket to cover him. The casual outsider might conclude that Meera is nuts, too — which may be another way of saying we are in a Selvaraghavan universe, the high kingdom of Romantic Abuse. My favourite among those films is 7G Rainbow Colony, which I was reminded of in the scene where Adithya is seen asleep on a terrace, covered in a neighbour’s nightie he’s flicked from a clothesline.

When the lovers part, Adithya begins his Devdas-like spiral, becoming both sadist and masochist. Meera gets married, but he refuses to move on and find peace. He denies peace to the people around him, too. This is not the kind of love story you’d expect a star son to debut in — not just because of its prickliness but also due to the fact that the Tamil-cinema hero is seldom from the upper class. He is usually a man of the masses. (This dude, on the other hand, lives in a mansion on Boat Club Road!) But the film’s gaze is so aligned to the protagonist that you can also see why Dhruv was drawn to it. Adithya is present in practically every scene.

Why does the film remain at a distance for those who have seen one of the earlier versions? More than the familiarity, it’s the lack of chemistry in the love story

Occasionally, the narrative pulls out and we get another viewpoint. (The supporting cast is terrific.) Adithya’s father (Raja) says no one should desire something so deeply in life. Adithya’s best friend, Parthi (an excellent Anbu Thasan), calls him out on his “cheap” behaviour. The dean of his college calls him out on his anger-management issues. Best of all, his grandmother tells his brother something she has learnt from years of living, that suffering is a very personal thing. “Let him suffer,” she says with a small smile. I wasn’t surprised to learn that her favourite song is Lag jaa gale, which speaks of lovers embracing as though it were their last night together. Adithya certainly looks like he’s inherited some of those genes.

But otherwise, Adithya is so monstrously self-involved — with an equally monstrous amount of self-pity — that we see only what he sees. We don’t see what happens to Meera after she parts from Adithya. We don’t know if Parthi has a life or ambitions of his own — it’s as though he exists only to keep consoling the hero. Even when Adithya pulls a knife on a girl he’s about to have sex with (she hesitates because someone’s at the door), the scene is less about her discomfort than his temporary insanity. The lights go off when he loses it. When the lights come back on, he snaps out of it.

This conceit is what I loved about Arjun Reddy, and this is what works here, too. How better to show self-absorption than to narrow the entire narrative down to a single gaze! When Adithya beats up a college student who harasses Meera, he asks what the boy would have done if someone had done something similar to his mother or sister. But he fails to see that he himself kissed Meera on an impulse, when he hardly knew her. (And she could have seen it as harassment.) His “logic” is that he knew she was into him because she’s so beautiful and she could have had anyone in the college, but she looked only at him. This sounds like the “logic” in the scene from Guna where the mentally unstable protagonist tells the terrified girl he’s kidnapped why she’s The One for him… because all signs said so.

This is a grand wallow through a flawed man’s psyche, and it needs that grand running time. But flaws and all (in both the man and the movie), I was never bored

Radhan’s score, too, is at one with the protagonist’s states of mind. When Adithya is at peace — i.e., when he is with Meera — there is literally no music. We just hear the waves in the background. (The college is by the sea.) But when he is angry, the electric guitars begin to wail, and in the second half, post Meera’s departure, there is a lot more background score because of all the angst inside Adithya. Towards the end, when he still insists Meera is his, we hear the tolling of church bells. It’s like God has told him: “Go for it, bro!” And this “divine” love he has for her (at least in his mind), is hinted at right from when he first sets eyes on her: a hymn in praise of the goddess Lakshmi plays in the background. Why, take even the heroine’s name! It’s no longer Preeti, as it was in Arjun Reddy. It’s Meera. It’s as though she was destined to pine for someone while being married to someone else.

Like Arjun Reddy, this is a beautifully made film. The director allows it to breathe. Ravi K Chandran doesn’t romanticise the already Romantic story. Except in a few shots, his palette is neutral, natural — and if I had to pick one scene to showcase the classy craft, it’s the one where Adithya’s older brother visits him in his flat after their father has kicked him out of the family home. The room is dark, as moody as Adithya is. (The sun lies outside the window now, unlike in the earlier scenes where it was sitting on him like a customised halo.) The editor Vivek Harshan cuts many scenes a few frames earlier than you’d expect the “finish” (the segues are amazingly dynamic), so we see the brothers having an argument and they begin to fight. (The camera switches to a hand-held feel.) But an instant later, it’s a static frame again. The brothers are seated, knocking back a drink. I don’t recall the editing pattern of Arjun Reddy, but these rhythms feel refreshingly new for Tamil cinema.

And yet, why does the film remain at a distance for those who have seen one of the earlier versions? More than the familiarity, it’s the lack of chemistry in the love story. Banita Sandhu is utterly ill-at-ease. She seems gawky and uncomfortable, and I kept thinking about Shalini Pandey in Arjun Reddy. I wrote: “[She] does something tricky with her performance, charting an arc from docile fresher to a young woman who considers sex a natural extension of love to a lover mad enough to audition for a Bhansali-movie heroine.” In order to get in sync with an insanely besotted hero, we need a heroine who seems capable of being insanely besotted with.

Dhruv ‘s fantastic at displaying attitude (which is a large part of Adithya), but when it comes to the pain, the suffering, I was constantly reminded of Vijay Deverakonda, who just aced that zone

Dhruv is far better. He has a confident screen presence. When he crinkles his eyes in close-ups, he looks a lot like his father. He speaks in a deep voice, and with a bit of a drawl. He’s fantastic at displaying attitude (which is a large part of Adithya), but when it comes to the pain, the suffering, I was constantly reminded of Vijay Deverakonda, who just aced that zone. Even when the character was being obnoxious — like when he asked a “fat chick” to befriend Preeti — Vijay made us believe he was acting in his girl’s best interest. (Because, of course, nobody else mattered.) Dhruv doesn’t quite get there. I also think the twenty-odd minutes that have been lopped off would have helped. (I especially missed the scene where Arjun humiliates his best friend, which says so much about the man he’s let himself become.) This is a grand wallow through a flawed man’s psyche, and it needs that grand running time. But flaws and all (in both the man and the movie), I was never bored. Adithya Varma may not be an inspired remake, but it keeps you invested throughout.

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