There’s something to be said for the way that the Telugu film industry underwent a freefall, but managed to land on its feet. We’ve come from inglorious times of big-budget Balayya starrers, to creditable times of content-driven films. The audience is clearly tired of having its intelligence insulted, and is ready to be challenged and included in important conversations. As an avid member of this audience, I can only attest that this remarkable change is a duly welcome one. Looking back, I wonder when this change started to happen. Was it fueled by the viewers’ demands or the creators’ visions? In the case of Arjun Reddy— the film that I believe catalyzed this change— it appears to be both. The audience didn’t know they demanded the film until Sandeep Reddy Vanga nonchalantly provided it.
To me, the merit of Arjun Reddy is beyond just what can be seen on the periphery. The insanely good looking actor, the language, the drugs, the sex, the swearing, the background: all of these simply seem to be tools to bring out a realistic picture of a character’s internal dilemma. And what a dilemma it is. Arjun, our poor little rich boy, can’t seem to reconcile with the fact that he has different rules for himself and the world around him. He says women shouldn’t be objectified but treats Preeti like an object, he gives her a few hours to convince her father but disappears in the meantime, he revels in the greatness of his love story but can’t be appreciative of his friend’s wedding. These are just a few examples, but the point remains that Arjun doesn’t understand his rules, and therefore acts like he has none. He’s angry with everyone around him and, more than anyone else, with himself. Sure, it took a few catalysts (his family, his education, his relationship) to bring out this dialectical tension but I contend that it’s always been there. It’s what explain his addiction to substances and to Preeti.
This is how I explained my understanding of the film to my dad, Akkiraju Bhattiprolu, when he asked me whether or not I thought he could write Arjun Reddy. My answer to that question is a resolute ‘no.’
My dad’s work (his collection of short stories, ‘Moodu Beerla Taravata’) and Arjun Reddy are similar to the extent that they both center around characters that have irreconcilable dilemmas. Whether it’s Nandini (from Nandini), Moorthy (from Jandhyam), or Satish (from Gated Community), they all have issues from past experiences that inhibit their future ones. They’re all straggling to build new worlds because they feel like their stuck in old ones. I hate to generalize characters like this, but I feel like these similarities stare you in the face— maybe literally for me because, truth be told, my dad is one of these characters. And that right there is the difference. I see my dad in each and every one of the characters he writes. If not his direct persona, he makes sure to include a persona he deeply empathizes with. I’ve always believed this to be his greatest strength: he pours himself into his characters, and by association, his stories.
Even though one can argue that Arjun Reddy is deeply rooted in Sandeep Reddy Vanga himself, he dissociates enough to be relatable. Arjun makes so many mistakes, but he owns all of them. He has sole agency in all his actions, even though they’re predominantly immature ones. This makes Arjun the master of his own story and the dilemma he faces is his own. This is what the current youth is like. We’re assertive about our decisions, even when they’re the wrong ones. My dad’s stories, on the other hand, have characters that are weighed down by the world around them. Their dilemmas are external facing solely because they move beyond just themselves. They’re less selfish, but also less sorted.
I can give my dad credit for the fact that he can write a beautiful character with internal tensions, but he can’t write a character that’s relatable enough to power the likes of Arjun Reddy. Maybe his characters were relatable in his own time when they set out to solve problems that were more sophisticated and layered. Today, problems are out there and the ones who solve them do so with aggression fueled by their own issues. This is seen in stories like Gully Boy, Falaknuma Das, Pellichoopulu, Tamasha and many more. Today’s audience wants to be represented and included in the stories that are in the public sphere. And if Balayya’s superhuman antics don’t work, neither do my dad’s stories.