Sandeep Vanga’s début film is epic. I don’t mean epic in the sense of Sanjay Leela Bhansali style staging (although at points it is), but rather epic in terms of story and exceptional attention to detail. It’s an all-encompassing tale of one man’s journey through love and loss, through addiction, pain and despair but still managing to survive with the support of his friends. The attention to detail in the story is exquisite and Vijay Deverakonda is outstanding as the titular character who is essentially a modern-day Devdas. But this story is so much more complicated than Devdas. It’s almost a documentary where every small facet of Arjun’s life is laid bare for the audience to pick over and examine in detail. So, we see Arjun’s family, his girlfriend and her family, college friends and enemies, work colleagues, even friends’ families who all have a role to play in the story. It’s also epic in terms of the love story where the passion is so large and so over-whelming that it bursts from the screen in waves of emotion that almost drown out everything else; where nothing else matters to Arjun and Preeti except each other and the scale of their love. This is selfishness and single-mindedness taken to the extreme and yet Sandeep Vanga somehow makes it seem plausible. And finally, it’s epic in terms of Arjun’s descent into alcoholism and drug abuse to the point where I was amazed he was still alive after his binges, let alone coherent. It’s also a little over 3 hours long – epic indeed!
Arjun (Vijay Deverakonda) is a Masters student at medical college when he first sees Preeti (Shalini Pandey), one of the new intake of first year students. He desires her as soon as he sets eyes on her and as college topper and all-round hero of the college he quickly marks her as his ‘property’. Strangely Preeti doesn’t seem too upset by Arjun taking over her life, but acquiesces to all of his demands, even when he tells her who to befriend, and she falls quickly fall into love and into Arjun’s bed without any objections. But then Arjun is popular and smart, so perhaps her instant attraction is understandable. He’s also brash and over-confident with anger management issues. He picks a fight at a football match and refuses to apologise afterwards because the fight was pretty much the whole point of the event for Arjun. Once Arjun falls for Preeti, he is completely obsessed by her and every single insult is of monumental importance, requiring instant satisfaction for which he is willing to beat the entire world to death if necessary.
It’s interesting that Preeti doesn’t have a voice until well into the narrative. Perhaps her reticence is because she’s simply over-whelmed by the attentions of the most popular guy in the college. There is the usual stalking = love trope as Arjun basically bullies Preeti into being his girlfriend, but somehow it seems possible given that Arjun is a free spirit and the normal rules don’t seem to apply. However, once Preeti falls in love, she’s just as obsessed as Arjun, to the point of following him up north when he moves away to finish his surgical residency. The love story is intense and physical with both Arjun and Preeti as single-minded as each other, and both utterly dependent on the other for their happiness.
Of course this is a story of loss and when Preeti’s family reject Arjun and marry her off to someone from their own caste, Arjun immediately sinks into despair. He quickly becomes an alcoholic and drug addict, although still manages to work as a surgeon with a devoted team of nurses who hide his drinking from management. His obsession with Preeti leads to an estrangement from his own father (Sanjay Swaroop) and the emotion in these scenes is raw and very believable. My favourite line in the entire film is when Arjun’s grandmother (Kanchana) is talking to Arjun’s brother Gautham (Kamal Kamaraju) and sums my own thoughts up beautifully by saying: ‘he wants to suffer – then let him!’
The story works because although Arjun lives life right on the very edge, his bad decisions are believable and mixed up with actions which so often are right. He’s a capable surgeon who really cares about his patients, and who all love him as a result. Ditto the other staff at the hospital who adore him. He is rather less considerate of his friends and continually abuses Shiva (an absolutely brilliant Rahul Ramakrishna) for having no ambition, even when Shiva is constantly rescuing Arjun from the consequences of his own excesses. No matter what his friends try, Arjun remains fixated on Preeti and addicted to alcohol or any other chemical that can blot out his misery for a few hours.
Sandeep Vanga conveys the fundamental selfishness of love in his story, and in his focus on Arjun succeeds in painting a realistically raw picture of despair and a broken heart. With all his flaws, Arjun is still a sympathetic character and the sheer depth of the emotion portrayed here drives a visceral response to many of the scenes in the film. Vijay Deverakonda really is incredible as Arjun and it’s a testament to the excellence of his acting skills that the character remains sympathetic despite Arjun’s many shortcomings. He ensures Arjun’s obsessive nature is sharply revealed in the early scenes and the swings between lover and addict, anger and happiness, hope and despair are amazingly powerful. This really is excellent work from Vijay and it will be interesting to see what he does next.
Also very impressive is Rahul Ramakrishna who strikes exactly the right balance as Arjun’s long-suffering friend Shiva, and his mixture of humour and concern feels true to life. His character is also very relatable, made even more so by the clever scenes with his own father that are so different to Arjun’s posturing, making Shiva my favourite character in the film. His dialogue too is clever with some great self-deprecation, but Rahul also manages to convey his hurt at Arjun’s remarks, despite knowing it’s the alcohol and drugs talking. The other friends, Kamal (Kalyan Subrahmanyam), Keerthi (Anisha Alla) and Vidya (Aditi Myakal) are also very good, as are the rest of the support cast. Radhan provides the music which suits the film well and the songs are used as backdrop while moving the story forward. No big song and dance numbers, but this is not that sort of film.
Even with the over-blown nature of Arjun’s romance and subsequent melt-down, the story feels realistic and plausible, mainly due to the excellent characterisations and honest dialogue. Arjun’s addiction is particularly well done and is an surprisingly accurate description with his downwards spiral into self-absorption, mania, paranoia and continual pattern of pushing people away despite their attempts to help. This is good storytelling and I really hope the Telugu film industry can start to move away from current clichéd and formulaic screenplays into similarly more open and realistic films. It’s been a trend in the rest of the South for the last few years and it finally seems to be reaching Hyderabad. While Arjun Reddy may not be a film for everybody, it is an excellent watch and I enjoyed every minute – even if it’s not always a comfortable film to watch. Highly recommended.