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Three hours and a huge hit later

Stills from Arjun Reddy

Stills from Arjun Reddy  

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A rare indie-spirited film emerges from the morass of Telugu cinema

When film buffs debate unconventional regional films, Telugu cinema is prominent in its absence. Sure, it has the colossal box-office hit Baahubali 2, but while others boast of films with an indie spirit, like Angamaly Diaries (Malayalam) or Kirik Party (Kannada), there’s been nothing similar in Telugu cinema. There have been the occasional thrillers (Kshanam) and well-made slice-of-life comedies (Pelli Choopulu), but nothing raw and edgy.

At first sight, director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy, running for a marathon 187 minutes, doesn’t seem like a movie to break this trend. But the film has had audiences hooked. In the cinema halls we visited, viewers stayed glued to their seats till the credits rolled.

The team knew they were on to something big when they released the film’s trailer. Theatres refused to screen the trailer because it was all of 3 minutes and 15 seconds long, far overshooting conventional trailer lengths.

So they released it online, and it garnered over 11 million views on digital platforms. “My phone wouldn’t stop ringing, it felt like the film had already released,” laughs Vijay Devarakonda, the film’s lead star.

An unprecedented success

College students were hooked. When the film held a pre-release event in Hyderabad, more than 2,000 students turned up. Unprecedentedly, the film had more than 50 paid previews before its formal release. Getting a ticket to these previews was, let’s say, just a little easier than it was for Baahubali 2. “We knew students would like our work, but we had no idea it would become this big,” says Sandeep.

Students made bulk bookings for the film in several theatres across Hyderabad. Vyshnavi Vajjhala, a third-year engineering student of Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, says she “loved the film”. “There is nothing cinematic. It felt like watching a friend go through those phases. Arjun (the protagonist) is like someone in our age group,” she says.

This was the ‘realistic tone’ the team had striven to achieve. “I am 28. But when I meet students, I feel I’m one among them,” says Vijay, talking about how when he was a student, Sekhar Kammula’s Happy Days (2007) had just released. “I had a crush on a girl and I imagined myself as Varun Sandesh and her as Tamannaah.”

That is the kind of relatability students are seeing in Arjun Reddy, which can be described as the kind of film Ram Gopal Varma may have made in his younger days. In fact, RGV has praised it for breaking clichés.

Sandeep narrates a modern-day Devdas story, which breaks Telugu cinematic norms with the title too.

In an earlier era, titles such as Narasimha Naidu or Samarasimha Reddy indicated caste undertones. Arjun Reddy could have been just ‘Arjun’ and nothing would have changed.

The protagonist is neither superhero nor larger than life, but a medical college topper with anger management issues. Later, he is a brilliant surgeon who sinks into depression, letting alcohol and drugs get the better of him. Similarities with Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D, Gautham Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram or Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar are incidental. Arjun Reddy shines with its compelling narrative all its own.

Stills Dev.D

Stills Dev.D  

Sandeep studied cinema in Sydney, and the film is based on his observations. “He observed people who had fallen in love, whose love went unreciprocated, who lost their balance,” says Vijay.

In mainstream cinema, the mood can shift from brooding to moving on in the span of a break-up song, but this film is different. “Not everybody moves on easily. Arjun doesn’t. One might go to work and still be miserable. That’s how we first see Arjun in this non-linear narrative,” says Sandeep.

Sandeep took his script to several producers who suggested that he make a “safe” film instead for his debut. Then, family came to his rescue. “If not for my brother and father, this film wouldn’t have materialised,” he says. Arjun Reddy was made with a budget of ₹5.15 crore and reportedly earned over ₹30 crore worldwide in its first week. The team shot for 86 days in Hyderabad, Mangaluru, Mussoorie and Italy. “We did things our way,” says Vijay.

The strapping Vijay is brilliant as the overbearing Arjun, a house surgeon in a Mangaluru medical college who is drawn to new student Preeti (debutante Shalini Pandey). He addresses a class of students, speaking in Telugu so that the teacher doesn’t understand, announcing that she’s his girl.

There’s nothing in the girl’s expression that tells us if she is intimidated. It’s an uncomfortable stretch, as we plough through portions wondering if Arjun is a stalker-wooer. He isn’t, and she reciprocates. Arjun is deeply flawed. The film neither judges him nor justifies his actions. “He wears an attitude, and says and does things in public that few would in private,” says Vijay.

Stills from Kshanam

Stills from Kshanam  

In an interesting aside, Arjun Reddy is the latest in a string of films to bring Telangana dialect to the fore. If Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s Pelli Choopulu did it with the poker-faced comedy of Priyadarshi, Mohan KrishnaIndraganti’s screwball comedy Ami Thumi had the key characters speaking Telangana Telugu. Sekhar Kammula’s Fidaa followed, set partly in Nizamabad’s Bhanswada. “Telugu cinema mostly follows a standardised Vijayawada way of speaking. I wanted Arjun’s character to be rooted. I don’t know the nuances with which a Guntur-Vijayawada guy would speak. But I know how a Telangana Hyderabadi talks, so we did that. It was an advantage that Vijay too is adept with the dialect,” says Sandeep.

Still problematic

The film is far from perfect. Fat-shaming dialogue and the problematic issue of consent have been thrown up. Controversy dogged it too. Congress leader Hanumantha Rao tore up posters that showed the lead actors kissing. The regional censor board fussed over its excessive use of cuss words.

But Sandeep maintains he hasn’t glorified Arjun’s actions. “Everything is in the context of a young guy with anger management issues,” he asserts. “We had an ‘A’ rating and didn’t want the audience to think these were publicity stunts or, worse, that the film used cuss words, kisses, alcohol and drugs to look cool,” says Sandeep.

If this is a beginning, then one hopes Arjun Reddy is the koel that announces a new spring for Telugu cinema. Only, maybe next time someone will make a film from the woman’s point of view?

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 12:24:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/three-hours-and-a-huge-hit-later/article19643308.ece

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