This is is a movie that rewards viewing whether or not you know what happens, so feel free to read this, if it is the kind of film you would enjoy, knowing what happens in advance won’t change much. And as I said in my last No SPOILERS review, the true brilliance of the film is in the story structure, so you can’t fully understand why it is remarkable without knowing that.
There are 3 main strands to the plot. The past love story, the current addiction drama, and the medical career issues.
For the past love story, we see in flashback that our hero Vijay Deverakonda was the top student and top rowdy of his medical college. When he was about to pass out, he fell in love at first sight with a shy young new student Shalini Pandey. He claimed her for his own without even talking to her, just kind of started ordering her around and treating her as his girlfriend and made sure everyone on campus new it. She never seemed to react one way or the other, until finally she made the first move and kissed him, which quickly turned into sex. They lived together for 6 months while he finished his course, then had a long distance relationship for another 3 years, until finally she finished school and he got a good job in their mutual home town. He promptly approached her family to propose a relationship, her father rejected him angrily, and he responded with equal anger, giving her 6 hours to call him and tell her decision. Only, her family took her phone away, and by the time she got out of the house and over to his house, he had already mixed morphine and alcohol and overdosed. Two days later when he woke up from his coma, he ran to stop her wedding, and she did not turn around when he called her name, remaining firmly facing the wedding alter.
For the addiction drama, we see that he has always been a risk taker and a bit of a drinker. After that first morphine overdose, his family threw him out and his best friend Shiva/Rahul Ramakrishna (who, I think, was the outstanding performer of the film) helped him find an apartment. He entered into a routine of drinking every day, but trying to control it while at work (he had his nurses mark a line on the glass). His friend gets him a dog, named “Preethi” after his ex-girlfriend, but that is the only bright spot in his life. Otherwise, it becomes increasingly clear, it revolves around drinking and work and nothing else. At the opening of the film, he is trying to replace one addiction with another, planning to have angry desperate sex with a casual acquaintance. When that doesn’t work out, he calls around, trying to find any other willing woman, and then gives up. He tries again later, with an actress who comes to see him for medical help, and again it doesn’t work out, he ends up talking with her when they are supposed to be having a sex only relationship, and can’t do it when she admits she has fallen for him. And so he keeps going back to alcohol and drugs. Finally passing out and coming near death again, while at work, followed by a failed attempt to go cold turkey, followed by a relapse, followed by hitting rock bottom, selling off electronics from his apartment for drug/alcohol money, getting thrown out, and sleeping on the streets. Until Rajul tracks him down to tell him his beloved grandmother has died. Which causes a reconciliation with his family and, finally, he gets his addiction under control.
And third, there is the medical story. Right from the start, we know he is a brilliant and caring doctor. We see him being drunk, angry, desperate for sex. And then he goes to work and is considerate and caring to his patient, respected by his staff (even though they know of his anger and drinking problems), and generally shines his brightest there. We also learn that he is using work as an escape and an excuse. He is performing even more surgeries than he is supposed to, he has medical knowledge and notes written all over his apartment, behind and around the alcohol bottles. Even in the flashback, this is true, he is obsessed with Shalini at first sight, but that does not stop him from studying for his Masters and topping it. Throughout their 4 year relationship, he continues to excel at his profession. And the breakdown comes when his addiction and his profession are in conflict. He is called in on his day off because there is no other surgeon available and his staff knows he can save this patient’s life. He does, by sitting propped up in a chair and directing the nurses in the operation, before finally passing out just as the patient is saved. This is a really interesting medical conflict, because the argument that is mentioned in passing, and which is shown to some degree by what else we see of this hospital, is that it is truly the hospital’s fault (possibly related, the director has a medical degree himself and would have seen this kind of conflict first hand). They wanted him to over work, to keep their figures and statistics up. And they were the ones who did not have another surgeon on call on his day off. I think there is a nod here towards the conflict between this dedicated doctor who just wants to help his patients, and the for profit hospitals of India (and, really, America as well, it’s just less obvious here). Our hero is so far gone by this point, just recovered from the overdose during the surgery, that for a while he just goes along with what everyone else says, his brother who hires a lawyer to help him and so on. And he is going to get off. But ultimately, in a sequence that is a complete rip off of Flight but I will allow it, he has one more relapse the night before his testimony, passes out, his friend gets him some cocaine so he can testify (again, all of this was in Flight), and then during the trial, at the last minute, he just can’t do it. He has hit his breaking point and has to admit that he is an addict and, although he never actually caused harm to a patient, he could have, and does not deserve his license (again, just like Flight). This isn’t the moment that “cures” him, because addiction isn’t that simple. But it is the moment that helps him get to rock bottom, which is where he needs to reach before he can start climbing back up again. He has to lose everything, including his medical license, before he can finally admit he needs to change, he needs help.
Now, all of this is a fascinating film. The attitude towards medicine, the reality of the addiction story line (with the relapses and the slow slide and there being no one magical moment that can fix him, not until he is ready for it), and of course the adorable Tere Naam-esque college romance. But what makes it brilliant, what makes it like something I’ve never seen before, is the ending.
It’s a Devdas film, right? So Dev loses Paro, Dev sinks into depression and addiction, Dev tries to forget with other women, Dev’s devoted friend tries to help him, etc. etc. But what always bothers me with these stories is the attitude of “Oh Paro, she’s FINE. She’s married, she’s got a house, she’s doing the things that women do, she’ll get over it. Let’s focus on Dev’s pain!”
And that was beginning to bother me, as the flashbacks continued in this film. At first, it seems like maybe she would be fine without him. Their early romance is (surely purposefully) disturbing. He sees her, and immediately announces to the entire college (in a neat scene where he speaks in Telugu in front of the Hindi speaking teacher claiming it is an announcement about a service camp) that she is “his”, she is not to be bothered or ragged in any way. He confidently puts a pillion seat on his bike, that same day, and in the evening he orders her to come over to him and then kisses her on the cheek.
In Tere Naam, Bhoomika (rightfully) was extremely upset by this kind of behavior, but was so scared that she had a hard time figuring out how to express it. In Ninnu Kori, just earlier this year, we had a whole story line of a heroine finding her strength by standing up to a bully just like this, an older student of her college who had decided she was his “wife”. I also assume this is something that actually happens on college campuses? Part of ragging being that a male older classmen might decide a female younger classmen is “his”, and so long as it goes no further than ordering her around a bit on campus, everyone looks the other way?
And so we have this romance building in complete passivity on her part and bullying demanding on his. He pulls her out of classes and informs her that he will tutor her instead. He finds her at night and sleeps in her lap. He decides her roommates, her friends, her whole life is arranged by him on her behalf. And if the romance had stopped there, then yes, this could have been a relationship where she would marry someone else and walk away without harm.
But it doesn’t stop there. For the first time, she makes the first move. After he has arranged for them to be alone together at his off campus housing, she is the one who takes his hand and leans forward inviting a kiss. And then smiles, for the first time, big and broad, after he kisses her. And then they have sex.
And that’s the proper place for sex. As a way to show what he means to her and she means to him, as a marker of the intimacy of their relationship, their trust in each other. She wouldn’t be able to show in any other way how she feels, not as clearly as this. And this is the point where I started thinking “wait, what happened to this woman while our hero is sunk in misery? How is she recovering? Is she recovering?”
As the flashback continues, those questions loom larger. This wasn’t a magical few months at school, this was a long term relationship. That survived long distance, one of the toughest tests. She visited him, he visited her, they skyped, they called, it was part of their daily life for 4 years. And the proposal at the end of it, that was a foregone conclusion, they were already ready for marriage, he had the job picked out, she was waiting for him to come, it was just the formalities that needed to be finished.
This is why, I think, this film had to be so in your face and “honest” and “real” about things. People actually kiss, actually have sex, actually snort coke (is that the right terminology?), actually do all these things. This is the real world. And part of that real world is young people who fall in love and build a relationship that can’t be erased just by a forced marriage to someone else. And it is time for society to wake up to that, for films to wake up to that. No, you DON’T have to just “get over” your love story, not if there isn’t a reason for it, not if you were truly in love and together for 4 years. That’s not how the world works anymore. This is a world with English films and English songs (Goodfellas and “What a Wonderful World”), a world where our hero is a third generation love marriage/cross-caste family. He says in their last fight that “this is 2017!” and he is right. It is, and pretending otherwise is insanity.
(Okay, our hero still rides a Royal Enfield, but that’s timeless)
Speaking of that last fight, the falling apart, we see that our “hero” is in fact as culpable, if not more so, than she. Her family is terrifying and angry, even her little brother is furious at the thought of this strange man from a different caste coming to take her away. And in response, our hero becomes terrifying and angry. She is being battered and badgered from both sides, and there is very little she can do about it.
And this is the key to her character. This is what unlocks their early romance. He seemed to be in control, guiding it all. But this is a woman that has spent her life in a household dominated by others. She is used to this treatment, it is all she knows. And those little moments of openings, touching him while riding the bike, putting a blanket over him while he slept, those were her little gestures in return of his affection, the only way she knew how. Until sex unlocked the gates and she found a method that they could both understand, that they could use to communicate when words weren’t enough. But now, they don’t even have that, she is at one house and he is at the other, and he isn’t “listening” when she runs after him and tries to embrace him, to kiss him. He wants the words from her, words she cannot say, because it is not in her nature to express herself in that way.
And so we have to wonder, while our hero is drinking and drugging himself to death, what is she doing? Did she actually find happiness with that man her father forced her to marry? Why didn’t she turn around when he came to her?
Through out the film, there have been conscious time markers. The very opening is his family pointing out that it has been 82 days since he left their house. And this is followed by mentions of 4 months, 6 months, 8 months. And finally he sees her again, after he has hit rock bottom and come back to the surface. Lost his job and everything else in his life, but been allowed back into the family and is ready to move on and find a new path. He sees her in the park, heavily pregnant, as he is about to leave town. And then he does leave. Only to randomly meet an old friend while on vacation and, through their conversation, decide that he has to return, to see her again, that she “can’t be happy if I am unhappy”, and therefore he has to go to her and ask her to leave her husband.
And that is when we get our, well, not exactly “twist”. Maybe a better word would be “re-alignment”. He finds her again, in that same park. And he tells her that she has to come with him, now, he loves her and she loves him and he knows that. She points out that she is pregnant, and he tells her that he will love the child and be its father. He will even talk to her husband for her. But he knows she can’t be happy. She throws in his face the stories she has seen in the news, losing his license for drinking, the affair with the actress. And that he told her, in their final argument, that she only had 6 hours to call him and if she didn’t, she should marry the man her father picked out. She went to his house after the deadline and he didn’t even see her. And then he didn’t call or come for 2 days. So when he finally showed up, after the marriage had already happened, of course she didn’t turn around. And for the past 8 months, she has been waiting for him, she left her house 2 days after the wedding, moved into a hostel, took a job in a clinic, cried, waited, was lonely. And also has been growing his baby inside of her.
See, this was never “Arjun Reddy”s story at all! The title, that was a trick on the audience. It was the story of his lover, Shalini (Preethi in the film). She has been watching him for 8 months, seeing what the audience saw, his dalliance with the actress, his increasing addiction, his professional failures. And she has had the greater suffering, the original suffering. He says “she cannot be happy if I am happy”, but the truth is the reverse. The reason he could not get over this great love, despite what everyone tried to do, could not even sleep with another woman, is because his unhappiness was her unhappiness. She had tied him to her, and her misery was causing his.
(this conversation, that this still is from, that kind of honesty and comfort, it’s not something that magically goes away with a marriage thread)
In fact, nothing in this film is truly “Arjun”s story. His grief over his grandmother, that is a reflection of his father’s much greater grief (which he realizes and admits that is the primary reason he came home, to be there for his father). His concern over his medical issues, there is a reason we keep seeing his two nurses in the background, watching him. They are his conscience, they are the ones who will be in trouble, who will cover for him, who will keep him grounded in this medical world. In the end, they are even the ones who do the surgery. And even that “magical” college love story, that was just an echo of another equally great love story that was never even noticed.
On the same night that our hero and heroine are having their passionate farewell before he leaves for his graduate program, two of his friends, Kamal and Aditi, have the start of their romance. She suddenly turns to him and tells him that she wants to kiss him tonight. Years later, while our hero Vijay is sunk in depression, Kamal comes to see him and tells him that he and Aditi are planning to be married. Vijay is moderately surprised, he didn’t think they were that serious. And he is pessimistic, says there is no way she will convince her family to agree, she won’t care that much. And then Kamal appears with the wedding card. And Vijay is disgusted, says he doesn’t “deserve” this happy ending, he doesn’t love like Vijay loves.
And here is where we get a little foreshadowing of that turn at the end. Because Rajul steps in, who has been friends with both of them this entire time, and points out that no, Vijay doesn’t love like Kamal loves, Kamal loves better. Kamal put up with abuse and bruises and nastiness from Aditi for years, waiting for her to return his feelings. That is love, not this passionate sudden thing, but patient waiting. And Vijay didn’t even see it. This isn’t just a foreshadowing that Vijay needs to be more patient and loving, this is a foreshadowing that, maybe, we are looking at the wrong person when we look for the greatest lover.
Because, in the end, it is Shalini who is the great one. Slowly an alternative image builds of their falling in love. Vijay mentions at one point that she picked him. All the other new girls were shy and wouldn’t meet his gaze, but she turned and looked at him, and that is when he knew. She is the one who kisses first, she is the one who initiates sex. She is even the one who comes for the first visit after he has moved away, beginning the long distance relationship. And she was the one whose heart was broken in that final fight, not him. She is the one who has been faithful against all odds, thought he didn’t care, suffered and waited and lived a life of misery for 8 months. It is her misery that is the greatest, and her faithfulness that brought them through.
And that’s what makes this film brilliant. Not our hero, fascinating though he is, but the fact that the narrative, in slow intricate ways, reveals that he isn’t a hero at all. His misery came from the sense of wrongness, incompleteness, and that is because of the real story, the full story, which was happening just beyond his grasp and out of his sight.
(oh, and if you want to see my five-minutes-after-the-movie-is-over reaction, here is my video with moviemavengal shot in her car)