Not all heroes wear capes or an armour to save the day. They don’t have to slay the extra-terrestrial beasts or rescue the planet from dark forces. Or even come up with profound, life-altering monologues to drive a point home, like most Telugu films tend to do. All a hero needs to do is give us a reason to root for him, even if he isn’t morally right.
This is precisely why Sandeep Kumar Vanga’s Arjun Reddy, starring Vijay Devarakonda, feels like a game-changer for Telugu cinema.
Vijay Devarakonda’s Arjun Reddy is a rebel - the film is even more rebellious - who is a borderline bully, with a devil-may-care attitude towards the society and its norms. Quite rarely has there been a Telugu film where its lead actor isn’t a uttam purush, with his moral compass tilting towards every trait which your parents tell you to stay away from. Yet, we are drawn towards the tale of this youngster and continue to root for him almost till the end.
By the time the film ends, the character, sort of, redeems himself with an overwhelming sense of longing and compassion for his loved ones, and his faith in love stands vindicated.
Maybe that’s why we end up rooting for Arjun because he never stops amusing us.
Breaking the template
Telugu cinema, over the years, has stuck to template-driven films where you know exactly how they are going to turn out and if you consume around 20-30 films a year, you can see the pattern which is hard to miss.
Some of the major narrative arcs are, predominantly but not restricted to : Boy meets girl —> villain threatens to play spoilsport —> Boy defeats the villain. A perfect family —> Villain destroys the balance —> Boy takes revenge. A dysfunctional family —> Boy turns messiah —> A happy ending. A social issue —> Hero Comes To Town —> Rama Rajyam Prevails. This has practically been a tried and tested formula, and many a time, filmmakers have delivered blockbusters within the realm of these narratives.
Now, all of a sudden, when you come across a film which doesn’t stick to any of these arcs, it strikes you how much you have got used to template-driven films and how much scope there still is to tinker with how we approach stories. Truth be told, owing to the extraordinary amount of pandering that happens in the film industry to whatever is in vogue or some inexplicable calculations about audiences' tastes, the bar for Telugu movies is low.
So low that anything which is remotely entertaining stands a good chance to strike gold at the box-office. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. After all, filmmaking is a high stakes game and unless you have a big appetite for taking risks, the status quo prevails. And right from the first shot of Arjun Reddy, you know that both Vijay Devarakonda and director Sandeep Kumar Vanga have taken a huge leap of faith to deliver a film that’s raw, intense, and unconventional in plenty of ways.
Perhaps, the biggest twist to this tale comes right in the beginning of the film. Sandeep Kumar Vanga gives absolutely no context - there’s no flashback, no exposition, no foreshadowing even through dialogues - when it comes to establishing the lead character. All we get is one monologue from the university’s dean where he says, “Arjun is the best student we have, but he scores a big zero in terms of anger management. A surgeon who can’t control his emotions is as good as a murderer with a surgical blade.”
A moment later, Arjun defends himself by explaining that his anger issues don’t make him a bad surgeon and that there’s a reason behind all his actions. This scene is vital to understanding the narrative of the whole film, because Sandeep doesn’t bother to answer why something is happening in Arjun’s life. He’s only interested in showing ‘how’ and ‘what’ happens in the lead character’s life.
This, in turns, forces us to just follow the story and not judge his actions.
The flawed hero
For the more emotionally inclined, Arjun Reddy has plenty of issues which do seem to be crude and deplorable at times. It’s not the drugs or his chronic-alcoholism at later parts that seem problematic. This is a tale of a youngster, whose intense and free-spirited persona makes him tough to handle for everyone around him.
In one of the scenes early into the film, Arjun goes to a classroom and announces that he’s interested in a girl, who has joined their college, and he also warns them that he doesn’t want any disturbance. “Aa pilla naadhi (that girl is mine),” he proclaims on more than one occasion.
He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t bother about consent and the way he shocks the girl in front of her friends and other classmates, might very well be considered to be an embarrassing situation; however, the girl doesn’t talk at all. We have no idea what’s going through her mind. Since it’s a film which has a unequivocally male voice, the girl’s silence slowly blooms into love when she realises that Arjun is extremely protective of her.
At a later point of time, Arjun also defends women from being objectified. After he’s heart-broken, he gives into his carnal desires, yet he harbours a feeling that his true love is still waiting for him. So, do we still judge Arjun for his rambunctiousness? Or should we forgive him for his insensitivity, at least in the initial stages?
The film doesn’t expects us to do either, but absorb the story and all the flaws of Arjun.
Discovering an original voice
There aren’t too many original voices in Telugu cinema, at least not to the level that Sandeep Kumar has achieved with his debut film. To call it a rip-off of Dev D, like some have done already, will be doing great injustice to the story. Although the two might seem thematically similar, the approach is different.
Arjun shows no remorse for his actions and is a constant embarrassment for his friend Shiva, played by Rahul Ramakrishna, who grows tired of his actions. Yet, he doesn’t ditch him even when there’s no hope left. Arjun almost drinks himself to death, but when the time comes, he takes his call of duty quite seriously. He believes in speaking the truth, even though it might cost him his reputation and career.
There’s a sense of discovery about a character while watching the film and that’s also a reason why the film holds together despite its 3 hours 7 minutes runtime, which is practically unheard of in recent few years. It's almost like reading a gripping novel. There's so much to ruminate.
Above all, the film is proof of what happens when an actor completely immerses himself into the character. Whether it’s his rage or being a bad-ass, or even a heartbroken lover, Vijay Devarakonda gives us a lot to root for. It’s tough to say who’s the more interesting and intense of the two - Arjun Reddy or Vijay Devarakonda.
Vijay’s attitude is the talk of the town, and quite rightfully so. It’s been a while since we have seen someone pulling off such a brilliant performance that no matter what issues we may have with the film, we’ll walk out with a new found respect and awe for Vijay Devarakonda.
Ever since its release, Arjun Reddy has been referred to as a ‘cult film’ by a majority of moviegoers. Whether the film will continue to be a subject of debate and intense discussions in future remains to be seen -- but there’s no doubt that the success of the film has turned Vijay into a youth sensation and more importantly, it has given other filmmakers in the industry an arsenal of ideas, and inspiration, to break free from the shackles of expectations.
It’s also a wake-up call to other writers and filmmakers. They don’t have to pander to any group or anyone for that matter if they have a great story to tell. Breaking away from formula is the new formula in Tollywood and Arjun Reddy shows us how to do it right. This isn’t about inserting a bunch of expletives or lip-locks into a film. What Arjun Reddy has given us is a glimmer of hope that when you have the honesty to show a story, for what it is, audiences will lap it up.
This truly is a game changer for Telugu cinema.