There’s a thin line between being a rebellious, free spirit everyone can look up to and an angry, violent alpha male who should be no one’s hero. Mainstream filmmakers have never bothered to walk this line when it comes to celebrating, nay almost fetishising toxic masculinity. Arjun Reddy has been hailed as the former by some, even though it most definitely belongs in the second category.
He is a bad boy and obviously women love him, but he can’t care less. Now where else have we seen that before?
After being praised as “path breaking” by many and becoming a huge commercial success, Arjun Reddy has promptly got two remakes approved, one in Tamil (Adithya Varma) and one in Hindi (Kabir Singh). And Arjun Reddy’s Bollywood bro Kabir Singh seems to be just as problematic as his Telugu cousin, no matter how edgily the film has been shot, edited, and marketed.
Indian cinema is often criticised as the breeding ground of toxic masculinity, where it is almost always idealised, and seldom chastised. You may have a soft corner for Walter White (from Breaking Bad) or even Ganesh Gaitonde (from Sacred Games), but you are not asked to gloss over their shortcomings as human beings. You are never meant to forget that these men are capable of doing horrible things. But unlike these “difficult men” of the fictional universe – “a monster we root for and care for despite his monstrosity” as defined by author of Difficult Men, Brett Martin – we are not meant to vilify men like Reddy. Mind you, at one point he even threatens to rape someone at knife point.
Real people smoke, drink, cuss, do drugs, and often do questionable things when they’re heartbroken. And these stories should never be sanitised. But when a character is a misogynist man-baby who treats women like his personal property, refuses to put in the emotional labour required to make a relationship work, and is an insufferable, unethical bully in general, he shouldn’t be deified.
However, Sandeep Vanga’s Reddy (played by Vijay Deverakonda) has sadly been branded as the icon of pyaar mein thhukraye hue aashique.
Not for a second, does Vanga admonish his hero for any of his bad behaviour. There’s no growth in his character by the end of the story, instead he gets rewarded.
Reddy kisses a timid junior, Preethi (played by Shalini Pandey), without consent and then has the audacity to be enraged when he learns about someone else touching her without…errr… his consent. He bullies her into hanging out with him till she starts ‘reciprocating’ his feelings. That age-old fantasy filmmakers have been peddling for a while: force a yes out of the girl, and the male fantasy believes she’ll eventually fall in love with him.
Also there’s nothing cool about a detached and rejected lover acting out and resorting to alcohol and drugs to dull his pain. Our OG storyteller Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay did that in Devdas and innumerable, capable directors have made multiple versions of this archetype.
Some have even remembered to write their female characters with more thought than one puts into a casual yawn, which cannot be said about Vanga’s depiction of his female lead. Did we say she was timid? She also follows the Sita archetype with no agency of her own. She exists for the man who lays claim to her from the moment she walks into the frame till she walks out of it. In between, she also gets to prove her ‘purity’. Ironically, her Bollywood counterpart is to be played by Kiara Advani, who was lauded for her performance in Lust Stories as the newly-wed middle class woman who fights for her right to be physically satisfied by her husband.
Toxic masculinity is not the only form of masculinity, but it is the only one that gets celebrated in mainstream cinema all over India. When Akash Thosar’s Parshya slaps Rinku Rajguru’s Archi in Sairat in the middle of the road, at least he’s given some scope to show remorse later. When Ishaan Khattar as Madhu does it to Janhvi Kapoor’s Parthavi in the Bollywood remake of Sairat, Dhadak, nothing of that sort happens. Madhu simmers in his entitled masculinity before things sort itself out with no real sense of a conflict.
Similarly, with no real conflict resolution, in Arjun Reddy, Reddy simply walks back into Preethi’s life once he is done with his days of debauchery and finds out that she never let any other man touch her.
Will Reddy’s Bollywood counterpart be any different? It doesn’t seem likely. Then why are we rewarding such a story with not one, but two remakes?