Sandeep Reddy Vanga has remade his Telugu-language hit Arjun Reddy (2017) in Hindi as Kabir Singh. Another version in Tamil is underway, and this one too is named after its protagonist – a medical student who trains to be a surgeon but cannot mend the gaping hole in his heart after his beloved weds another.
The Tamil production, Adithya Varma, stars debutant actor Dhruv Vikram. In Hindi, Shahid Kapoor will step into the role that Vijay Deverakonda made his own. Arjun Reddy was not Deverakonda’s first movie, but the character is indelibly associated with him, in the way that Pramathesh Chandra Barua embodied Devdas in the 1930s before other actors, among them KL Saigal, Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Abhay Deol, borrowed the cloak of self-abuse.
Vanga, who also wrote the screenplay, astutely cast his film. Arjun Reddy is a privileged, intelligent, overachieving, brash and combustible final-year medical student. He is also a singularly attractive man – the only one, as far we can tell, on campus. So when this aspiring surgeon with the looks of a matinee idol (which Deverakonda became after the movie’s release) and the sculpted form of an underwear model first spots Preethi, we know what is going to happen.
The film hinges on how it regards its hero, how he looks at his conquest, and how other women gaze upon him. Preethi is played by first-timer Shalini Pandey, who is equally well cast as the girl-next-door grateful to have been picked by the campus god. The scene in which Reddy marks out Preethi as his territory is either romantic or chilling, depending on your perspective. A line of demure freshers arrives at the college canteen. Arjun’s eyes fall on Preethi, and he never loses sight of her. She notices, but is too shy to do anything about it (100 marks already in her favour).
Arjun wastes no time in informing the world that he has annexed Preethi. Did he ask? Did she agree? Next question.
Arjun orders the other students that Preethi is not to be ragged. He strides into her classroom and tells her that she should study hard. He draws up her list of friends for her. They look at Arjun with a mixture of reverence and envy that says, boyfriends are made of these.
The romance proceeds as decreed by Arjun. If Arjun is a tyrant in love, or a stalker in the guise of only the most desirable man within miles, we don’t hear a peep from Preethi. They tumble into a relationship that is by and large blissful. When Arjun goes off to Mussourie for a master’s degree, Preethi visits whenever she can. The look of ecstasy on her face when Arjun shows up is similar to a sighting of the divine.
Not everyone looks upon Arjun favourably. Preethi’s parents object on ground of caste and linguistic differences. They regard Arjun for what he might reasonably appear to be – a wealthy interloper with an outsized sense of entitlement. Forced by Arjun to choose between him and her family, Preethi takes the path more frequently trodden.
The narrative splices the present with the past. In the present, Arjun has grown a beard (it only increases his allure) and performs surgeries despite a serious drinking habit. Among the few women who does not look at Arjun in this self-destructive phase as Hyderabad’s sexiest man in scrubs are the ones from the working class.
Back in the hospital where he plies his trade, Arjun has an admirer, a colleague who stares at him with the kind of tendresse that is destined to go unrequited. Making it harder for this young woman to ignore the distraction in the operating theatre is Arjun’s impressive physique, which does not wax or wane because of his substance abuse and is frequently on display. Arjun finds it impossible to forget Preethi, but the movie never forgets just how dangerously attractive he is as he mourns.
Arjun finds other ways to drown his sorrows, including flings. The women whom he effortlessly beds seem gratified – again, given the general lack of choice in the Indian male populace, who can blame them?
Arjun decides to have a no-strings-attached affair with actress Jia (Jia Sharma). In this version of what American feminist Erica Jong memorably called the “zipless fuck” in her 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying, Jia is smitten from the moment she first meets Arjun, who tends to her injured leg and touches her in ways she cannot yet imagine.
Even the prostitutes who drop in to give Arjun company find him irresistible (as does his pet golden retriever, significantly named Preethi). The resounding message as our shambolic hero valiantly tries to mend his broken heart is this: find someone to look at you the way the director and the women in the film look at Arjun Reddy. No wonder that a film rooted in a specific locale and culture is being remade, and leading men are lining up to borrow Arjun’s metaphorical cloak of despair masquerading as swagger.