(This review contains spoilers, but does not contain the twin words: ‘toxic masculinity’ floating around the Internet with very little purpose to serve)
I was with a different publication when I wrote the review for Arjun Reddy , much before it snowballed into a woke movement inviting an ‘Us vs Them’ narrative, in the context of film criticism. Either you agree with them or not, and there is no concept of finding middle ground when it comes to movies deemed ‘problematic’. Those of us who liked the film, I believe, turned a blind eye to its abominable politics and instead, bought into the sheer madness of watching two messy, free-spirited souls who do not wish to be chained by the confines of society, and defy fundamental moral grounds — there is a fine line where the titular character asks his girlfriend to screw society that has conditioned people to go by ethics.
How else would you explain the scene where they trudge their way to make out, right after a minor bike accident? The twin characters — Arjun and Preeti from Arjun Reddy — are basically mirror images that are designed to be madly (mad being the keyword again) in love. They do not shy away from exhibiting their overt madness. Take the scene where Adithya (Dhruv, who, unsurprisingly, has strong shades of his father, Vikram) meets Meera (Banita Sandhu, who, like other actors who played this role before, does not get an arc or voice) for the first time. He walks up to her and plants a kiss on her cheeks. Had Meera/Preeti slapped Adithya/Arjun in the first place, the whole debate around you-know-the-words might have been put to rest. But she does not. She gives in to his charm and machismo. And we need to review the product for what it is, rather than what it could have been.
The rationale behind the complicated moral universe of Arjun Reddy / KabirSingh / AdithyaVarma lies in the fact that the movie plays out like a modern-day folklore. Imagine, just for a moment, that it is not 2019. What if it was the age of empires where kingdoms were invaded and women were treated like puppets? Would Arjun Reddy or its equivalent be taken this seriously? There is a clear indication of this folklore-ish reference in the scene where Adithya goes to meet Meera’s father, tendering an apology for his hot-headed nature. When he is kicked out of the house, he says, “If this was in the medieval times, I would have started a war against your father, Meera.” Though it operates on the quintessential Devadas troupe — where the hero notoriously self-loathes and roames around with his dog named after his girlfriend — it defines its own logic, own rules as it proceeds.
- Cast: Dhruv Vikram, Banita Sandhu, Priya Anand, Raja and Leela Samson
- Director: Gireesaaya
- Storyline: A medical surgeon is consumed by his self-obsessiveness — to a point beyond redemption — when his girlfriend leaves him
It is this self-destructive war that Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh/Adithya Varma wages upon his near and dear ones. He thinks of himself as a king and treats people like servants; nurses hold cigarettes for him, his friends ‘tolerate’ him, and women put up with his violent behaviour — a character even calls him a “medical psycho”. None of these goes on to explain what he was before what he eventually became. His father, for instance, advises him to not delve deep into any subject that would make it hard for him to redeem. Maybe someone should have shared this vital piece of information with Sandeep Vanga Reddy, when he wrote the character.
Where Arjun Reddy differs from AdithyaVarma is that it was an unabashed portrayal of a man-child, whose emotions pop open like a bottle of champagne. But it is difficult to believe the man-child nature of Dhruv, who, despite having a dense baritone, comes across like a schoolkid who has been asked to internalise the protagonist of a Shakespearean play. In simpler terms, Arjun Reddy is a tough character to embody, especially for someone who is making his début. Dhruv, however, does a fairly decent job of showing the depth of the character, without diluting the Arjun Reddy-ness, which, rightfully, has become a character description of its own — the number of times Arjun Reddy is mentioned in this review shows how good Vijay Deverakonda was in arm-twisting the audience to root for him. That does not happen here.
Adithya Varma goes on a rampage against anyone who does not align with his thought process. When his professor introduces him as the, “topper of college whose face value is zero when it comes to anger management”, he gives it back saying, “I am not a rebel without a cause.” In reality, he is. What has remained a mystery, having watched Arjun Reddy twice and now Adithya Varma , is the lack of proper justification for his aggressiveness. For instance, take Jordan from Rockstar , who, also traversed the same path of self-discovery after a love affair gone wrong. His rawness stems from the fact that he is a struggling songwriter-singer who is stripped off his sanity when all hell breaks loose at home, which sort of fuels his hatred towards people around him. But here, anger is used as an expression to convey nothing. Perhaps the movie has more to do with suffering than aggression.
What has also remained a mystery is the redeeming quality of Preeti/Meera towards the climax stretch. What is so great or pure about Adithya Varma that any woman would put up with? This segues into the previous paragraph about them being a mad couple. Of course, I am in no way legitimising the Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh/Adithya Varma’s tone-deaf attitude. The issue with Arjun Reddy was that Sandeep Vanga Reddy made his hero a tad sympathetic for his (re)actions. But then, who are we to judge these people? Shortly after the release of Million Dollar Baby , film critic Roger Ebert wrote an essay wherein he argued that film critics should not approach movies with their moral lenses on. How appropriate, I wonder.