Happy Tuesday! A fun movie to talk about this week, one that was recommended to me ages ago and I am just now getting around to thanks to Moviemavengal reminding me about it. (I know the two films aren’t really related, but if you want to see my review of Aarya 1, it is here)
Back before My Name is Khan came out, Karan Johar gave a series of interviews talking about the process of coming up with the story. And he explained that they gave the main character Asperger’s, because they wanted him to do the kind of grand romantic quest that characters used to do all the time in movies. Only now we have become so cynical that we have lost the ability to believe in that kind of romance from our characters, that anyone would really do something like that. Thus needing to give him Asperger’s to explain why he would do such a thing.
Aarya 2 is almost a completely different movie. But it is dealing with the same idea, that the huge romantic gestures and romantic heroes don’t really make sense in today’s film world any more. Only instead of giving our hero a recognizable syndrome to explain his behavior, Sukumar went in the opposite direction. It’s the sane people who are out of place in this world. Or, put it another way, the whole world slowly shifts until our insane hero is the one who makes sense, and our sane hero is the one who doesn’t fit. It’s just a brilliant film. Not on the level of real characters who you care about, but on the level of meta-statements about film plots and heroes as a whole.
(Like, this insanely literally song title. It’s not them being lazy with lyrics, it’s them being brilliantly literal with song lyrics)
Also, like Aarya 1, there is a lot of playing around with the meaning of unrequited love. The general result lands on “unrequited love can inspire personal growth, if you let it.” I’m okay with that ending. What I am missing is the message “it doesn’t matter how many people are in love with the heroine or what they do for her, it matters who she loves in return”. It’s kind of there, under the surface, but I could have done with making it a bit more explicit. Where was my Sangam scene with the heroine going “I don’t care what kind of soul-searching nonsense you two are going through, I know how I feel and you guys can just shut up about your ‘friendship’ and ‘loyalty’ and ‘blah blah blah’, and live with my decision since I am clearly the only grown-up in the room”?
The message that eventually emerged, over the course of the film, is that what was the greatest virtue in this world is being insane in love. Loving to the point of sacrificing yourself. Only, and here is where the film is brilliant, it makes sure we see that it really is insanity. And that this whole kooky world of the film is insane. That this is a filmi world and the values it professes do not apply to the real world at all, just enjoy it for what it is.
From the perspective of pure enjoyment as a viewer, that was the best part! That this is a director who is not holding back, not thinking “yes, but will the audience find this realistic?” No, he doesn’t care about our petty realism or relatability concerns, he just wants to make the craziest and most out there film possible.
And the wonderful thing is, Allu Arjun and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the cast, are totally along for the ride! They all really “got” what he was going for and went even farther. Everything, from the performances to the costumes to the sets to the cinematography, is just delightfully slightly “off”. What we see in other films, but heightened just a bit, confronting us with our own willingness to accept crazy film logic.
And underneath all that, it’s still a pretty decent film! I mean, strip away all the crazy style trappings and that amazing central character, make it a “straight” movie, and the plot would hang together and the characters would all have their journeys and growth and all of that. It would still be an okay movie, this isn’t an empty film that is just style and style alone, there is a bedrock plot underlying it all. But it’s mostly style.
Okay, ready for that bedrock plot?
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Okay, I’m gonna tell it to you straight first, just so you can go “oh, okay, that’s an all right kind of interesting plot”. And then I will layer on the style stuff.
We start with an orphan who wants a friend. He becomes best friends with another orphan, eventually giving up the chance to be adopted so his best friend can have it. Years later, the adopted kid (Navdeep) has become rich and successful, while the not adopted kid (Allu Arjun) is a gunda. But they are still friends. Allu Arjungets a job at Navdeep’s company and promises to be a “good boy” while he is there in order to keep the job and stay close to Navdeep. Kajal Aggarwal is hired at the company. Both Allu Arjun and Navdeep fall in love with her. Allu Arjun suggests a coin toss to decide who gets her, and wins the toss. He pursues Kajal in his own way, letting her see that he is a “bad boy” when no one else is around, because he wants her to fall for him honestly. But still keeping it a secret from the rest of the office so he can keep his job. Kajal is initially intrigued by him, but frustrated by how she can’t get a read on him since he is so bad when they are alone but good in public. In the end, she challenges him if he really loves her to tell everyone in the office the truth, which he does. And Kajal responds by saying she is in love with Navdeep, not him. Shortly after, Navdeep is in a car accident, and blames Allu Arjun, saying he was jealous. Kajal is even angrier at Allu Arjun and declares she wants to marry Navdeep. Allu Arjun is heartbroken, but loves both of them so much he is willing to help. He accidentally informs Kajal’s family about the marriage, they appear and pull her back to their village where her marriage is arranged with a rival family in order to end a feud. INTERVAL
Navdeep sends Allu Arjun to the village to stop the wedding, in the process he ends up married to Kajal in order to prevent her marriage to anyone else. Navdeep arrives at this point and the three of them plan for Allu Arjun to leave with Kajal, as her husband, but once they are back to Hyderabad, Navdeep and Kajal will leave the country together. Along the way, Allu Arjun also makes an ally of the “enemy” family by bonding with their son over their shared love for Kajal. In the end, Kajal and Navdeep are about to leave for Australia when Kajal’s family shows up, she called them because she wants to make peace. Everyone involved, Kajal, Allu Arjun, and her father, all prepare to kill or be killed for love. Except for Navdeep, who doesn’t understand what is happening. Allu Arjun takes a stab wound for Navdeep, which makes him finally realize how much Allu Arjun loves home. And which makes him finally see that Kajal always cared more for Allu Arjun than him. Navdeep apologizes to Allu Arjun and offers to make a sacrifice so that Kajal will admit her love and they can be reunited. Allu Arjun arranges for it to appear that Navdeep tried to kill him in the hospital, Kajal is so angry with him that she reunites with Allu Arjun. Navdeep walks away. Happy Ending!
Okay, the reason I want to write it out like that is because I want to talk about some kind of interesting character stuff that is happening even with just this basic plot outline. I’m going to ignore all the “I sacrifice for you, you sacrifice for me” stuff until I get to the more complicated analysis. But let’s look at the romance by itself. It is established that Kajal is increasingly upset at Allu Arjun’s actions. That she is driven crazy by him. And she turns to Navdeep, the safe sane opposite to Allu Arjun, for comfort. That is how they initially become close.
Later, she impulsively declares her love for Navdeep only because of his connection to Allu Arjun. She wants to hurt Allu Arjun, and she knows declaring her love for Navdeep will do it. And will save Navdeep from harm, because Allu Arjun would never hurt his friend. She doubles down on being in love with Navdeep after she believes Allu Arjun has indeed tried to hurt him, because it changes her view of Allu Arjun as being a loyal friend. Her “love story” moments with Navdeep all revolve around Allu Arjun as well, being angry with him and Allu Arjun smooths it over, being happy with him so long as Allu Arjun is around to observe them together.
What would be a kind of neat and subtle movie all on its own is looking at all the ways that the audience can see that Navdeep was just a temporary distraction from Allu Arjun. A side effect of Kajal’s Allu Arjun love. And all the ways that Allu Arjun himself was too pure to acknowledge this consciously but probably knew it subconsciously. It gives us a kind of “stalking-but-okay” situation.
We, the audience, can see that Kajal is as obsessed with Allu Arjun as he is with her, and is expressing it in just as loony a fashion as he is expressing his feelings. He stalks and saves every scrap of hair and bit of trash she leaves behind. She constantly photographs him with her phone trying to find evidence of his lies. Allu Arjun may be ready to go to extremes to get her married to the man he thinks she wants, but Kajal is ready to go to the extreme of actually marrying a man she doesn’t love just to spite him.
There is one kind of disturbing moment in the middle that I had to think about a lot to justify which picks up on all of this. Allu Arjun is debating whether to go through with the “first night” with Kajal. He goes back and forth on it, with the question of what he owes to his friendship with Navdeep. Which is really kind of gross. Because of course the question when having sex isn’t “does my friend say it is okay?” but “does the woman say it is okay?” If he hadn’t changed his mind at the last minute, held back by his love for Navdeep, would he have just raped Kajal? Is that what we are talking about here?
It kind of feels like that is what we are talking about, especially with the very odd kind of rapey village song right before. But then that would also be very out of tune with the rest of the film, in which Allu Arjun has gone to extremes of stalking Kajal, but maintained a strict physical distance from her. Or would it? He does kiss her when they first meet, but then immediately apologizes and admits it was just because he wanted her to know from the beginning that he was not a “nice boy”. It is also a remarkably chaste kiss on the lips, very different from what is implied by a “first night”.
Maybe I am trying too hard to excuse the film, but to me the whole “first night” yes or no debate felt like an acknowledgement that, if Allu Arjun had actually held her and kissed her, Kajal would have immediately discovered her passion for him. Since that passion, all along, has been so clearly just under the surface waiting to burst forth. Allu Arjun isn’t passing up on raping her, he is passing up on arousing her and making her discover her love for him. If that makes sense. Only, it’s not stated as clearly in the film, because that would be to break through the narrative constraint all the characters are currently suffering under which pretends that Kajal doesn’t love Allu Arjun back.
So, that is the cool film under the surface. A crazy stalker guy who meets his match in a nutty quick to anger girl. She is too impulsive in breaking things off, he is too literal in believing her. But at the very end, when she is about to marry someone else and never see him again, she can’t do it. Kajal is the one who calls her family to stop her being able to leave with Navdeep. Kajal is the one who escalates the situation once they arrive in order to protect Allu Arjun. And it is completely unsurprising to the audience when Kajal immediately accepts her identity as Allu Arjun’s wife once his life is in danger. Navdeep is the one stuck in the middle between these two bonkers people, and he doesn’t even realize it, thinking it is he and Kajal against Allu Arjun, until the very end.
So that’s a nice enough film! A kind of clever twist on the original Aarya story, giving the heroine an actual personality and making the alternative option boyfriend a friend of our hero, but keeping the idea of a first half about stalking and a second half about the hero doing all the work to get the heroine together with another guy. But what makes this film really brilliant is how it takes this basic interesting story and uses it as a jumping off point for a whole discussion of films in general.
We start with a bad boy-good boy estranged brothers idea. Allu Arjun even brings his own medical kit, and later ambulances, to his fight scenes, like Amitabh in Trishul. But this movie is bad boy-good boy with a cynical twist, pointing out that the bad boy is the one in control, constantly dragging the good boy down with him, even while he argues that he is sacrificing everything for him.
And then we move on to your standard office rom-com. Allu Arjun declares he will become “good” in order to work in the office. And he does! Glasses, posture, clothing, everything is like a caricature of the new age IT professional. And his humorous boss, and the girl with a crush on him because he is so cool, even the way computers are used in the office, floating text related to the plot suddenly appearing on screen. It’s all like we’ve seen in other films set in offices, but ever so slightly more so.
And so when the romance starts, it’s not surprising that is ever so slightly more so too. Kajal is introduced hailing Navdeep’s car and cheerfully insisting that he give her a ride. It’s not quite the same as the usual “magic pixie dream girl” intro, it’s just slightly too much. Who just jumps into a car at a stoplight and demands a ride? Who sees a petal falling from a rose on the dashboard and pulls out glue to put it back together?
Through out the early romance, we get these clues that Kajal is just slightly off as well, just as much as Allu Arjun. Heck, her introduction is the same as Allu Arjun’s almost! Both of them commandeering Navdeep’s car and dragging him along for the ride. Kajal almost falls in love with Allu Arjun at first sight, is the one who is coming on to him in the elevator in her cheerful talkative way, when he kisses her. And during their battle of wills, his insane stalking and her trying to prove it to everyone else, she is always kind of excited by it, angry, sure, but not afraid. Or tired. Or bored.
And the stalking is just so delightfully out of control! A table snags a bit of her sari, he sets the table on fire and throws it off a cliff. He puts a frog that scares her into a lovingly created frog jail. This is where the film starts to say “see? You accept something just slightly less than this as ‘normal’ in most films, I am going to take it to the extreme and see how much you will accept.”
And after our first half rom-com culminates in Kajal impulsively agreeing to marry Navdeep and vice versa (only because Allu Arjun forced their hand by telling Kajal’s family, again the film never shows that Kajal particularly wants to marry Navdeep, or wants him period, it is just a side-effect of her Allu Arjun obsession), suddenly we are in the middle of a rural feud storyline. No particular reason the plot had to go that way, absolutely just there because they wanted to make fun another film genre in the same way they deconstructed the rom-com.
So now we are in a village, with feuding families and machetes and all that. And we get to see it all ever so slightly heightened. My favorite part of this bit is watching the traditional magical pre-wedding rituals, but with Kajal spitting and sputtering through turmeric being smeared on her face and being ducked in milk and everything else. It’s not glamorous, or sweet, it’s just kind of gross and uncomfortable. There’s plenty of “village film” traditions being made fun of, the wedding that turns violent, the noble leader who wants peace between warring clans, etc. etc. And the filmmaker comes along and turns it ever so slightly on its head.
And then we get the “forced wedding” trope and have that ever so slightly on its head as well. In most films, it is this subtle thing, the special bond once the wedding prayers have been said that you almost don’t even notice. But in this film, of course, it’s completely over the top, Allu Arjun declares that now they are married, he is even more obsessed and has to torture himself to reject the woman who is now his wife. Because a “wife” is so much harder to give up than just the woman he loves. Meanwhile, Kajal and Navdeep are the other extreme, giving absolutely no weight to the wedding at all, treating it as a joke at one point with Kajal laughing and saying that if he doesn’t treat her well, she will have her husband Allu Arjun beat him up. Which is equally ridiculous, to acknowledge that a wedding occurred but pretend it is all a joke.
But the absolute best is the finale moment when Kajal has called her father to come to the city. For the whole second half we have slowly been moving from a world in which Navdeep is normal, everyone else is slightly “off”, Kajal is really off, and Allu Arjun is just plain surreal, to a world in which everyone is almost surreally “off” and Navdeep sticks out like a sore thumb. The process of doing this involved going from the urban rom-com space to the rural space, because the real craziness of the Telugu film style is always in the rural space.
And now we have the finale. Kajal has called her father because she is willing to die in order to regain his love for her. Her father is willing to kill Navdeep in order to protect his daughter/give her to the better husband Allu Arjun. Allu Arjun is willing to die to protect Navdeep. And then it keeps switching, Kajal will kill herself for both men, Allu Arjun will kill Kajol for Navdeep, Kajal’s father will kill himself for All. And back and forth as we see every possible combination of crazed sacrifice. Except Navdeep, who stands aloof from all of this, untouched by the deadly passion around him.
This sequence does three things all at once. First, it explains why Allu Arjun always seemed so “off” in the urban area. He didn’t belong in the urban rom-com film, he always belonged in the insane village film! Earlier he talked about how after Kajal and Navdeep leave, his plan is to go back to the village and give himself to Kajal’s father, because her father was the only person in his life to ever fully accept him. And now that village plot has come to the city and it all makes sense. Allu Arjun is ready to die, Kajal’s father is ready to kill, they are right there in the same crazy space.
Second, it shows that Kajal and Allu Arjun are Meant To Be. Not only did she do the same kind of insane thing he would do, call her father and admit everything in order to be able to sacrifice herself, she also did it on a subconscious level to stop her wedding to Navdeep. Only once Allu Arjun confirmed for good and all that he would not try anything to stop them leaving, did Kajal have to find a way to make sure it didn’t happen.
And third, it shows that Navdeep is the broken one in this world, not Allu Arjun or anyone else. Everybody else onscreen is able to achieve crazy feats of love. Except Navdeep, who doesn’t even understand what they are going on about. The scene starts with Kajal seeming kind of shakey but resolved to leave with Navdeep, and just barely friendly with Allu Arjun. And by the end of it, with Kajal screaming over Allu Arjun’s body, the audience is thinking “yeah, that seems right, Navdeep never really belonged in their story.”
And then we have the ending, which is really more of an epilogue at this point. Again, testament to the tight construction of the film. We don’t need to see Kajal running after the body in the hospital to tie the sacred thread around his wrist, acknowledging her as his husband. Or leaping up when the nurse asks who is his relative. We kind of knew that she would do that as soon as we saw her reaction over his body.
The only real resolution is with Navdeep, our audience/real world stand in in this super filmi world, finally acknowledging that he never quite understood Allu Arjun until just now, never followed the way his thoughts worked. But, finally, he gets it. Just like the audience, after 3 hours of bonkers crazy, finally is buying into this love story as a real love story not just a gimmick. Navdeep wants to join in the crazy, but doesn’t know how, so Allu Arjun shows him. Tricking Navdeep into turning off his monitor, so that Kajal will think he tried to kill Allu Arjun, and therefore give up any pretense of love for Navdeep.
And that’s the ending. The two people who belong in this crazy world joining hands, and the one who never really did, leaving them alone. You know, in an odd way, this just might be one of the most romantic films I have seen!