There is a very fundamental difference between Hindi films and South (I mostly mean Tamil/Telugu) films. South films are more connected to the id (unconscious driving force to fulfill basic urges). They are more upfront and honest about sexuality. I am not talking about the obvious sexual expression of love-making, making out or talking about sex. Because the new era Hindi movie characters do these things very flippantly which makes it damn routine (maybe Hindi films have grown past it and I still haven’t). The south movies on the other hand, do not show any action, but always carry a sexual charge, never failing to acknowledge the sexual tension. Of course, they make a big deal out of it, but that’s what most of us do in real life. A very simple innocuous example would be the first physical contact between boy and girl. It does not carry much weight nowadays in Hindi films. However, a South film treats it as a dramatic beat with slow motion, music drowning out etc.
I start conversation on Arjun Reddy with this is because Arjun Reddy clearly carries the burden of sexual taboo, and it stands right at the cusp of the north-south mainstream film divide. It tries hard to handle sexual expression the Hindi film way, but is held back by the weight of the milieu. It actively tries to rescue kissing from the burden of social taboo, by having the lead pair kiss in every scene (even on poster!). I could clearly see how hard it was trying to normalize kissing and bring it to the level of a hug. Whether it succeeds or not completely depends on the eyes of the beholder. But the rebellion has a candor and naivety that is difficult not to empathize with.
Arjun Reddy has obvious similarities to Dev D. Where Dev D is more indivualistic in its approach, Arjun Reddy approaches its subject from a collectivistic cultural perspective. Arjun Reddy (titular character) is almost a force of nature, which rips apart this collectivism and debunks politically correct scales of behavior. He stands out as a raging bull. He treasures id satisfaction over any other reward. He sees himself as a superior being trapped in the ways of the civilized world. When he is denied the thing he feels he has an indisputable right on, hell breaks loose and he just cannot accept this with his chin up. It is a failure of massive proportion, which sends him on a trip of pain and RAGE. He is angry on not only himself, but also the people around who denied him his right and now asking him to move on. It seems unacceptable to him. Still he is never able to tear himself away from the people. There is a constant intrusion of the outside world into his space of manic rage. Sometimes it mitigates, sometimes it aggravates. He has to eventually make peace with the outside world.
Earlier I compared Arjun Reddy (the character) to a raging bull. Along with the obvious metaphorical meaning of it, there is a strong sense of animalistic gratification and an archetypal alpha animal ruling the jungle, throughout the movie. The most in-your-face example is a stunningly staged sequence where all the fresher girls (first year) line up for breakfast in a serpentine queue around a bench, where Arjun Reddy is seated behaving all alpha (posturing, smoking). In slow motion, we see him checking out each girl, making eye contact with everyone. Then finally fixing his eyes on one of them and following her throughout the moving line. To today’s progressive eyes this might feel disgusting, but we have all been to college, where world does not confirm to today’s politically correct standards. There are obviously guys trying to score, and there is a prevailing hierarchy dominated by seniors who feel entitled to impose them on the freshers. You might ask, why glorify it? Same reason violence is in movies. Movies do play a role in giving a visual to fantasies. Good, bad, ugly. Hyper masculinity connects viscerally with the audience, both men and women.
Reactionary digressions aside, this scene – set to the beautiful semi-classical ‘Madhuram’ – really sets up the movie and the character on path to the sublime, destruction and redemption. The movie’s absolute single-minded focus on the protagonist almost builds him up as a fallen GOD. Arjun Reddy is a genius (college topper and top surgeon) which we all wish we were. He acts out on all impulses, good bad and ugly, which we secretly wish we could. As we saw Khaleesi – another victim of God complex – lighting up Kings landing, here our guy lights up himself with unlimited drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, ultimately leading to his fall. It all catches up when he botches up a surgery in drunk stupor. He truly falls down in his own eyes, which is very important, because until then it really does not matter to him what the world around him talks or thinks about him, he feels he is a GOD. Interestingly, his progressive ideas of caste-less society, individual freedom etc. add up building the god complex within. He gives sermons to his best friend explaining why no one around understands him, and are trying to control his fate. Many of these things are not new to Indian cinema, numerous versions of Devdas and more importantly the critical darling Dev D. I think what sets Arjun Reddy apart is the doggedness of staying away from self-pity. Anger is something that he uses frequently to shield himself from pity. Until the surgery accident, he does not allow us to feel any pity or sympathy for him, which makes it difficult for the audience.
This brings us to the climax. Devdas does not get his girl, nor does Dev D (I know he finds redemption with Chandramukhi instead). But our man Arjun Reddy gets her, which many commentators took objection with. ‘He is getting away with all the bad behavior and also getting the girl?’ However, it is a terribly heart-breaking moment when he finally meets her. While Arjun Reddy was drowning his sorrows in style, Preethi is the one who truly suffers, but maintaining dignity. She runs away from her wedding, realizes she is pregnant, and stays a solitary life trying to give stability for the baby in her womb. Suddenly the nature’s inequality hits us. Sex is always without consequences for the man, but it could change a woman’s life forever. It is truly a humbling end for Arjun, as well as for us.
Addendum: I did not feel the need talk about the woman’s perspective, because I thought her motivations, though not underlined, were pretty self-evident. But the latest uproar in the hind film critic fraternity requires me to respond to some concerns (believe me I’m not strawman-ing their concerns)
- Is she really in love or is she hostage in the relationship (Stockholm syndrome)? At the start of the relationship there are circumstances which could pressurize the girl into consent (seniors pressure, whole campus watching), but on the other hand some perks (rise in hierarchy by dating college stud, campus protection) too. And finally primitive attraction to the alpha male, and how he is mild and tamed with her. So I would say it is a mixture of all this, which is honestly depicted.
- Why does she accept him? Deep inside, she would have of course wanted the guy to show remorse and ask her to come back, right? If you feel her self-respect should have overridden that, you need to understand that, she does get the moral victory over him at the end. That should be enough to assuage her hurt self-respect.
- She has no agency; she is always a victim of her environment, always under pressure from either lover or parents. Agree that she is the victim of her environment, but why do you discount her brave decision (agency) to run away from her marriage and raise a child on her own? Regarding parental pressure, of course in some areas like marriage, women are more restricted. It is a cultural thing. The woman has to leave comfort and venture into the unknown. So obviously, parents get protective and hence more restrictive. Do you want the film to denounce it? If you look closely, it does, emphatically! Arjun Reddy throughout his phase of pain and rage gives sermons about how this society holds back individuals from attaining their happiness.