Readers Write In #185: The gloriously overlooked character arc of Arjun Reddy

Posted on May 20, 2020

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(by Pragnya N)

While the debate is still out on whether Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy glorifies toxic masculinity, toxic relationships, alcohol and drug abuse, and also sexism, a zoom-out on Arjun Reddy as a character study, shows that the film isn’t sermonizing on how a man should be modelled. Instead, it speaks about the struggles and lessons one upper-class Arjun Reddy (Vijay Devarakonda) goes through to fully accept that he wasn’t all that and then some (is that outdated yet?). No, he wasn’t just a hot hothead who no one dared to overstep, nor an arrogant yet perfect student, nor a college sports-star but is simply a boy, becoming a man who needed a reality check. Interestingly, the movie, when steps away from its own narrative, shows how Arjun Reddy sees his own life. When he glorifies his own violence, it is seen on screen (backed up by good music and camerawork). When the protagonist dwells into drug abuse, his intoxication and temporary distractions are seen on the screen quite explicitly (for instance, the scene where the protagonist urinates on himself when drugged out; yes, the movie went there, and yes, somehow it was seen as glorification because of good music and camerawork). When he romances with his girlfriend, Preethi Shetty (Shalini Panday) the story on screen is suddenly marvelously happy (evident with the premarital sex and the good music and camerawork). Thus, being an arrogant, violent ass, who smokes, hazes his juniors and talks back to the dean is seen as ‘cool’ by Arjun Reddy; and is being conveyed to the audience through the same lens.

In general, however, the explicit use of vices, particularly on screen, appears to be more glorified because of the societal taboo surrounding its practice (much like the teenage romance with the forbidden fruit). As such, the very use of vices—or indulging in the forbidden fruit— is far more impactful than the process of sobering up—or caring for your pregnant teenage girlfriend. And, redemption arcs are—like many games and westerns have taught us—a tad slow. Yet, while attempting to finally overcome his depression, Arjun Reddy becomes a better man than he was before his relationship.

It is evident that the young man learns to tame his late-teenage angst (I suppose poor Arjun was a late-bloomer) in numerous scenes littered throughout the film.In a scene from his past, the once young Arjun (or, Arjun-The-Ass, as my friends dubbed him) fat-shames Preethi’s classmate during his college days. Whereas the older and depressed Arjun (aka, Druggie-Arjun) advises his best friend, Shiva, (Rahul Ramakrishna) quite sternly, to let go of a possible groom for his sister as the man spoke about women in a demeaning manner. However, the movie’s nonchronological narration presentsDruggie-Arjun’s scene before the Arjun-The-Ass’s offensive scene, causing an understandable confusion in comprehending the character development.

Another pair of scenes serve to illustrate this arc. In an earlier scene, Arjun-The-Ass goes head- to-head with the dean of the college and defends his impulsive actions by declaring that there is a satisfaction in violence; he even goes as far as quitting the college to protect his ego. In a later scene, Druggie-Arjun breaks down when questioned about performing a surgery intoxicated (even though his family and friends try to cover up his addiction and malpractice) admitting it was irresponsible of him as violates the spirit of the Hippocratic oath.

Of course, the focus of the movie is solely on Arjun Reddy (as the title of the film so obviously indicates) in a dramatic coming-of-age setting. As mentioned before, the story is about how the protagonist goes from being a boy to a man. This transformation on his arc is inflicted by three women who influenced his life during that crucial age: the girlfriend, the actress, and the grandmother. To be precise, it is how they impact him at different points in life that set the curvature which shapes his maturity, ultimately defining his character-arc.

The first turning point is when Preethi, the girlfriend, left him and married a man of her father’s choosing. Preethi’s Arjun is venerable, romantic, dominating, and everything you want your porn preferences to be. But the setback of his breakup threw him into a downward spiral with drugs and alcohol. Although he attempts to cope further through sex—at a time, even by trying to sexually assault an engaged woman—he is unable to do so and seems stuck to his earlier dysfunctional modes of coping. The second turning point, which arcs his character is marked when Jia Sharma, (Jia Sharma) the beautiful actress and his patient, confesses her love for him during his depression…which sends him spiraling on an even more self-destructive path (which is most of us, let’s be honest). And the last turning point is when (spoiler-alert) homeless and unemployed Druggie-Arjun’s grandmother (Kanchana) dies, marking his recovery towards maturity, tolerance and understanding the value of his and his family’s lives. A prime example of his shift in character during this arc is when he consoles his father (Sanjay Swaroop) over the loss of his grandmother even though his father had kicked him out his house, many months prior.

Although Arjun Reddy brought about heavy criticism for its implications on impressionable youth, it succeeded in setting a precedent on flawed heroes in Telugu cinema with its fame, paving a path for realism and relatability. The actor’s impressively unabashed performance left the audience craving for a change from faultless heroes with unrealistic principles and godlike vigour. This is accomplished not just by highlighting his flaws, but by highlighting the personal journey he took to redeem himself; making him humbler, (much like how the movie goes) as he tones down his self-glorification. The takeaway here should probably be on how the irrational criticism of these films (like berating them for not portraying the protagonist as a Marty Stu) not only discourages freedom of creativity but steals the focus towards subjects which do not necessarily convey the director’s story of the film.