The Curious Case of Bala's Varma!
There would be few film buffs who haven't watched Arjun Reddy. For a Telugu film with a lesser known cast (at the time of its release), it made a lot of noise and took Vijay Devarakonda to places. As much as it (and the Hindi version Kabir Singh as well) worked at the box office and with film critics, there was also widespread criticism on how the film seemed to glorify violent and destructive male behaviour in a romantic relationship. One of the interviews given by the director Sandeep Vanga after the release of the Hindi version only strengthened or gave more credence to this criticism. Leaving aside this debate, Arjun Reddy as a film had terrific performances and a certain assured craft on display.
It came as no surprise when Vikram sought to launch his son through the remake of a proven film. But what was surprising or to be honest shocking, was Bala having signed the dotted line to direct the remake. It is funny in a way because just pick the lead character from the original and he might fit in easily in a Bala universe (His sensational debut Sethu is what people recall when they talk about Arjun Reddy).But on the other hand, Arjun Reddy is as different a film from the kind of films that Bala makes. For starters, it is a very urban film, something which Bala hasn't explored on screen. While we can only play guessing games, this decision was difficult to comprehend as Bala is one of those very few original filmmakers with a strong signature and a remake is the last thing you would associate with someone like that.
The producers withheld the release of Varmaa and did eventually make another version (Aditya Varma) and got it released. The reason cited was that Bala's version wasn't faithful to the original. I haven't watched the Hindi version nor Aditya Varma. Majority of the reviews had said that both versions were faithful remakes and so I like many others was curious about the 'Bala cut'!
This was primarily because we were curious to see what Bala would have done and more importantly we anticipated his version to be different and not a scene by scene replica of the original.
Condensed and diluted version!
The original Telugu version clocked 3 hours and its subsequent remakes around 10 minutes less. Varmaa runs a mere 1 hr 50 minutes. I am not sure if this was the intended runtime or what we are shown is a highly edited version. Even the description in the streaming site that I watched the film mentions the duration as 2 hrs 33 minutes. Honestly, it may not be ideal to delve too much into a film which the makers themselves had shelved but now that it is out for viewing, how does the 'Bala cut' fare? The major changes that we anticipated doesn't really happen and the film does stick to what the original had done minus most of what had made the original work. Arjun Reddy ran for 3 hrs for a purpose. It was a film that gave time for the characters to breathe.
During the title credits, the grandmother character would establish how Arjun was an adamant person who could never give up on what he wanted. Cut to Varmaa and it looks as though the makers had already assumed you have seen Arjun Reddy and so why waste time in registering these small but crucial information. You know how the movies which are dubbed for televison viewing are cut to make them crisper. Watching Varma felt precisely like that. The grandmother character is removed and we have Easwari Rao as the maid who fills that void. One of the few aspects that works in Varmaa is this actress. This is one character that is fleshed out atleast a bit and the actress does well. But the other supporting characters and the performance of the actors playing them would leave you wanting if you have watched the original.
To be honest, Varma is what a pilot film of Arjun Reddy might have looked if it was made with a limited budget by casting friends and colleagues. Either Bala wasn't interested or this is not his zone or things fell apart midway. But whatever the reason, the indifference is shocking. How else can you explain that delivery scene with something that looks like straight out of a spoof movie. Even if problematic, Arjun Reddy was rather consistent to a certain degree with the characterisation. Here, in the same scene we have Varmaa calling out someone for objectifying and body shaming women and calls him a 'Pottai' (derogatory slang in Tamil for women) for doing so. Irony couldn't have died faster! But Varmaa isn't done yet. If you thought that the 'fat chick' comment from the original was removed with good intention, Bala proves you wrong by having Varmaa refer to his maid as 'Karuvaachi'! And what about that hero introduction scene? There is a tweak here and Varmaa literally has a girl worship his manh(w)ood! This scene could have made sense if the performances were humorous or if there was a need to show how condescending Varmaa can be. But it comes across as done only with an intention to shock!
Lost in (Google) Translation!
The dialogues are faithfully reproduced and even then some of them misfire badly. 'He is getting close to nothingness' in the original becomes 'He is counting his days' here. The former was about his dad being aware that his son would recoup once he realises that all this means nothing. Even the performance was on those lines. Here the father has given up on Varmaa or atleast that is how it comes across. All these small things ensure that the soul of the original is lost. The switching between languages (English/Tamil/Malayalam) too isn't seamless. 'Shetty Pride' becomes 'Pattar Pride'. 'Jaathi veri' doesn't sound cool probably!
Dhruv is earnest but comes across as too young to pull this one off. (He was probably 22/23 when the film was shot while Vijay Devarakonda and Shahid Kapoor were in their late 20s and late 30s respectively). He appears conscious in quite a few scenes. I skimmed through Aditya Varma after watching this and could see how playing the role all over again had probably made it easier for him and he looked more confident and mature in that version. The primary issue with Varmaa is that you never identify with the love story. Even though Preethi in Arjun Reddy was submissive and was putting up with the hero, it atleast looked as though she enjoyed being in his company. That doesn't come across here. Actually for remakes there is this thought that you might like a film better if you haven't seen the original. But it is actually the opposite here. You are able to atleast get a hold of the essence of Varmaa only because you have seen the original. Else this mini version of Arjun Reddy would have had you lost!
You might never know what actually transpired during the making of Varmaa. While I could attribute disinterest on the part of Bala for most of the movie and did not mind going through the movie as a lazy watch, I really lost it during the climax that had a bunch of people in a park clap as Varmaa and Megha were engaged in a liplock! The only reason I could fathom was Bala and his unit were so happy that they were finally done with this! It certainly would have been a tough call for those concerned to have pulled this version back from a theatrical release and go for a reshoot with a different team. But from the version of Varmaa that has been released, the decision does make sense. It is neither different from Arjun Reddy nor does it carry the intensity or soul of the original.