In the opening scenes of Krishna And His Leela – a Telugu Netflix original, the titular character Krishna tells us that “All characters are based on real events. Hence, please do not be surprised if you come across a character that resembles you.” We hear this again towards the end, when he says that barring the names of the characters, which are really names of Hindu mythological figures, everything else shown is real. It thus becomes abundantly clear that Krishna And His Leela is a memoir. A memoir of either director Ravikanth Perepu or lead actor and screenwriter Sidhu Jonnalagadda, that fills you with an intense loathing for the men and a sense of concern for the women in their lives, given the amount of sexism and toxic masculinity Krishna And His Leela promotes.
“I am Krishna. I have a problem.” That is how the protagonist played by Jonnalagadda introduces himself, after which Krishna And His Leela goes into flashback. Krishna’s ‘problem,’ as is slowly revealed to us throughout the film, is that he cannot stay loyal in a relationship. Of course, this is portrayed as something Krishna has no control over. No matter how emotionally damaging his philandering ways and remorseless lying are to his partners, Krishna And Leela portrays him as the victim throughout, with whom we are supposed to empathise.
As Krishna And His Leela starts, we see Krishna in the middle of an argument with his girlfriend Satya (Shraddha Srinath). He laments that the two of them never spend enough time together. He then proceeds to gaslight Satya for spending all her time with a male batchmate (who is her partner for a project). He admits to stalking her and her sister in the middle of the night. In short, he reveals a bunch of red flags barely minutes into the movie. Satya angrily breaks up with him, saying that she has got a job in Bangalore and that she no longer likes him anyway. Krishna does not take this kindly. After his attempts at emotional blackmail fail, he, like his predecessors Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh, drowns himself in alcohol.
One of the scenes in Krishna And His Leela, shows how on the last day of engineering school, Krishna and his buddies rag a first-year student, Radha (Shalini Vadnikatti). This ‘ragging’ entails generous helpings of archaic moral policing (“Why aren’t you wearing a saree? You think you’re too cool?”), garden variety misogyny (“How many hearts have you broken so far?”), and borderline violation of boundaries (“Do you have a boyfriend? Would you consider Krishna?”). When Radha makes it clear that she does not take bullshit kindly, Krishna notices how ‘different’ she is from the women he’s known and falls head over heels in love.
And so begins the stalking and relentless pressurising in Krishna And His Leela. Until Radha relents one day, when in true fuckboy fashion, Krishna ‘apologises’ for his behavior. “I respect women, you see,” he says “I have a mother and a sister whom my father abandoned.” Because having female relatives is the only reason why you should respect women and at the same time, is a free pass to be excused for your otherwise creepy, toxic, borderline abusive behavior towards women. Radha evidently believes this too and falls hook, line, and sinker.
What happens to Krishna and Radha’s romance when Krishna moves to Bangalore and runs into Satya? What happens when his sister’s extremely attractive roommate, Rukhsar (Seerat Kapoor) enters the picture? What happens when Satya and Radha learn of each other’s existence? Do they forgive Krishna? Chances are, you already know the answers to most of these questions before Krishna And His Leela answers them for you.
Krishna And His Leela is a two-hour-long apologia of the worst, lowest behavior you could possibly expect from an Indian man. Krishna dates two women at once because he’s a ‘loving’ man repressed by rigid norms of monogamy. Never mind that he spins elaborate lies to convince each woman that she is the only person in his life. Never mind, that he knows what he is doing would hurt them but goes ahead and does it anyway. It is poor, dear Krishna who deserves our sympathy apparently. Because he just cannot get himself to choose between two women as ‘society’ requires him to.
Krishna walks into a half-naked Rukhsar and ogles at her despite her apparent discomfort. He whispers, “Sexy roommate, bro!” to his sister who doesn’t take offence to the blatant objectification of her friend at all. He watches Rukhsar drink, smoke, and dance the night away in her skimpy clothes and mutters, “Such girls need to be banned.” Because yes, films like Krishna And His Leela teach us how women like Rukhsar need to be banned from existing, simply because insecure man-babies cannot control their urges looking at them.
By the end of Krishna And His Leela, Krishna is a changed man, or so we’re told. He has realised that “loving two women at the same time is not cool”. One wants to ask why two women had to sacrifice their mental and emotional labor for Krishna to learn this basic lesson. Why they had to have their time wasted, their hearts broken, their feelings played with, just so a man-child could grow into, what we are being assured, a moderately decent human being. Why is it that female characters in mainstream Indian cinema continue to serve no other purpose besides being training institutes for men who need to be taught the basics of decent behavior?
It is 2020 and we still excuse the misogynist and abusive behavior of men onscreen by glorifying them as tragic heroes who were simply victims of their circumstances. We still celebrate the free emotional labor of women to turn the men in their lives from irredeemable jerks to barely tolerable human. We still celebrate all the Krishnas, Kabir Singhs, Christian Greys and Massimos as the pinnacle of male sex appeal, no matter how many blazing red flags their actions show us.
My bisexual heart would have loved to watch a version of Krishna And His Leela where Satya and Radha dump Krishna and ride into the proverbial sunset with each other. But looking at how interesting female characters in Indian cinema still cannot exist independently of a man, I doubt this wish of mine will ever materialise.