Kabir Singh. Sandeep Vanga’s remake of the Telugu cult hit Arjun Reddy; an alcoholic surgeon with an explosive temper who becomes addicted to alcohol and drugs after his girlfriend is forced to marry someone else.
The film was led by Shahid Kapoor as the titular character and Kiara Advani as the object of his passion (?) and the reason behind his violent outburst. It raked in nearly ₹380 crores at the box office and is the second highest-grossing Hindi film of the year. If you haven’t been living under a rock all these months, you probably already knew most of what you read.
What the hullabaloo is about
You might also be familiar with the whirlwind of negative reviews (from many critics and alike) that followed its immediate release and has continued to dominate a lot of the conversation surrounding the film, and with good reason too. Every despicable act of misogyny and toxic masculinity, you name it and Kabir Singh’s probably done it.
- Beating people up as a point of pride?Check.
- Barging into a freshman class to claim a woman as your property? Check.
- Creepily stalk a woman, because why not? Check.
- Kissing said woman without her consent after the first conversation they have? Check.
- Commanding a “chubby” woman to be friends with the said woman because skinny women can’t be friends? Check.
- Threatening the parents for refusing to marry off their daughter? Check.
- Hitting the said woman who now has Stockholm syndrome thanks to your noble efforts? Check.
- Snorting and drinking on the job because how else would you react to a breakup? Check.
- Threatening to rape a woman at knifepoint when she refuses to have sex with him? Check.
Misogyny is front and centre in Bollywood. Stalkers are often glorified, toxic masculinity is normalized and even molestation is justified as a legitimate form of courtship. But why is that especially problematic in the context of a country like Bangladesh?
Normalization of stalking and its ramifications
With movies like Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951), where the hero stalked and teased a woman into his romantic interest’s heart; Darr (1993), where the hero stalks the girl even to her honeymoon; and TereNaam (2003), where a girl falls in love with a violent man who kidnaps her stalking has been normalized as a natural romantic expression of love. It follows that the woman gives in to the man’s persuasions and somehow they fall in love and live happily ever after.
Real-life encounters with your stalker are hardly ever this pleasant though. Far from it. Since men have been indoctrinated into the belief that women are bound to give in to their charms at one point thanks to these very same movies championing women as submissive beings, a simple “no” is hardly ever an acceptable answer.
This has deadly consequences for women, manifesting in various forms of harassment and violence directed towards them. A large number of acid attack victims are in fact women who rebuffed the advances of men who were at one point stalking them. That a country like Bangladesh has the highest reported incidence of acid assault in the world doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination.
What it teaches people about the nature of love, relationships and women’s agency
Kabir Singh, unfortunately, adds to that a trope thanks to the director’s decision to reduce Kiara Advani’s character, Preeti, to a one-dimensional female who is submissive and accepting of Kabir’s advances and is deferential to his dominating and controlling nature. She isn’t a fully realized woman, but rather a plot device in the hero’s story. Preeti has been shown as a woman who, for starters, can’t even make eye contact, and only opens her mouth to plead, beg or call Kabir her ‘baby’. She has no agency of her own. She doesn’t have the right to decide whether she wants to be with Kabir Singh. Preeti never consents to being kissed but we suppose consent is assumed to be the lack of a firm “no” in the movie (not as though a “no” would have made Kabir pause either).
This reduces the value of their “love” to a certain set of demands as set by Kabir- that must be immediately gratified by Preeti in order for their relationship to hold any stock. A lot of this unchallenged power to make such decisions stems from the fact Kabir is a man. The message it sends to young men in our country, where the gender power dynamics are skewed in the favour of men, is that Kabir’s behaviour is, in fact, justified. It is a glorification of abusive relationships and nothing more.
Misogyny and justifying violence against women
Kabir Singh’s reckless behaviour ultimately leads to him losing Preeti. He goes through alcohol, drugs and countless one-night stands instead of processing the turmoil within like a normal human being. People around him blame Preeti for the sorrow she’s caused him. He was never at fault, they say; he is just a love-struck man with anger issues, we are told; a veritable genius, who only indulges in excessive drinking because she was dumped.
Whoever has heard of making a grown man take responsibility for his own actions? After all, boys will be boys.
The argument used by many to defend Kabir Singh and his actions is that it is merely his way of expressing his passionate love for Preeti, which is why he takes the liberty of hitting her as well. That is essentially the take away for most people: that love means dictating the life of your significant other, and refusal to abide by any order to that end justifies violence. In the words of the director himself, “If you don’t have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don’t see anything there.” Kapoor has defended his character. “There are all kinds of people in real life, including alpha-males who feel territorial entitlement, and I have played this character truthfully,” he told journalists.
But film critic Anna Vetticad has taken issue with justifying such a narrative in the name of depicting reality.
“This is exhausting, but for the zillionth time: it is not the depiction of reality that is objectionable here, it is precisely because violent, destructive misogynists do exist and women for centuries have suffered at their hands that it is deeply troubling when a film portrays such a person as cool, funny, and, as Kapoor puts it, a man with “a good heart” who “loves purely” and “wears his emotions on his sleeve,”She wrote in her review of the film.
In a country like Bangladesh where 66% of women have reported being abused by their domestic partners, it further solidifies these beliefs within the very large, mostly male audience that this movie was able to draw to the theatres, most of whom don’t see much wrong with the movie aside from Kabir Singh’s temper.
Kabir Singh is a celebration of everything that’s wrong in our culture. The blatant lack of respect for women and their agency, the tendency to justify and make excuses for the violence carried out by men on women on a daily basis, the glorification of stalking and other aspects of toxic masculinity. Even with the few virtues that it manages to scrape by, the enormity of the potential harms that it may have simply cannot be ignored.