Kranthi Madhav's World Famous Lover has everything you expect from a Vijay Deverakonda Film™. There's grand passion, grander rage. There's sulking and self-pity. There's that Vijay Deverakonda look. It says: I am in angst, please save me from myself. There's the bleeding on the knuckles, the big, scraggly beard spilling over the jawline. There's a lot of smoking and casual fucking. (Even if the characters "have sex" or "make love" in a Vijay Deverakonda Film™, you want to call it "fucking": it sounds way cooler, and cool is the first thing these films want to be.) There's the entitlement you see when the actor (playing Gautham) asks the household help to make him an omelette: he sounds like a pampered princeling ordering the court jester to do cartwheels because he's bored. And there's violence. In the first scene, Gautham is locked up in jail. He stares right into the camera and tells us he wanted to be a writer. Well, he's got his sentence.
Several times during this film, Gautham looks at the camera, breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience — the most alarming of these instances comes when he's driving a car, staring at us over his shoulder. (You keep waiting for a crash!) This makes it seem that Gautham is sharing his story with us, with the world. The most interesting aspect (at least in theory) of World Famous Lover is that it combines this present-day story — namely, Gautham's real-life story — with two entirely made-up stories written by Gautham. The first fictional story is set in a colliery. (Vijay Deverakonda plays Srinu.) In the second, set in Paris, he plays… a what-if version of the original Gautham. What if the present-day Gautham had followed the fork in the road that would have gotten him a promotion and taken him overseas! It's fascinating stuff, to be franc.
The present-day Gautham is a mess. After that opening scene in prison, we cut to the waning days of his relationship with Yamini (Raashi Khanna). There's a genuine issue here. From her side, he's the live-in boyfriend who asked her to support him for a year while he quit work and gave writing a shot. But now, she's mothering a man-child who sleeps late, watches cartoons all day, and has to be reminded (via Post-it Notes) to write and even eat the food she's prepared. Even the fucking is mechanical, as perfunctory as the post-coital peck on the cheek. One day, Yamini decides she has had enough. She breaks up with Gautham because he has insulted her and her "unconditional love" for him.
But there's his side to it, too. Gautham agonises that his writing has no soul. Plus, Yamini doesn't really seem to get what it means to be a writer, or how nerve-racking and intense and confidence-crushing a "creative job" can be. After quitting his job, when he tells her he wants to be a writer, she says, "With all this technology, who'll read books?" (Ouch! I winced.) And even when they were dating in college, she convinced him that writing wasn't a "practical" career option. How has a pragmatist like Yamini survived this long with a Romantic like Gautham? More interestingly, how has a pragmatist like Yamini allowed herself — in this relationship — to turn into such a martyr?
We never really see the blossoming of this relationship. We get the start point. We get the end point, in the present day. We don't get the middle. With seemingly oil-and-water couples, the middle is the meat. An entire movie could be made out of this middle: the initial highs of living-in dimming in the light of his failures and her successes. Without this middle, Yamini comes off like a saint, and Gautham comes off like a jerk. I wasn't convinced for a second that this relationship would have survived the first week of dating, let alone years of living in.
But after the break-up, we get the most interesting (at least in theory) stretch of World Famous Lover. A furious Gautham begins to scribble a story about Srinu, who's a union leader in that colliery, situated in the town of Yellandu. Gautham attempts to "get back" at Yamini by reimagining her as a painfully servile character named Suvarna (Aishwarya Rajesh), who is Srinu's wife. What follows is a thrillingly toxic male fantasy: it's so wrong, but it's exactly what self-absorbed writers often do, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a star-driven mainstream movie wading into these dark, dangerous waters.
Srinu treats Suvarna like shit. (In Gautham's subconscious, he is treating Yamini the way he thinks she has treated him. Of course, it never occurs to him that a lot of it is his fault.) Gautham adds an extra layer of "revenge" by creating a character named Smitha (Catherine Tresa), who is hilariously hot and a complete contrast to the super-plain Suvarna/Yamini. I say "hilarious" because the situations Gautham writes for Srinu and Smitha are right out of bad soft porn. When a certain kind of man finds himself around a very attractive and way-out-of-league woman, he begins to take every simple gesture out of context. "She is wiping some sauce that's spread around my mouth while eating" becomes "She is caressing my lips and signalling that she wants to plant her ripe lips on them later tonight as we do it on a tiger-skin rug by the fireplace". By writing Smitha this way, Gautham is really telling Yamini: "Bitch, I can do better!"
In a way, like we saw in Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar, Great Art is being depicted as something that emerges from Great Pain. But the problem is that none of this is great art: neither the film's main story about Yamini and Gautham, nor the story-within-the-story of Srinu and Suvarna and Smitha. Had the infantile nature of a certain kind of man — Gautham in this case — been explored with more incisiveness, World Famous Lover might have been a milestone in Vijay Deverakonda's very unique career. But the problem is that he's now a star, and stars cannot afford to play such utterly unlikeable characters. And so, Srinu is "softened". He advises a drunk old man about the pain he causes his children. Even while treating Suvarna like shit, he buys her new clothes. By the end of the story-within-a-story, Srinu understands that Suvarna's love is True Love™ — and in writing this, Gautham (supposedly) comes to understand that Yamini's love is True Love™, too.
Alas, if only intentions made movies… There's a shocking bit where a tearful Suvarna, dolled up in Smitha-like clothes, says please don't leave me Srinu, I will mould myself according to your desires… Huh? So we are left hanging with the thought that Srinu has not accepted the Suvarna that was, but the Suvarna she has transformed herself into and promises to be. What kind of understanding is this? Till this point, we see that the Srinu-Suvarna story arc resembles Gautham's own arc: he is angry, he wants to lash out, he degrades Yamini in his story, then he understands he is wrong, and he resolves to go back to her. But what do we make of Suvarna's tearful plea?
More annoyingly, writing this story doesn't seem to have given Gautham any kind of catharsis. When we return to the present day, to the real-life Gautham, he is still Arjun Reddy the angsty wallower he was when Yamini left him. WTF? (Fun question to chew on in the middle of all this craziness: Has Kranthi Madhav written a super-messy screenplay, or is this really a super-clever screenplay that has been written from the viewpoint of Gautham, mimicking the kind of messy writer he would be? Nah. I think it's the former.)
And while Gautham is writhing in pain, he begins to scribble the second story. This one — with Izabelle Leite playing a Parisian love interest — makes even less sense. At least with the Srinu-Suvarna episode, we could see a navel-gazing writer trying to soothe his emotional torment. The "learning" in this second story is supposed to be "love means sacrifice" — but I really wanted a third story where the "learning" would be "love means not being a dick with his head up his ass". By the end, we are able to accept Gautham neither as a good writer nor as a mature-enough human being who deserves a second shot at love. The second half is especially difficult to sit through: a slow slog to a painfully obvious end.
The pluses? For the first time, I felt there's something interesting about Raashi Khanna. I have seen her only in the desi dumb-blonde roles. It's not that her inner actress erupts here and scalds the screen, but we see what she could do if given a half-sensible role. As for the leading man, you can sense the hesitation. He wants to continue being a "rowdy", he wants to hold on to that disruptive image that created his star persona. But he also doesn't want to go back to being Arjun Reddy. I mean, how many angsty accidents and angsty car crashes can an angsty screenplay really have? Decisions, decisions!
Years from now, I suspect World Famous Lover will be remembered as a footnote in the Gospel of St. Deverakonda. Because for all its faults, it keeps pushing that persona. Gautham preaches that we need to live with our mistakes, but he's also romanticising the Rowdy Life™. But when this works, it really works. My favourite moment in the film is a truly whistle-worthy one, when — during a random action sequence following a fight with Yamini — Gautham injures himself first before launching his attack on the men challenging him. He wants to feel physical pain on par with his emotional pain. Now, that is a sentiment Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay would be kicking himself over for not thinking of while writing Devdas. (The Vijay Deverakonda type is really this: What if Devdas were a Rowdy?)
My other favourite Rowdy-ism. In a Parisian casino, Gautham sits at the roulette table. He doesn't know the game at all. But he's got his life savings — his entire life's savings — with him, and he bets it all. Because it's not about winning or losing. It's about the… experience. It's about the feeling that courses through you when you know you could be wiped out. I know it's ridiculous. I laughed out loud. But I have to admit that at least one corner of my middle-class mind (I bank with SBI, dammit!) was at least a wee bit kicked about this balls-out attitude. That, I think, is the Rowdy appeal. Now if only Vijay Deverakonda can find the scripts to match!