Readers Write In #224: Arjun Reddy is a landmark of Telugu Cinema, regardless of its moral incorrectness

Posted on July 21, 2020


(by Ram Venkat Srikar)

If you’re a non-Telugu-speaking movie buff who discovered Telugu cinema during the lockdown, relying on the multitude of OTT services, it is highly likely that your cinematic comprehension of Telugu cinema is confined to OTT hits, which mostly represent the good side of the Telugu cinema. For instance, the majority of cinephiles from different parts of the country I interacted with have watched Agent Sai Sreenivas Athreya, Fida, Pellichoopulu, Jersey, and the elephant in the room, Arjun Reddy, in common. Now, leaving aside people who think Bahubali is a Tamil film and refer every South-Indian as Keralite, most of the cinephiles must be aware of the fact that Arjun Reddy is a Telugu film directed by Sandeep Reddy Vanga, who also remade the film as Kabir Singh in Hindi. Kabir Singh, in addition to being one of the most successful films of 2019, also ignited a conversation about ‘toxic masculinity’, which was further fuelled by a very (in) famous interview the filmmaker gave post the release, as the audience continued to throng theatres and writers added pieces to the archival of toxic masculinity.

One thing which everyone, especially the native Telugu-audience during the release of Arjun Reddy in 2017, seemed to have taken no note of is that the post-viewing discussions transcended the usual

“cinematography is excellent”

“Music was awesome dude”

“hero entry next-level babai!”

Perhaps, we – the generation that grew feeding on mass masala Telugu entertainers – for the first time saw Telugu films coming close to what Martin Scorsese would elegantly define 2 years later as Cinema.

No one can describe cinema as beautifully as the master did:

“For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.

It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.”

His lines about characters and their complexity elucidate everything about Arjun Reddy, as a person first, and then as a film. But for me, the fact that a Telugu film managed to strike a dialogue beyond the usual tête-à-tête was a revelation.

The mainstream Bollywood space, too, is not much ahead of Telugu cinema. However, it has a corner for content-oriented films (read: real cinema) unlike Telugu, which leaves little to no space for any film that lacks a popular face to sell it. Tens of millions of views on Hindi-dubbed versions of Telugu films are indicative of something. Kabir Singh was fresh to Bollywood as well, proven by the footfalls. The reactions, too, were vehement when the Hindi-version released. I can explain why the Telugu film didn’t trigger an outrage of Kabir Singh‘s proportions (I’m referring to the Twitter outrage, which was equivalent to a storm in a teacup like it always was).

As an industry, Telugu cinema has been in a pitiable state forever on the content front, while new-age filmmakers continue to wrestle the existing mediocrity. The industry grapples with the meagerness of:

writers, who can write beyond punchy one-liners; cinematographers who can capture more than alluring shots; music directors who can compose more than vigorous background scores; lyricists who can do better than repeating the phrase Mind-block-u 96 times in 4-minute song; filmmakers who can actually make a movie they want to, or tell a story they aspire to, instead of ‘satisfying’ the star’s fan-base; actresses who can do more than looking pretty; actors who can do more than walking in slow-motion; interviewers who can ask directors better questions than when will you be directing X and Y heroes; and most importantly, the audience who watch and appreciate distinct movies.

Mind it, the actors are always referred to as heroes, not actors. An actor even has the word ‘hero’ in his twitter username. In an industry where movies are only and only about their flawless demi-god heroes who are resilient to physical or emotional perils, Arjun Reddy was a tight slap that reminded that a film should always remain above the stars who feed on it.

Arjun Reddy did what Siva did in 1989. It changed the cinematic language for the years to come. Every Telugu-filmmaker working currently cites Siva as an influence. ‘Trend-setter’, it is referred to as. Over the years, Telugu cinema has witnessed a plethora of trends, Mayabazaar paved way for mythology, which bombarded films in the decades to follow, angry young men characters were highly prevalent post-Siva, and a film’s reliance on comedy was reinvented post the success of films from the Srinu Vaitla – Kona Venkat – Gopi Mohan combo – Dhee, Ready(remade in Hindi with the same title), King, Dookudu, to name a few major box office successes. The protagonist entering the antagonist’s house and making him a bozo was a plot point in every second crowd-puller through the first half of the 2010s, only to behold a down-trend towards the end of the decade, attributed to major flops like Aagadu, Pandaga Chesko, and Soukyam. Now, Arjun Reddy has asserted filmmakers to tell stories, a task many of them have obliterated beyond recollection.

In a recent webinar organized by MAMI, filmmaker Reema Kagti talked about the importance of having layers in the script and differentiating what the film wants to ‘say’ and what the film is actually ‘about’. That kind of layering happens rarely in Telugu cinema, and is seldom acknowledged by the viewers. For instance, the layering in Care of Kancharapalem enables us to view it from multiple perspectives. One, as a portrayal of the plight of women through the decades, or how human-set boundaries such as religion, cast, and order of life play adversary in the film’s four love stories. Layering in Telugu films is not a ground-breaking concept by any means. We are not that primitive, you see! At the heart of K Vishwanath’s 1980-film Sankarabharanam is the truth that art in different forms transcends the aforementioned boundaries set by humans. The film was a landmark, both on an artistic and monetary front. However, ascribed to the star-system that overpowered the craft in the last 3 decades, audiences were snatched away the joy of reading between the lines, while filmmakers had to resort to making 2.5-hour-long endorsements to exhibit the leading man’s talent in order to sustain as a filmmaker. Arjun Reddy brought the discussion back. It was not just about how well the hero shook the leg, or how cool a particular fight scene was. It was more than that.

Arjun Reddy is the character study of a very flawed person dealing with depression and alcohol addiction. Yes. The film is problematic. The risk of misapprehending his issues as cool characteristic traits is very high, considering ours is a country where people blew firecrackers when the Prime Minister asked us to light a diya. But we cannot ignore the fact that film turned tables in an industry where the superstars are superheroes to whom the script serves as a bridge to navigate from one elevation scene to another. Every time you feel Arjun Reddy is a daredevil, remember that he pissed his bed.

Arjun Reddy is a game-changer to Telugu cinema, irrespective of what you feel about adhesion to moral and social correctness. I recently saw a tweet saying they feel ashamed for cheering in the theatre for Kabir’s entry. I have one thing to say. You do not have to feel ashamed for liking Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh or any other art-form that depicts problematic people. If you want to celebrate solely the films that are morally and politically correct, I’d suggest people to stop watching films. Nothing and nobody is completely correct. Not even Lady Bird and Phantom Thread. Not even Ram in Ramayana and Yudhishthira in Mahabharata, but we find ways to justify their actions. Consider this piece one such.

Converging back to what Scorsese said, “It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

Any film that abides by these words is Cinema. Martin Scorsese said it, not me. Good or bad, that’s subjective. Stemming from an industry – in which both the filmmakers and viewers celebrate mediocrity week after week, year after year – Arjun Reddy is a rare film that can actually be termed Cinema.

PS: Like the mid-credit scene of Spiderman: Far From Home, which changes the entire movie, let me add that the success of Arjun Reddy, has been misunderstood by a few people (read: self-proclaimed filmmakers), who saw sex-scenes and use of cuss language as a recipe to make a film aimed at the young-audience demography. Now, that’ll be an issue.