I was recently bashed on social media by some Telugu film fanatics for being unfamiliar with this movie. They considered this ignorance of apparently “one of the most controversial films in Telugu cinema history” nothing short of blasphemy. Though not overtly spoken, I could sense that these young lads were in awe with this film and even saw it as a matter of taking pride in their regional cinema… a some kind of “gem” that demonstrates the progressiveness of Telugu cinema and it’s ability to compete with other regional cinemas.
Placing too much meaning on a single film? I think so too. I will attempt an unbiased and objective view of the film. Lots of spoilers, so you may want to avoid if you plan to see the film. First things first, the film is way too long. It could easily been made into two-and-a-half hours and nothing of importance would have been left out. I felt exhausted and drained in the last half hour and I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.
The entire film centers around the story of the male lead, Arjun Reddy, as you easily guessed from the title. Arjun Reddy is an intelligent and successful medical student. He tops his college in grades, is more knowledgeable on subjects than any of his peers, and therefore is regarded in high esteem by teachers and administrators. Arjun Reddy is also an aggressive, selfish, slightly psychotic bully who terrorizes the entire student base, and even the dean of the college. He has a small loyal group of measly weak friends whom he can easily manipulate. He constantly threatens people into doing things and everyone is so frightened of him and his anger, that they never try to oppose him in anything.
The entire premise starts when Arjun, who was prepared to leave the college and end his entire educational and professional career because he is too vain and stubborn to do anything logical, changes his mind after seeing a sweet, naive-looking chubby girl start at his college. It’s only natural for dominant aggressive men to prey on sweet looking, easily impressionable girls.
While we are given more than an ample portrayal of Arjun Reddy’s character in the film, as usual in Telugu films, we are given very little on the character of the girl who triggers the entire change in the lead, Preeti. She is little more than a puppet– without emotion or thought. As though she doesn’t have a character or a spirit at all, just a body with a pretty face walking around, prepared to take any shape or form that is demanded of her. I mean get this, Arjun completely dominates and controls every single aspect of her life from the moment she enters the college. As soon as he decides he likes her, she becomes branded as a sort of property, and everyone is informed of it so that no one else can claim a right on her. No one even thinks of asking Preeti what she thinks about all of this, whether she is okay with it, whether she even likes this guy, or is interested in being branded this way. Her consent is automatically presumed.
In Telugu films, women have always been displayed this way. As naive, simple creatures who don’t really have many thoughts or feelings of their own. They’re always pure and beautiful, and in need of guardianship, in need of being owned by someone else. In many of the earlier films, the beautiful, educated, naive girl would fall in love with an uneducated, good-for-nothing loafer or a criminal and would reshape her life to be with him. Women in Telugu films are not too different than set props, objects to be utilized for the advancement of the hero’s story. Just like friends, family, comedians. It is this obsession with the hero, a type of hero worship in Telugu film industry that I dislike. The entire film is made by the hero, for the hero, and everything else, purely inconsequential. Before you get up in arms about this, I know this happens in other film industries too, but it ALWAYS happens in Telugu cinema. The heroine is also inconsequential in this one. She’s again, naive, sweet, beautiful. The only difference in Arjun Reddy is that she is a naive, sweet, beautiful girl who likes pre-marital sex.
When this puppet of a heroine is easily convinced into an arranged marriage by her family, is it really surprising? For she had little to say when Arjun Reddy randomly decided to own her. She is completely acting in line with her “non-existing” character.
Of course the next part of the film, or what happens after the heart-break, is what made this film so “controversial” — the forlorn lover falls into depths of alcohol and drug abuse. I didn’t really understand why this has been considered so revolutionary as a film premise? Has no one seen Devdas, or its contemporary version– Dev D? Surely, Udta Punjab would come to mind? Or that Tamil film, Surya Son of Krishnan. I admit, it’s not a topic that is usually portrayed in Telugu cinema. But was it portrayed in the right way?
Arjun Reddy ought to be controversial because for the most part of the movie, it glorifies drug abuse by portraying the character as still being successful, good at his profession, attracting loads of woman, and looking like some kind of sexy, cool beast. At one point, it dawns on the filmmaker that he shouldn’t do that, and the hero selflessly gives up his medical practice permit while confessing he performed all of his surgeries inebriated. But despite the fact that this is the most despicable thing anyone can do, we’re expected to feel respect for the character for “choosing” to reveal this rather than letting his wealthy and influential family cover it up with false witnesses and testimonies. And our alcoholic, drug-addict friend miraculously and instantaneously recovers from his nine month long addiction without any struggle or assistance from anyone, except that of a barber to shave off his beard. To demonstrate substance abuse as something being so easy to get rid of is surely the greatest fault of this film. And for that, it should be held accountable.
As the story progressed, the hero became ever more confusing, contradictory, and outright cheap and disgusting. He criticizes a prospective groom of his friend’s sister for “objectifying women” as though he wasn’t just the one seeing women as simply sources of physical pleasure and begging his friends to give him phone numbers of women who will come to his apartment. At one point in the film, the filmmaker again feels guilty about this (he has a lot of guilt trips throughout to film), and there is a scene where Arjun’s friend tells us how he doesn’t actually sleep with women, they just come over and he chats with them. Yea right. Perhaps you forgot to edit the scenes where he was, and not entirely in a nature of consent, was forcing himself between the legs of women.
The contradictions, and insensible story line becomes unbearable in the conclusion, where we suddenly realize that all of this turmoil, the heart-break, the grievance, the anger, the fear and loss, were all for nothing. There was actually NOTHING preventing the characters from getting together, than their own pride and stupidity. I think this is the first time in a movie where I’ve regretted a happy ending. The ending neutralized and completely destroyed the entire story line. And again what’s interesting is that the female lead experienced some kind of character transformation, and not only ran away from her marriage, but went through her pregnancy alone. There is a sweet ending where the father-in-law sees them kissing (as he had done before) and acts exactly as Arjun predicted. I admit the ending was sweet, and the tremendous ridiculousness of the story line did not prevent me from getting emotional at the end. But I can’t oversee the numerous faults in the movie because of that.
Arjun Reddy is not progressive. It’s not unique and it is not a step-up for Telugu cinema. It is predictable, full of the same old cliches found in every other Telugu film, with just a few shocking elements like sex and drug abuse thrown in. Those elements do not necessary feel natural, nor do they have any particular point. This film does not necessarily demonstrate modern society and its woes because these elements have been placed in it. The filmmaker was not able or willing to go all the way and really make a film entirely on these subjects. He wanted to make sure that the film was still in line with the Telugu film tradition, he didn’t wish to be rejected. But as a result, he’s made one confusing, pointless movie, that is neither really about love, or heartbreak, or sex, or drugs, or friends, or family.
Read review of Udta Punjab here.