Director: Sandeep Reddy Vanga
Cast: Vijay Deverakonda, Shalini Pandey, Rahul Ramakrishna
The southern film industries are apparently in a race to tell stories about clean-shaven college boys who lose their love, gain a beard, and spend the rest of the film not just battling inner demons but also making a running joke of the CBFC's smoking/drinking disclaimer. Tamil cinema gave us Varanam Aayiram. Malayalam cinema dreamed up Premam. Then we got Kirik Party, in Kannada. Now, it's Telugu cinema's turn, with Sandeep Reddy Vanga's Arjun Reddy, which is bookended by a soothing image that belies the storms in between. A man and a woman are sleeping on a bed, lulled by sounds of the sea that lies just ahead. They could be the only two people on earth.
The director's success (Vanga also wrote the film) is in rendering Arjun sympathetic. Part of it is simply the gaze we are used to in mainstream cinema – we are conditioned to root for the hero. It helps that, unlike the Devdas figure, Arjun is no loser. He's a topper in college. He's a rock star who saves lives on the operating table even when drunk.
At least in the eyes of Arjun (Vijay Deverakonda), they are. He wants Preeti (Shalini Pandey) – nothing else matters. Early on, Arjun's grandmother (Kanchana) tells a story about how he lost a toy as a child, and "ate and slept in grief." Not much has changed. Arjun treats Preeti like a toy, literally imposing himself on her after laying eyes on her in medical college (shades of Balas' Sethu here) – and when he loses her, he thrashes about in a tsunami of self-pity. There's a lot of posturing. There's also a lot of truth.
Arjun Reddy hits a lot of the same beats as Premam and Kirik Party, but it goes a step further and shows how monstrously self-absorbed love can be. Like the protagonist of Devdas, Arjun drinks his body weight in booze. (He even hangs around with a dog, the way Nageswara Rao did in the 1950s adaptation of the novel.) And like the protagonist of Dev.D, he does drugs. But where those films had Devdas staying "true" to Parvati's love (and thus, not really lusting after Chandramukhi, who throws herself at the man's feet; this character is played, here, by Jia Sharma), Arjun finds solace in emotion-free sex. And when he doesn't get any, he grabs a handful of ice from a roadside sugarcane seller and stuffs it into his pants.
When he's not screwing women, he's screwing over his friends. He mocks the loyal-to-a-fault Shiva (Rahul Ramakrishna, who aces droll lines like "Being friends with you is like pissing all over myself") for being content with a practice in a clinic and not aspiring to be a surgeon. (Arjun is one.) And when another friend comes home to invite him for his wedding, Arjun refuses to attend. Because how can he endorse this love marriage when his own Great Love™ has been denied? A little later, Arjun runs into this friend again. You think an apology is coming. But no. He's still talking about Preeti. "When I am not happy, how can she be happy?"
The director's success (Vanga also wrote the film) is in rendering Arjun sympathetic. Part of it is simply the gaze we are used to in mainstream cinema – we are conditioned to root for the hero. It helps that, unlike the Devdas figure, Arjun is no loser. He's a topper in college. He's a rock star who saves lives on the operating table even when drunk. After a surgery, he relaxes on the terrace, with bloody gloves, as a devoted nurse lights him a cigarette. It's hard to watch these scenes with a straight face, but the film, like its leading man, is nothing if not Romantic. Someone sighs, "In a democracy, this level of free-spiritedness doesn't work." Arjun prefers his spirits bottled, but let's not get too nitpicky in a mainstream entertainer.
Arjun Reddy works wholly in the mainstream tradition, right down to the rousing music (by Radhan) and the woman who remains "pure" for her lover. But the narration is new. We're taken to the first flashback over a brassy rendition of Elvis Presley's Rags to Riches (another man carrying a torch: "hold me and kiss me and tell me you're mine ever more"), and the Arjun we meet is cocky to the core. He picks a fight at a football match that's quickly abandoned, and when hauled up by a teacher, he says a win would have just meant a felicitation ceremony, but a fight means satisfaction. They should have segued to this flashback with a Rolling Stones number instead.
In the second half, Arjun Reddy really comes into its own. The first half, especially in the tiresome portions towards the interval, is somewhat generic – it's the prickly latter portions that justify both the title (this is when we really get to know the man) and the massive running time (a little over three hours). The film digs deep into Arjun and keeps finding something, like the fact that he still has a conscience and won't take the easy way.
Arjun has anger-management issues, which evaporate when he is around Preeti. Shalini Pandey 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. (At one point, she kisses Arjun on a moving bike. He loses control. They fall. They run towards each other, bruises and all, and continue to kiss.) A lovely song, after Arjun graduates and moves away, is filled with their meetings at airports. But even before, when they've barely met, we get a startling scene where he – just like that – places his head on Preeti's lap and drifts off, and instead of shrieking for help, she asks a friend to get a blanket. This couple is Meant To Be™.
Preeti brings out in Arjun whatever the heroine of Sethu brought out in the hero: in her presence, this brute becomes a lamb. But where that film was dramatic, this one resembles a documentary – not in the literal sense, but in the way the events don't feel like fiction but rather like biography, like when Arjun says he chose this college because it's by the sea. It goes with the bookending images, but it's also a beautiful touch that allows both the character and the film to breathe a bit. The filmmaking rhythms are sometimes abrupt, like in a documentary, without the "finish" of a fiction feature – and this gives the feeling of a life being caught on the fly.
Take the scene at the bus stop, where a distraught Preeti slaps Arjun. He smiles and begins to follow her, and… end of scene. Arjun's grandmother doles out some advice, and the scene, somehow, ends with Arjun and Preeti talking about the number of times they've made love. Even the stretch where Arjun's father throws him out is treated far more realistically than you expect. Telugu cinema wouldn't usually let a scene like this pass by without thunder and lightning. And Shiva gets scenes with his father. When was the last time you spent quality time with the family of the hero's sidekick?