Arjun Reddy – a ramble

Note: The following is part rumination, part ramble (not a review) on the film Arjun Reddy, and there are bound to be spoilers. My unfamiliarity with the language could’ve resulted in some misinterpretations – accept my advance apologies in this regard.

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“It’s not the goodbye that hurts, but the flashback that follows”, a saying quoted by the protagonist’s father kind of sums up in many ways; bit rudely yet accurately, the protagonist’s plight. His mental state is one of denial, a refusal to move on after an abrupt break up. The film takes the hero (Arjun Reddy) on an intimate and intense self-explorative journey of abject degradation. The non-linear narrative intercuts this descent into debauchery with the fond memories of his passionate relationship with Preethi (AR’s love interest), thereby creating an emotionally seesawing experience for the audience.

It is but obvious from the title that the movie is a hero-centric one. The script revolves around Arjun Reddy’s character arc. The phases that he goes through and the way people, places, and situations interact with him – form the content of this lengthy yet well-shot film by Sandeep Vanga. Vijay Devarakonda probably gives the performance of his lifetime as AR. Shalini Pandey’s performance as Preethi is an effective and a complementary aesthetic force to reckon with.

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An important aspect of AR, the film, is the unapologetic exploration of an amorous intimacy, and the lack of escapist sequences that objectify actors. From this perspective the movie might appear to have a progressive sheen but I am sure feminists would have a problem with the masculinity that borders on chauvinism, occasionally. AR’s characterisation is organic, sincere and even the edginess and eccentricity that produce a chauvinistic feel are never glorified. The cinematic aesthetic adapted forces the camera to merely soak in passively the action, in a non judgemental, detached fashion. The so called “traditional” and “orthodox” audience, who don’t mind watching an escapist item dance but have difficulty confronting a realistic intimate scene, would never put up with this film. In my opinion, there was no cultural toxicity imparted.

The constant yo-yoing, between flashbacks and the degenerative present, lets the audience realize how these pulsatile bursts of memories affect an individual. This style serves an important function of helping the audience empathize with an eccentric character such as AR. It was refreshing to realize that the writer denies the luxury of lengthy expositions in most of the scenes, the film moves and flows through the images it creates and not the information it supplies as dialogue. The cinematic style has an overarching documentary/ Cinema Vérité feel to it. The movie is riddled with many point of view shots that capture AR from close proximity, both physically and emotionally, occasionally producing a paparazzi tone to the cinematography. In a psychologic sense, this kitchen-sink realism coerces the audience to be non-judgmental.

AR is characterized in three different versions; the versions are best defined with the characteristic shots.

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The first one would be the one in which he enters into one of his acquaintance’s house; he is framed at the doorway with light from behind his head. This is his first close up; he oozes of charisma and arrogance but then something (not just the beard) suggests that there is a melancholic side to this madness.

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The second would be his CRRI look; one spots a clean-shaven AR in a football jersey driving his motorcycle and smoking, even though he has lost his beard the edginess, and pugnacity are preserved. In this avatar you don’t really trace any sadness, rather you spot a carefree nonchalance. In the third edition, this is after AR has seen the pregnant Preethi, he does not sport a beard, and is bereft of confidence, arrogance, and all that remains is despair. The actor traces this character arc wonderfully, and I felt it served as the aesthetic scaffolding for the film.

The introduction to AR is both atypical and admirable. The director sets up this brilliant collage of AR’s life, and throws it at the plot-naïve audience, an audacious move for a newbie filmmaker. The very first shot is a surreal one, the couple are in a bed in a secluded beach lying still, with a voice over – clear suggestion of a dreamy idealistic state of bliss (We later realize the bed near the beach signifies the halcyon Mangalore period). Then we cut to a close up of AR’s draped Royal Enfield, which is gradually uncovered and washed as his grandma’s voice over, plays in the background. There is a clear symbolism here – the charismatic gutsiness of the Enfield acting as a replacement for AR (the AR of his college years). These subtle metaphors ring true and they for sure hint at a rather cheerful past (one already senses a mood of earning).

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In the next phase of the sequence AR’s depravity is bluntly suggested by shots of him having a morning drink. He is also shown visiting one of his acquaintances and at one point almost tries to force himself on to her (a brief power outage and a dimly lit room mark the mood), only to be restrained by a surprisingly fortuitous return of sanity, triggered by the arrival of power and the song “Cheri Cheri lady”. It is a well-shot scene; it displays the character’s subliminal state. In this version AR is a grossly deranged soul who has only bits of insight sticking on to him. VD’s complete and spontaneous mutation and immersion into AR’s caharacter is more than apparent.

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As a student his confidence, audacity, arrogance, and easily provokable nature produce the right cocktail for trouble. One such incident is the petty squabble, at the football match. The real high point in the fight is when he yells at an official running away with the trophy, to lay it down. He has already decided that the cup is theirs, and once AR decides that something belongs to him, he has to get it. AR the surgeon is effective, earnest, fair-minded but quirky and dismissive of rules, protocols or anything that tries to cage his bloated self-image. His OR time ends with him sitting in an imposing fashion with scrubs and bloody gloves intact, as his nurses in a servile fashion help him with his cigarette and beseech him to adhere to protocol. Then all his external toughness is but a facile façade hiding the obsession and addiction. Finally he commits the ultimate sin of medical negligence, which was always lurking around the corner. However, the denial continues, until he lays his eyes upon the pregnant Preethi.

Another interesting facet of AR is the quirky way in which he explains himself using quixotic metaphors, be it the “war like feel” he associates with a football match, or “we would have warred had it been medieval times” when he tries to reason out with Preethi after quarrelling with her dad, or the mention of “private space” to his own dad. This aspect adds layer and heightens resolution to a rigorous character study. In spite of being earnest and sincere his circuitous, and atypical thought process does end up estranging him from his near and dear.

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In addition to affection he has an intense sense of possessiveness over Preethi. This is evident in the classroom scene, in which he warns her fellow male students to keep away from her. Initially it is obvious that she loves the attention being showered on her, and kind of chooses to ignore his eccentricities. In fact his eccentric assertiveness, charm and spontaneity are the characteristics that got them together in the first place. When he visits Preethi’s house for a second time a part of him gets belittled and provoked by Preethi’s dad. He rants endlessly and walks off only after cursing, insulting and giving a deadline to Preethi. She thus confronts the brunt of AR’s idiosyncracies and anger for the first time.

In addition to his possessiveness he has this rather unrealistic nature of expecting others to share his views. One sees that in all his verbal quarrels, he is more peeved by the other person not sharing his views, rather than the actual reason of the argument. AR’s arrogance at times borders on narcissism, it is not a charismatic and benign entity, and it has the potential malignancy to cause self-destruction.

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There are two instances in which I felt the harmony between the writing, filmmaking and acting produced absolute gems. These scenes cajole us to empathize with AR, in fact make it impossible to hate him. The first one is in a hospital cafeteria, during the telisene na nuvve song, he is in his scrubs, eating, there is an initial profile shot of him, in which he suddenly turns despondent, and there is a cut to a front on shot showing him breaking into tears and pushing the plate away. The other scene is when he gets into the bathroom to shave, opens the bathroom cabinet door to see a liquor bottle, and immediately shuts the cabinet and we cut to a close up of him wincing in sheer helplessness. The next shot is of him looking at the mirror, it now reflects his anxious, vulnerable and powerless face. His image on the alcohol-laden bathroom cabinet metaphorically suggests his imprisonment to the habit and to the obsession that is Preethi. There is no shot of him consuming alcohol; we then cut to the shot of his friends entering to find him drunk and collapsed on the floor.

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AR the character, not the film, seems to objectify women. Though he might have his own weird sense of ethicality to justify his actions, it is but obvious that he is taking advantage. This is strikingly so when he sees Jia Sharma pressing his clothes. So he is aware of her feelings for him but then he continues with the “no strings attached” relationship. Even while relatively sane he passes a “good looking chick/ fat chick” remark to Preethi, suggesting that he is not all ethical when it comes to women. But then he does pose as a progressive minded guy when he lectures on arranged marriage, or when he puts down his friend’s prospective brother in law. These preaching by him are in stark contrast to his actions; in fact this inherent hypocrisy makes his character more rounded. The cluster B mentality becomes all the more clear with the dismissive way in which AR treats a friend who tries to invite him for his wedding. We realize, as he throws the currency out through the balcony, that he is full of himself and his disappointments and he does not give a damn about anything else. All praise goes to the director/ actor duo who have been effective in creating a character that is egotistical, borderline Narcissistic, borderline chauvinistic, and yet is endearing.

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Preethi’s introduction is well timed as it comes right next to scenes that are filled with rage and rant. This scene is cut in an interesting way as well. As AR is seated, he glimpses at a steady stream of female students walking down a mossy walkway, we exactly do not know who he is looking at, the impeccable voice of Bombay Jayashri, wafts in the air, and adds serenity and a dreamy feel to the scene. The girls’ zigzag down this walkway from right to the left of the frame in slow motion and the scene is edited and filmed in such a way as to give the impression that the proceedings are happening at a sedate pace. Finally, the eye contact is made, and I was pleasantly surprised at the refreshing casting choice, the petite and demure appearing Shalini Pandey (Preethi). This almost trance like first meeting, does leave its mark both in a cinematic and emotional sense.

Preethi’s character is a perfect complement to that of AR. While he is spontaneous she sure does take her time, but once she does decide on a course of action stays assured and sincere to it. Even at the time of the courtship AR’s public display of affection during the Anthakshari scene is spontaneous, and even one could say a tad impulsive. However Preethi follows it up with a more assertive and daring expression of love, while they are alone and then among friends. The evolution of their relationship is shown in three phases, the song Emitemitemito marks the first one, then comes Madhuram, and finally Dhooram. It is almost structured as a single sequence, with a varying BGM (as mentioned above), altering mise en scene (college/backwaters, then the beach house & beach, finally arrivals & departures at airports). The steady change in BGM and locale give this sense of an evolution in a relationship, layers it.

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SP probably contributes more to the film than is apparent. She has the arduous job of enacting a complex character that is bashful, yet assertive, sensitive and responsive in a quiet way. She is also able to do justice to the character arc by varying her response to AR’s overtures from the Anthakshari scene, to the shots during the Madhurame song, to her reaction in the dhooram song (especially during the video call). During the conversation in his home, AR says in his eccentric way that he would kiss everyone in her family, and she starts to smile and giggle with tons of admiration for AR, in her eyes. This one shot probably is proof enough of her nuanced and wonderful debut performance. It would be befitting to say that Preethi is in love with AR mainly because he is all that she wants to be but could not be – spontaneous, impulsive and forthright, she is far too sensitive an individual to afford that luxury.

The final sequence where he gets to meet the Pregnant Preethi for the first time is well shot. There is no conversation, the helplessness in his eyes, and the anxiety on Preethi’s speak volumes. Oopiri Aaguthunnadey, the soul-searching number sung by Revanth follows. The now defanged, despaired AR with apprehension lining his brows travels to the Amalfi coast as the song plays in the background. As the music in the song soars, the entire screen gets filled with the scrolling selfies of Preethi, and then there is an abrupt cut to AR’s distressed face, gradually looking away from the phone and gazing vacantly. This shot is wonderfully choreographed, an obsessed lover who was in denial all this while is recognizing and confronting the possibility that his estranged girlfriend might not return anymore, for the first time. He is now a spent force; a kid who has been acting out all his life, has now been handed out the rudest of all time-outs.

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Since the movie started with a cinematic bang I would have personally preferred it to have a similarly effective ending. I was extremely disappointed with the climax. It was like someone served me authentic Awadhi Biryani and kebabs on traditional silver cutlery, for main course, and followed it up with a sickly sweet Amul ice cream on a plastic cup. It is in total dissonance with the entire film’s aesthetic and emotional tone and moreover does not ring true. The needless exposition counteracts the organic chemistry shared by the lead pair and destabilizes the dense and visually driven script. Even if they did want to give a “happy” ending why not just say “c’mon lets marry” – just that. The movie’s overarching tone would’ve been preserved had the above scene, in Italy, been the climax, as he casts the vacant look there could have been a fade out to end titles, with a montage of freeze frames of those places that nurtured and harboured their love (Mangalore backwaters, the mossy red brick walled college, the beach house, Mussoorie….) rolling in the background. Works depicting a journey of grief and suffering taste better when served with a blurry destination or a resolution that is subtly alluded to. However the director goes for the hackneyed option, after having raised the expectations with some audacious filmmaking, earlier, this was a sure letdown.

The characters are framed in interesting ways throughout the film. There is a pattern to it. The lonely, degenerating AR is often framed, in profile, through the balcony window or door, with light coming from behind him. This gives a melancholic yet an edgy mood to the shot. In contrast the lead pair is framed, during happy times, through fences on the beach, through a gap in a parapet wall on a terrace, or in a well-lit courtyard between two pillars, or even better with a long bridge between them, and the Mangalore backwaters in the background. These shots do leave a lasting impression, as they are layered with visual metaphors some apparent, and some not so much.

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The editing adds to the raw feeling by bringing in some non-linearity within scenes, such as the football game. Some smart cutting marks the Mussoorie phase, AR’s and Preethi’s arrival and departure are cut in a way to acknowledge the passage of time, the effect of the distance, and the depth in their relationship. Match cuts are frequently used to transition between flash backs and current events, such as the bong replacing his face, or his stepping on a glass piece – cuts into a chip being removed from Preethi’s sole, these edits tend to impart a sense of perpetuity between the two time periods. This pattern of a phase of time swallowing another, only to be replaced again by the original, causes us to sense a vicious continuum. Probably, adds to the psychedelic ambience of the substance driven phase of AR.

All the songs, especially, “Oopiri Aaguthunnadey” and “Madhurame ee kshaname”, leave a lasting impression. Most importantly they are employed well. I was pleasantly surprised by the effective use of the needle drop technique to use songs such as Control Machete’s – “Si Señor”, Bombay Jaishree version of – “Sumanasa Vanditha”, Chinese man – “if you please”, “What a wonderful world”, and “Cheri Cheri lady”. Even at one point you hear AR sing Bill Wither’s “Aint no Sunshine”. The use of an eclectic soundtrack in an experimental manner could’ve been counterproductive but judicious choices make the music a sure winner.

AR as I had mentioned early on is indeed a hero-centric film. Even the heroine is confined to a claustrophobic screen space. However we do come across an array of characters that lend an extra layer to AR. The friend Shiva does act as a mirror, and he is the only link the sinking AR has with the real world, in his best shot Rahul Ramakrishna calls AR “unworthy” for having treated a friend badly – he owns that scene. AR’s progressive and wise Grandma, Kanchana, does leave a lasting remark with her steadied performance and one-liners such as “when a woman is in love priorities change”, “suffering is personal – let him suffer”. I have to mention about some inspirations that were strikingly apparent. The whole medical negligence sequence is definitely inspired by Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. The similarities in script between AR, the film, and Dev D are also quite apparent. However stylistically, technically and performance wise this film is as fresh as it can get.

Films depicting break ups come by dime a dozen. Sandeep Vanga, through his deft filmmaking, has been able to focus on the sheer power of memories rather than dwelling on the genre cliches. If Devdas type of films were a genre unto themselves, this movie carves a niche for itself, in that category, by uniquely rendering the thumping emotional blow, nostalgia can serve.

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