Sandeep Reddy Vanga's Arjun Reddy is without a doubt a game-changer for the Telugu industry. With its unconventional male lead who raises a giant middle finger to social norms, inhabits the grey, and destroys the cinematic constructs of a 'hero', the film is a fine example of immersive storytelling. Vijay Deverakonda's blistering performance as the unapologetic Arjun has already turned it into a contemporary epic among the young audiences.
However, the film has also attracted its fair share of criticism from different quarters. Its portrayal of female characters, especially, is troubling. And this is not because of who Arjun Reddy is - as viewers, we understand that he's an angry, troubled young man who doesn't always make the best decisions. After all, it's because we're exposed to his rough edges, no holds barred, that we're able to watch a film that goes over 3 hours without complaint.
But although we feel like we know Arjun Reddy and understand him at the end of those three hours, what do we really know about Preethi (Shalini), the love of his life? Nothing.
The silent women in Arjun Reddy's life
Throughout the film, Preethi displays no agency whatsoever while Arjun is all about asserting himself. We barely hear her speak.
As a senior at St Mary's Medical College, Arjun sees first year student Preethi as a line of new girls go past him. At the time, Arjun has made up his mind to drop out of St Mary's because he's facing disciplinary action for beating up a student from another college during a football match. He follows her with his eyes, not dropping his gaze for even a second. And by the time she disappears from his vision, he makes up his mind to stay in college.
He's marked Preethi for himself, without as much as knowing her name or having a conversation with her. This storyline is, of course, nothing new. Countless films have shown the hero to fall for a woman at first glance, pursuing her relentlessly till she gives in to his advances. Arjun then lets it be known that Preethi is "his girl" (naa pilla) and that none of the junior boys are to try their luck with her.
It doesn't stop with this. Arjun plants a kiss on her cheek in their very first conversation; when she's sitting in the middle rows in class, he makes her sit in the front bench so she can focus better; and he even decides that she should sit next to a "fat chick" because "fat chicks" and "pretty girls" will make for good friends - two pretty girls can apparently never be friends. He also pulls her out of class and teaches her whatever subject is to be taught by drawing diagrams on her body (except 'upper thorax').
If Arjun sounds like a real cad, it is because he is one and the film doesn't attempt to hide it. Earlier in the film, before we go into the flashback of what happened between Arjun and Preethi, we're shown a desperate and depraved Arjun asking a woman he wants to have sex with to take off her salwar bottom.
When she refuses, because her fiancé is at the door, he becomes increasingly violent, cutting open her nada. The power, which had gone during this episode, suddenly comes back and only then does Arjun realise that he's been threatening her at knife-point.
So yes, Arjun isn't a nice guy. But he does have views and opinions about everything around him.
However, the film will have us believe that women have no opinions about anything that happens to them or around them. The only woman character who has her say is Arjun's grandma, who has progressive views on love, longing and suffering.
Preethi, the heroine, for whom Arjun suffers so much, is utterly colourless. She doesn't protest his aggression or invasion of her personal space at any point. She clearly looks intimidated and we don't know why exactly the college's star student and sports player has decided to fall for her. The only time she asserts herself is when she tells her angry parents that yes, she has had sex with Arjun.
The "fat chick" friend, too, has nothing to say about Arjun's outrageous behaviour. She merely smiles compliantly.
Then there's Jia, a movie star, who comes to Arjun as a patient and is attracted to him. She promises to enter into a physical relationship without emotional hang-ups with him as he's still getting over his break-up with Preethi. At one point, of course, Jia falls for Arjun. When she says "I love you", he walks out on her. And we're actually shown this movie star ironing Arjun's shirt because she's fallen for him. For a moment, Sandeep Reddy Vanga appears to have thought he was making a '90s ad for detergent.
Arjun's mother, too, barely speaks except to making generic mummy statements. Arjun's sister-in-law has nothing to say other than look pained by all the drama. His real conversations happen with his father and brother.
The male universe
In fact, we know more about Shiva (Arjun's friend) and Shiva's inquisitive father, than any of the female characters who play a prominent role in Arjun's life.
The film treats women as property, to be under the protection and control of men. The student Arjun beats up during the football match molests Preethi because she's Arjun's girlfriend (at this point, Preethi has still not entered into a relationship with Arjun).
An angry Arjun beats up the guy and then makes him promise that he will never do this again because Arjun would soon be passing out of the college and wouldn't be around to "protect" Preethi any more.
A sobbing Preethi crashes into Arjun's arms after she hears this promise. It doesn't seem to have mattered to her at all that she was first made someone's girlfriend without her consent, molested because a second man wanted to take revenge on the first man, or that her "protection" duty has now fallen upon her molester. As is only to be expected, Preethi's fears turn into love gradually from this point.
Later in the film, after she's married off to another man against her wishes and Arjun wants to get her back, his friend Shiva says, "Earlier you had to take permission from her father. Now you have to take permission from her husband for that to happen."
What Preethi wants to do with her life doesn't seem to matter to anyone, including herself. Even when he's depressed, Arjun asks his male friends about their career and advises them on how they should move ahead. What happens to Preethi's dream to become a doctor? Nobody is interested.
In one scene, Shiva brings his prospective brother-in-law to meet Arjun and the latter passes some derogatory comments about air-hostesses. Arjun asks Shiva, point-blank, if he really wants his sister to marry someone who objectifies women like this (he clearly doesn't remember his theories on "fat chicks") and Shiva decides to scuttle the proposal.
Again, we don't know what Shiva's sister thinks about this -- she's only mentioned in conversation. The reason the three men have this conversation is for us to know that Arjun Reddy has progressive views on women, though he does act like a jerk at times.
Even a minor character like Arjun's domestic help who breaks his glasses and gossips about him is brought in line after her husband shouts at her at the behest of Shiva and Arjun.
Arjun screaming at Preethi and slapping her are all signs of his passion, intensity and inability to control his anger. However, the narrative does not look at it for what it is - an abusive relationship. Which is why, the ending is troubling.
Unable to get over Preethi despite his alcoholism, drug abuse, and attempts to turn over a new leaf, Arjun spots a pregnant Preethi in a park. He tries to persuade her to leave with him, telling her that he doesn't mind bringing up the baby as his own.
This scene is the only one where Preethi at last seems to be speaking her mind to Arjun. She starts off by saying that girl children have it a lot harder than boys. However, the speech becomes about how she didn't allow her husband to lay even a little finger on her and that the baby is actually Arjun's.
While Arjun may have shown the middle finger to social norms, the director drags Preethi back into the "virtuous" woman mould, to keep it morally acceptable for his audience.
The forced happy ending, with Arjun and Preethi getting back together with the blessings of their respective families, elevates their "love" to the stuff of legend: here are two people who stood together in the face of all opposition. Indeed, Arjun himself compares his love story to his friend Kamal's, and finds the latter's relationship to be lacking.
What the happy ending does, however, is to validate Arjun's abusive behaviour towards Preethi, right from the time he set his eyes on her.
Arjun Reddy is the same love story we've seen hundreds of times from male directors. That the story itself has been told exceedingly well with original detailing and has a hugely attractive male lead (that beard!), shouldn't drug us into believing any differently.