By Poulomi Das Jun. 21, 2019
Disguised as a love story, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh justifies what Indian men have been trying to normalise since time immemorial: That anger is a man’s birthright. That rage is necessary for a man to exert his dominance over a woman and the world needs to accept it.
If the existence – and the possible blockbuster status – of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh, the glossier Hindi remake of Arjun Reddy proves anything, it’s that Indian filmmakers have turned not understanding women into a legitimate movie genre. At the risk of underestimating the contribution of other directors, I suspect that this very in-demand genre has reached its zenith in Venga’s fetishisation of hyper-masculinity.
Early on, there’s a scene in Kabir Singh where Preeti (Kiara Advani), the first-year medical student who catches the fancy of the eponymous hero (an unconvincing Shahid Kapoor) is molested on Holi. Six men from a rival football team that Kabir beats up during an earlier match turn up at her hostel and rub colour on her to exact revenge on him. The incident doesn’t play out on screen, but it doesn’t have to: Just ask any woman you know and they’ll narrate the horrors of a similar account of violation. In the film, the minute Kabir learns about the incident, he orders Preeti to take a bath, takes her to face her abuser, and mercilessly beats him up in front of a crowd. He then, tells the guy to imagine a scenario where someone entered his house and forcibly touched his mother. What follows is even bizarre: In between lighting a cigarette for him, Kabir gets him to promise that he will never touch her again. Not because men should familiarise themselves with consent or respect the agency of women, but because Preeti is “his girl”. Preeti remains a silent spectator in the background as this inexplicable ego match unfolds, until she starts crying, moved by Arjun’s admission of love. They seal it with a hug, a move that is undercut by a romantic background score.
In essence, Kabir Singh exploits molestation – a 2014 UNICEF survey estimates that 42 per cent of girls in the country have been sexually abused – to craft a grand romantic gesture that serves the hero. In this sequence, the focus is never on Preeti, whose body registered the violation but is perennially on Kabir, the man whom the camera’s gaze exalts for loving a woman so much that he can go to any lengths to protect her. As the film keeps marvelling at the intensity of Kabir’s feelings (even when it frequently manifests in abuse), it reduces the violence survived by the woman to an afterthought. This directorial decision takes an alarming turn in another scene that occurs on the road outside Preeti’s house. In a fit of rage, Kabir transforms into a manic-obsessive abuser who threatens to hit Preeti’s sister, slaps Preeti, infantilises her concerns (“People only know you because of me,” he reminds her), and blackmails her to follow his orders, all under the guise of love. For Vanga and Kabir Singh, Preeti’s tears or her trauma remain irrelevant. What matters is how much Kabir is fighting for their love. This devaluation of her personhood to essentially bestow a character certificate to the film’s hero, isn’t just triggering, but more importantly, dehumanising. Kabir Singh’s unabashed celebration of machismo depends entirely on the perverse pleasure derived from female suffering.
For it is foremost, it fails to distinguish abuse when it comes cloaked in romance.
From the very beginning, Kabir Singh is an unimaginative scene-by-scene recreation of Arjun Reddy. The director doesn’t adapt the storyline to a different setting but just regurgitates it. At this point, it isn’t entirely shocking that the film glorifies Kabir’s toxicity – a hybrid of male entitlement, saviour and victim complex – that comes shrouded in a layer of impunity. Yet, what continues being suffocating is watching a “love-story” play out on screen, where Preeti is so transfixed under Kabir’s spell that she continues to tolerate his transgressions, justifying physical violence even, as a marker of passionate romance. Like Arjun Reddy, Kabir Singh then, isn’t really a story about a man destroying himself, but is actually about a man destroying a woman so that he can be the poster boy for aspirational self-destructiveness.
At its core, the three-hour-long film remains a retelling of Devdas, except in Vanga’s version, the hero’s self-destructiveness comes with no accompanying consequences; instead it is endorsed as the most appropriate fallout of heartbreak. In India, men like Kabir Singh, who grow up believing that they are entitled to have their way in life and with women, aren’t a figment of anyone’s imagination; they are the norm. It’s impossible then, to look at Kabir Singh either in isolation or as just a messy but harmless tale of a man whose suffering makes him temporarily surrender to his worst impulses. For it is foremost, a portrait of the difficulty of distinguishing abuse when it comes cloaked in romance. Kabir doesn’t as much love Preeti as he likes the idea of owning her (When he drops her back to college after having sex with her, he orders her to adjust her dupatta. The implication is clear: Her honour is now linked with him). On the other hand, the movie doesn’t exactly allow Preeti to fall in love with him because it demands her to be submissive and adjust to his harmful misbehaviour. Their “relationship” is built on the tenets of abuse of power.
It’s fascinating and perhaps revealing that despite the plentiful criticisms that Arjun Reddy amassed over the last two years, Vanga steers clear of revising any of it: The Hindi remake still opens with that horrifying sequence where Kabir threatening a woman to have sex with him at knife-point, is mined for laughs. The maximum that the director budges from his original worldview is in a classroom scene where Kabir brokers a friendship between Preeti and another classmate. In the Telugu version, he tells Preeti to become friends with that girl because “fat chicks are like teddy bears”. In the scene that occurs in Kabir Singh, Vanga’s sensitivity is limited to switching the words “fat” with “healthy”.
It’s not like this modification makes the sequence or the mentality behind it – judging the worth of a woman based on her appearance – any less insulting. If he wanted to, Vanga could have easily done away with this brief scene; it hardly alters the course of events in Kabir Singh. But the fact that he chooses to retain it as comic relief betrays his intentions and encapsulates the danger of the Hindi remake: Kabir Singh exists to give Indian men a vocabulary, a reference point to justify misbehaviour and violence against women.
Unlike what Kapoor and Vanga will you have believe, Kabir Singh isn’t just a complex character with shades of grey.
The central takeaway of Kabir Singh is invariably, the exclusive privilege of male rage: Kabir doesn’t think twice before raising his hand on either his brother, girlfriend, a nurse, or his maid and is afforded screentime to perform his anger. His unreasonable anger is squared off against a litany of his achievements: He’s a college topper. Does it matter if he performs his surgeries drunk if he is brilliant and hasn’t killed a patient? Isn’t the intensity of his love – evidenced by nine months worth of pining that include growing a beard, throwing tantrums, treating people like they’re his property, and abusing alcohol and drugs – more important than the occasional instances where he acts out? Kabir Singh undeniably voices what Indian men have been trying to normalise since time immemorial: That anger is a man’s birthright. That rage is necessary for a man to exert his dominance over a woman. It exists to reinforce the idea that fury is like second nature for men and that the world needs to just accept it.
Yet unlike what Kapoor and Vanga will you have believe, Kabir isn’t just another complex character with shades of grey. The film sees to it that he becomes an ideology of male superiority that casts Indian men as both heroes and victims whose flaws need to be tolerated, not admonished. It’s why Kabir can emotionally abuse Preeti and still be the one asking “Do I deserve this?” Kabir Singh is every “free-spirited” Indian man’s wet dream, disguised as a love story – a piece of irresponsible, offensive filmmaking that reveals just how harmful men can be to themselves and to the woman in their lives and still refuse to apologise for it.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.