Ms. Representation: For whom the movies are made
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week we take a look at Arjun Reddy
I watched the Telugu film Arjun Reddy after listening to a lot of hype around it, with calls for subtitles and talks of the film being very radical, etc. I waited through all 3+ excruciating hours for the radical to sweep me by at the cinemas, in vain. In the beginning of the film, a patient’s fiancée calls Arjun (he’s a doctor) and he lands up at her house, and tries to get it on with her. When she has a change of mind she is threatened with a knife, for a horrifying few moments. Then he drops the knife and walks away, his image as ‘hero’ intact.
In fact, he is now the badass hero, who does drugs, drinks, is irreverent and kisses on screen. In this universe of Arjun Reddy (Vijay Deverakonda) irreverence is the new sheep, lift its mask and you’ll see a familiar old beast called disregard for women’s consent in cinema, hiding. And that this must not be questioned, because it comes in the way of the hero’s ‘badass’ image and the uber-cool nouveau cinema, is a convenient escape. Which is what makes one wonder, do directors never think of women as their audience? And what do they want us to do in these scenes and movies where there’s no consequence at all for bringing harm women’s way? There’s consequence for hurting the male ego throughout this film, which is what it is an ode to, but the women? Meh.
A quiet young woman, Preethi Shetty, (Shalini Pandey) in the first year of a college where the hero is studying (in his final year) is spotted by said hero, and then she is marked as being his property. What follows is bafflingly old school for new-age cinema. He and his motley crew of friends, male and female, just go around warning everybody she is ‘his’ and that all men must stay away from her. In the not so ‘radical’ world as imagined by feminists, something like this would mean going to the police station to lodge a complaint about a creep, for among other things, plain old slander. Not in his 3+ hour ode to Stockholm syndrome. There are no consequences and even if there are, they are only as a result of men’s actions. Women just exist, pointlessly, in this world to please men.
The concept of consent does not exist in this world of Arjun Reddy at all. So how radical this movie is, I am not sure. Instead of him singing ‘You are my MLA’, while stalking the heroine, you hear some Carnatic music in the background. The change is cosmetic. At its core, the values are all the same. That women are for the men to take, abuse and ‘protect’ as they please. Women get to be marked out. Women get to be drawn on, without consent--Preethi’s self-appointed boyfriend takes her away from lectures and teaches her the human anatomy by drawing on her. Later, on Holi day her self-appointed boyfriend’s enemy settles scores with him by touching her inappropriately on the pretext of dabbing colours on her. Her self-appointed boyfriend then beats the enemy, and asks him about his sister and mother, because come on. What are women? Independent beings you said? That’s where you are wrong, they can only exist only in relation to men. Again, not so radical.
In any case, how different is Arjun Reddy from his 'casteist' Shetty future father-in-law? In his first conversation with the heroine, he asks if she got in on Tulu quota and clarifies that he got in on merit. He is physically relieved upon hearing that she got in on 'merit' as well. Sweet radical youths of new-age cinema have no sense of social justice and take pride in parading their new-age bigotry, while also subjecting their women to these imagined yardsticks of glory.
There were too many moments that left me feeling disappointed in Arjun Reddy. Compare this to Vijay’s previous outing, as the clueless Prashanth in Pelli Choopulu… Now that was way radical for Telugu cinema. A heroine with a past and ambition, a hero who isn’t trapped in ‘mass’ moments and isn’t trying to save anyone, just a light, breezy, happy romance. I think I’ll have to re-watch that film to get over this feeling of unease