Why the latest Arjun Reddy debate falls flat

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 29, 2019 15:31 hrs
Arjun Reddy

The so-called ‘debate’ that journalist Anupama Chopra orchestrated between several actors from some of the popular cinemas in India and the predictable, so-called outrage on social media around Parvathy Thiruvothu’s comments on Arjun Reddy and Vijay Deverakonda’s responses miss the point altogether.

Let’s take Parvathy first. What exactly is she saying about Arjun Reddy? That it normalises violence against women? Practically every Indian commercial film does that. (How are Parvathy’s own Charlie and Maryan or Uttama Villain not deeply sexist films?) Does that mean the film/these films should not have been/should not be made? What sort of sanitised understanding of cinematic art is this? Her point of comparison with The Joker is based on the question of audience identification. There are as many people who identified with Arjun Reddy as those who did with Joker.

There are large amounts of people who did not.

Neither film glorified the character. Arjun Reddy pays a price for everything he does as does the Joker. If young Telugu men or men in the US identify with these anti-heroes, this is not the fault of the film directors or writers. They are not inciting anything.

The comment Parvathy made about the slapping of each other is an extra-textual point that Reddy’s director, Sandeep Reddy Vanga made in an interview. The feminist internet hordes went after him too. Whatever the merits of his statement (and like Deverakonda’s answers, I think Vanga is closer to the sociological bone than Parvathy), it has nothing to do with the film (He does much worse than slapping, but that’s irrelevant here – more on that later). However, even Vanga’s comment was not an incitement; it was an opinion. An opinion Deverakonda reiterates and somewhat endorses in his garbled comments.

Parvathy goes on to speak of the thin line between reflection and glorification (when cinema actually does neither and can be held accountable for neither) and makes a somewhat bizarre claim that glorification is when the audience claps and endorses a character. This becomes the writer’s and director’s fault for “inciting applause,” as opposed to writers and directors who make the audience think and where presumably audiences do not clap. The utter ludicrousness of this distinction should be obvious to anyone.

She then makes the tired equivalence between violence in cinema and violence in intimate relationships when there is no one-to-one relation between them. Vijay Deverakonda began with the most fitting response to that saying that the world is fucked, and a film cannot change that, and that a film did not decide one’s behaviour.

He then started, to go downhill. He first went on to, somewhat inarticulately, mirror Vanga in saying that “little hits” (sic) do not dent love between people. What he should have said is that violence is constitutive of intimate relationships of any kind and physical violence is not the only kind of violence and showing this cinematically does not amount to endorsing or inciting it. But this, we must remember, is Deverakonda.

He then went further making some determinist claim that if one sees violence in one’s childhood, in one’s family, one is likely not to like Arjun Reddy. The claim is usually the opposite: which is that violence experienced in childhood is normalised (such people should see nothing wrong with Arjun Reddy though there is really no obvious domestic violence in Arjun Reddy) but any such claims are dubious in their determinism. I saw my father beat my mother through my childhood. I found Arjun Reddy quite interesting as a filmic and sociological text.

The internet feminism to which we are all held hostage continues to produce women as pure victims of misogynistic maleness. This is too black-and-white a picture and not only robs women of agency but also of responsibility in their complicity with patriarchy.

How, for example, is the braindead heroine of Arjun Reddy, Preethy Shetty, any less toxic than Arjun himself? He claims her as his property in front of a class. She says nothing. He kisses her in public on campus. She says nothing. He drags her to confront her abusers and reminds them they have sisters and mothers. She says nothing. The next thing is she’s seeing him and sleeping with him.

I can hear the internet feminist hordes scream: ‘But she is a victim of patriarchy. Women are not to be held responsible for internalising patriarchy.’ Well, sorry, they are. This is a young woman studying in a college. She has a voice and is not mute.

A feminism which takes all agency away from women except for victimhood is no feminism at all. A feminism that does not engage with the contradictions of femininity and how women participate in their own oppression is no feminism at all. The tired and hoarse screaming about toxic masculinity in Arjun Reddy completely ignores the toxic femininity of the film. Arjun is the classic incoherent Reddy boy, but Preethy Shetty is equally incoherent and repulsive, if not worse.

Caste (Reddy/Shetty politics), class and gender combine in a cocktail in Arjun Reddy as in most films. Saying it is all only about toxic masculinity is not only reductive, it is poor film reading. Misogyny is a definite phenomenon in Arjun Reddy|| and most Telugu (and Tamil and Hindi and Malayalam) films and in the audience identifications and I have written about it on this website but what is equally repulsive is the men-hating and pure victim-glorification of internet feminism.

It is time we grew up and asked some real, tough feminist questions.

More columns by Ashley Tellis:

Marxism and Feminism, Telugu cinema-style!

Arjun Reddy, Sri Reddy & Telugu cinema's hatred for women

The politics of naming, showing and shaming

Why gender-neutral laws on sexual violence is a terrible idea

The fabric of resistance: Dalit women's deaths and lives

The failed dream of Aruvi

Gauri Lankesh's life a battle against men trying to silence her

Pissing in the wind against the Notinmyname campaign

What Justice Karnan case reveals about the Judiciary




Ashley Tellis is 
a freelance writer, editor and gay activist