Why Kabir Singh is Proof of How Movies Get Away with Trivialising Women


Why Kabir Singh is Proof of How Movies Get Away with Trivialising Women

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

At the interval mark of Kabir Singh’s packed press screening in Mumbai last Thursday, the dissonance between the two genders of its audience was at its most apparent. As the lights came back on, the young woman journalist sitting next to me was shaking. When our eyes met, we gave each other a knowing nod, a look that was meant to both comfort and complain. A few minutes ago, a seasoned film journalist seated right behind us had yelped in horror at a harrowing scene where in a fit of rage, the film’s male protagonist slaps his girlfriend to have the last word. Another friend – a bright, opinionated reporter – walked out of the theatre at this moment, almost in tears, triggered at how cockily the film was recasting the abuse that women suffer at the hands of men as intense love. Irrespective of whether they agreed or disagreed with the film, the men in the audience watched Kabir Singh, but every woman at that screening, was forced to participate in it.

As the minutes passed, the mistreatment inflicted on the women in Kabir Singh – a college student, a maid, nurses, an actress, a random fling – kept escalating. They were humiliated, infantilised, ordered around, threatened of sexual and physical violence, violated, and slapped. But their perpetrator, a “troubled but brilliant” Kabir Singh, is fetishised as the attractive angry young man whose violence is a subset of his uncontrollable passion. He is also the one portrayed as the victim. At best, the film only accuses him, gently, of being “free-spirited in a democracy”; a non-conformist who is predictably misunderstood and eventually offers him redemption on a platter. In her review, film critic Namrata Joshi succinctly sums up the experience of watching Kabir Singh as a woman; she dubs it as a film “that makes you feel violated.”

Watching the film as someone who is invariably also wrestling with just how easily they could be (or have been) at the receiving end of the violence that Kabir Singh justifies, there’s really no other way to process it. When Kabir mocks a first-year female medical student in front of the class for her weight, legitimising a mentality that reduces women to their appearances and weighing scales, it’s impossible to discard it as a harmless scene. It’s a reminder of how society has come to police the bodies of women – treating them not as a person, but as a vessel. This implication that men can treat “fat chicks” as dirt, doesn’t come as a surprise to any woman. It has after all, been passed down into our consciousness either by “well-meaning” relatives or by the men we choose to mother in the name of love. And like the laughs that this scene evokes, even Kabir Singh is built solely on the humiliation of women. How do you sit through three hours of such targeted female suffering and distance yourself enough to praise the film’s impeccable production design?

But the argument then is, can a film now not be allowed to “joke” or depict “flawed men”? It certainly can. And that’s the thing about Kabir Singh – it doesn’t merely do either; it constantly and cruelly belittles women and uses the audience’s reaction as reinforcement for its ideas. No Hindi film in the recent past at least, has depended so heavily on making women aware of their gender as the 172 minutes of Kabir Singh.

Kabir Singh

The very fact that there was a demand for Kabir Singh is proof that movies in India are never marketed or targeted to a female audience

Image credit: T-Series

This female helplessness – a running thread in Kabir Singh – transforms into a perverse celebration of male power with the director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s gaze of its female lead, Preeti. Preeti, an attractive and fair-skinned girl, is built as a woman whose default language is obedience. In her first few interactions with Kabir, she looks down while he is speaking to her (a trait that the movie later exalts as “good behaviour”), nods her head in agreement, and is submissive to a fault. Even when her relationship with Kabir borders on emotional and physical abuse, she refuses to see the boundaries that are crossed and instead goes out of her way – like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome – to gain his approval and love, even at the risk of harming herself.

Neither does Preeti’s facial expressions register any disagreement, nor is she equipped with the vocabulary to stand up for herself. And Kabir Singh keeps implying that she doesn’t even need to. Preeti, essentially (and quite literally) is the prototype of how men want an Indian woman to be: stripped of her voice. For instance, the first one-sided conversation between Kabir and Preeti ends with him kissing her on the cheek, a move that the film heralds as romantic, but which in reality, is a replication of the very many ways that men disregard consent. Yet Kabir Singh doesn’t allow Preeti to protest this overture or react to it. Kabir’s move on Preeti isn’t even based on mutual attraction, but merely on the absence of a “no”. It’s a mentality that disturbingly hits home, shaping so many variants of non-consensual behaviour which over the years, have seen women at the receiving end of it.

Even when a woman utters a “no” in Kabir Singh, it hardly brings about a change in Kabir’s general entitlement: In a sequence, despite her screaming at him to stop, Kabir proceeds to violently undress a girl, threatening her to have sex with him at knife-point. It’s a suffocating scene to sit through that had every woman I know, momentarily freeze at the nonchalance of it all. For the film though, it was yet another comic sequence. Some men in the audience laughed and cheered, even. Some will continue to. But this marked difference in reactions only strengthens the warped power equation between men and women that Kabir Singh proudly champions.

Every woman watching Kabir Singh isn’t just watching a film. They’re inevitably imagining a scenario where they are stripped of their agency and individuality, only to have a man cross the boundaries of what qualifies as love and what it is never anything but violence. It’s precisely what has triggered so many of us who’ve watched Kabir Singh. The last weekend, I have been flitting in and out of conversations with friends who struggled to land on the right words to explain why a film affected them to an extent, that it became impossible to see it in a vacuum. The friend who walked out of Kabir Singh, sent me a text later that night, “Did you notice how some people clapped when Kabir slapped Preeti?” She didn’t really have to ask and I didn’t have to answer for us both to realise that the film’s glorification of a man demeaning a woman and the audience’s acceptance of it, will forever remain imprinted in our minds.

In her review, Namrata Joshi succinctly sums up the experience of watching Kabir Singh as a woman; she dubs it as a film “that makes you feel violated.”

It is this reception of Kabir Singh – the film made over Rs 70 crore on its opening weekend – that serves as its coda. It reminds us that a majority of men believe that they own women the same way they own property or tame a pet (It’s not a coincidence that Kabir names his dog after Preeti). That, despite their progressiveness, or alliance to feminism, they will respond to the idea that they are entitled to a woman’s blind devotion, even in the face of violence. That it is acceptable that Kabir Singh doesn’t only mine female trauma, but also insists that women recollect all of it and re-consume it as entertainment as well as aspirational romantic behaviour.

Perhaps, Kabir Singh tells us less about its makers, and more about us.

The very fact that there was a demand for Kabir Singh – the complete scene-by-scene recreation of Arjun Reddy, a two-year-old Telugu blockbuster – is proof that movies in India are never marketed or targeted to a female audience. More importantly, the stubborn defence of Kabir Singh, a film that doesn’t hide how much it hates women, reveals something far more insidious: It’s that movies can get away with reminding women that their feelings and experiences are invalid. (In an interview before the release, Vanga went on record to announce that he doesn’t bother about the opinions of “pseudo-feminists”.)

It’s funny but when we talk about our favourite films, we tend to opine so much about the power of cinema to reflect life, how it can articulate our deepest desires and secrets, and most of all, how moving images are equipped with the inimitable ability of making us feel. How do we then, forget the repercussions it can have on half of the country’s population when a film like Kabir Singh releases to widespread public acceptance?