As Kabir Singh swiftly approaches the much-coveted 250 crores box office collection in India, despite the waves of backlash and a Rotten Tomatoes score of a measly 27%, nothing slows the film’s full steam march towards being a blockbuster hit.
The film has been subjected to active criticism and backlash since its conception. As the news began to spread that director Sandeep Reddy Vanga was all set to repackage his Telugu hit Arjun Reddy (2017) for the Bollywood audience as Kabir Singh, viewers of the Telugu original actively took to social media to warn the more mainstream Bollywood moviegoers of the obvious problems and shortcomings of the film. Although the criticisms of Arjun Reddy were quite pronounced, they did not attract much attention until the trailer of Kabir Singh was released on June 21, 2019.
A hot mess of almost 3 minutes, the trailer perfectly captures everything that could and did go wrong for the female characters in the story. With the approach of the film’s release date, the unanimous cries of women on social media became increasingly difficult to ignore – traumatic accounts of abusive relationships, imbalance in power dynamics and a long-held understanding of control and violence as a form of affection were beginning to surface across all online platforms.
It seemed perfectly usual to stumble upon a woman’s Twitter thread or an Instagram post or a Facebook status recalling their painful lived experiences of Kabir Singh like narratives. Just a handful of these social media posts where enough to understand the kind of trauma that these victims had entailed. Physical violence, acid attacks, blackmail and extortion, compromise on cyber privacy, the threat of making contact details public, stalking, threats or actual acts of sexual violence among others could be easily spotted in these posts. These claims can be easily corroborated by a quick Google search.
According to the 2002 study by Center for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), cruelty by a woman’s husband or men she’s intimate with consistently records the highest crime rate. In such cases as high as five women every hour are found to face cruelty at home and 42 women are likely to report a rape every day. While the numbers are terrifying in themselves, it is important to remember that a major percentage of crimes against women go unreported because of social conditioning, inadequate access to appropriate forums and threat to the physical and emotional well-being of the victim.
In a country so plagued by the injustices against women, one cannot help but wonder what purpose does a movie such as Kabir Singh serve in the age of #metoo movement? While Bollywood seems to be making a few movies every year championing the female cause, Kabir Singh appears to be grossly misplaced. The very first scenes of the trailer introduce us to the hot-tempered Kabir Singh (Shahid Kapoor), who miraculously enough is an excellent student of medicine despite his obvious issues with anger, alcohol, and drugs.
Apart from being angry, Kabir is also horny and literally incapable of keeping it in his pants – the mere mention of an attractive girl is enough for him to shove ice down his underwear in order to tame an erection. I was frankly shocked at the brazen crassness of the scene and decided to power through the rest of the trailer anyway. Soon enough the audience is introduced to the demure Preeti Sikka (Kiara Ali Advani) who, no brainer here, is all set to become Kabir’s “love” interest. In her opening scenes, Preeti is seen wearing modest clothing in unassuming colours, hair tied back and walking head down, quietly in a row. This, in a sense, sets precedence for the kind of treatment she’s to receive from Kabir. Preeti’s dainty mannerisms and her willingness to be at the beck and call of Kabir’s temperaments seem to mirror her appearance – that of a virginal woman who must abide by the wishes of her protector.
Kabir’s attraction towards Preeti quite palpable and he somehow makes his way into her classroom. It’s all well and good until Kabir asks Preeti what her favourite subject as a medical student is and she replies, “anatomy.” And as any of the regular Bollywood audience could have guessed, Kabir in an unabashed way offers to “teach” her anatomy “outside the class.” We all know what that means – Bollywood has never been good with subtleties.
While I did excuse the cringe-inducing dialogues at this point, what really irked me is Preeti’s complete aloofness at what Kabir had been hinting at. She follows him outside the classroom probably in hopes of receiving some worthwhile lessons in anatomy. Older male students preying on younger female students is old news across almost every campus, but movies like these do serious harm in perpetuating a culture that shows young women as unthinking people who are easy to charm and take control over.
Uncensored conversations like that of Kabir hinting at being sexual with Preeti in front of her class greatly undermines the woman’s own sexual agency, work face and most importantly, her self worth.
Although Bollywood was never very good at giving its female characters any of the above, that does not mean in 2019 too, women need to continue to see themselves as stock characters who must merely exist as a plaything of the angry, young hero.
This portrayal of a naive girl is especially problematic in India, where men are known to spare no expense at avenging rejection. A silent spectator in her own love story ends up being detrimental to women who have struggled for decades in a culture like ours to assert their rights in a romantic relationship. Preeti could have been replaced with any other and it would have made no difference – after all Preeti hardly has anything to say and the only thing that Kabir likes about Preeti is the way she breathes (yes, he actually says this), and honestly, how remarkable can breathing be anyway? But to her credit, she does try to tell Kabir that she cannot marry him because her family will not agree to it, and unsurprisingly, instead of a rational conversation, Kabir retaliates with a…slap.
Kabir’s violence is not restricted to his girlfriend alone but extends to his housemaid as well. As is acknowledged by the audience’s laughter, the scene where Kabir is chasing his maid in an attempt to harm her for breaking his glass while cleaning, is meant to induce laughter. This is especially problematic in the Indian context where women from the fringes (almost always from the lower class, lower caste, and weak economic status) are regularly abused at households they work for. The scene isn’t okay at all because it not only trivializes caste and gender-based violence but also shows the abuse as something Kabir wouldn’t even think twice before doing because he’s absolutely sure of facing no consequences for the same.
Interestingly, Kabir at the beginning of the movie says, “I’m not a rebel without a cause” – this is especially misleading as the director never bothers to disclose the reasons as to why Kabir is the way he is. He grew up safe and happy, he has a loving family, friends and a girlfriend too, and a broken relationship just isn’t convincing enough to trigger his anger issues. He always has been angry, with or without Preeti.
The lack of context of Kabir Singh’s anger propounds that men can be angry just so. It doesn’t matter. In fact, anger seems like a desirable character trait. It encourages men to be angry, not seek help and continue being a menace to themselves and those around them – in short, Kabir Singh jeopardizes men who are trying their best to be better and more accommodating. I would have forgiven this movie had Sandeep Reddy Vanga and Shahid Kapoor spoke up about the problems of the angry Indian man. They didn’t. Vanga has said in an interview that, “if you don’t have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don’t see anything there. If you can’t slap, if you can’t touch your woman wherever you want, if you can’t kiss, I don’t see the emotion there.”
Shahid Kapoor, on the other hand, has maintained an aggressive silence and pleaded with the audience to view the movie as just that – a movie. These are particularly distasteful acts because Vanga’s justifying of his protagonist’s temperaments gives leeway to those men who are under the impression that aggression is a byproduct of love. This holds especially true in Indian culture where children have been told to accept violence from parents and elders as a form of love and discipline – this snowballs into young people (especially men) never being able to understand that violence is not right in any situation.
Shahid Kapoor too is a prolific actor who has been in business since 2003 and as a father to a young girl, he honestly should’ve known better as to what the progressive audience wants and if as a senior actor he should at all take up projects that may literally endanger the lives of half of the population.