Not Just A Movie – The Larger Implications of Kabir Singh

I’ve been plastered to my mobile screen for the past two hours, viewing the results for #KabirSingh. There’s a lot of debate on the forefront, but also, for some reason, raw emotions. Ironic because raw unchecked emotions are exactly what is displayed in the movie. I’ll come clean about not having watched the movie. But I am going to watch it. But from the two-hour long research, I have identified characteristics of the film that are problematic, from people who are calling it out. Please feel free to point out incidents in the film that I have misunderstood or misrepresented.

So, we get it.

Kabir Singh is a raging alcoholic and drug abuser, with insane anger management issues. As Shahid Kapur put it “there’s a lot of honesty in the film”. We’ll get to that in a bit. Anyway, there’s a lot of people who are lauding the film for being honest and impressive, whereas others are calling it out for glorifying toxic masculinity.

Here are some pre-points before I go on to the larger implication.
This is not the first time Indian cinema has glorified and romanticised toxic masculinity and harassment. It has, with complete popular approval, also advocated sexual objectification of women, hyper-masculinity and sexism, to no end. Most of them didn’t get called out at the time because the new wave of feminism in India had not yet been settled and well, lack of social media conversation about things like this. (Watch the episode When Masculinity Harms Men: Reel vs Real (Part 4)¬† on Satyameva Jayate to hear Amir Khan, Deepika Padukone, Kangana Ranaut and Parineeti Chopra discuss cinema’s portrayal of wooing and treating women) If it’s being called out now, it’s still better than never being called out for.
Nobody is asking the movie to stop being showed or to being banned or even being vandalised – which are things that repeatedly happen when the Indian audience is irked out by content they do not approve of. Take, for instance, Deepa Mehta’s Fire¬†that achieved grand critical acclaim but was subjected to protests, vandalism and furthermore banning. Why? Just because it spoke of a lesbian love story among two married women. Too unsanskari huh?
“It’s just a movie” is not a valid argument. It’s actually the laziest argument. Cinema influences life, just as it reflects it. And every artist or creator should be held accountable for what he creates – good or bad. That’s just how it works – otherwise, media manipulation can go unchecked and create havoc.
Movies do influence life. Blank Noise is an initiative (an understatement – a movement rather) that broke boundaries on research and projects about sexual harassment, sexual and gender inequalities and a whole lot more. And it was begun by Jasmeen Patheja. In one of their initial projects #TalkToMe – where young women sat by tables, individually, along a street that was popularly dubbed as “rape street” because of numerous instances of harassment. They invited strangers on the street to have a conversation with them. One of the findings in this was from a conversation that questioned a man as to why he devotes himself and his time to stalking, eve-teasing and cat-calling. His answer was that he was just doing what the heroes in movies do. They always end up getting the girl and he only needs a girlfriend. Now, to all those who are saying it’s just a movie and one must treat it just as a story – clearly, you have never had to face the consequences of cinema’s romanticisation of toxic masculinity.
We should all settle into our little comfort chairs of privilege and really assess why such a movie is troublesome and worrisome. And that means – I as a woman from a privileged background, with parents who tolerate my intention of living life as I please, a money-earning independent individual with a house to live on my own, with the liberty and headstrong capacity to be intolerant of individuals who are toxic or abusive – must acknowledge that I will definitely not face the negative impact of such a movie like a less privileged individual, who does not have a choice but to tolerate the circumstances and situations they are put in, will.

So now that we have all that out of the way, let’s really examine this movie.

Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh is a successful and intelligent surgeon who spirals down when his girlfriend from college is forced to marry somebody else. He resorts to drug abuse, excessive drinking and being an absolute dick. Also, he gets very angry very easily. He is heartbroken and hence is on a self-destructive path. Great. Sounds like a pretty unproblematic plot. But it gets problematic when the narrative glorifies this character (who in reality honestly would be such a pain in the ass for friends and family alike) as a cool/desirable/superior dude. He and he alone runs the show. Oh, wait, that’s actually not unrealistic at all. I have come across similar people. And it is not one bit attractive as a cis-gender straight female. But how are they to know when heroes like Kabir Singh and Arjun Reddy are lauded by millions and is busting box office records. They must think they are hella attractive. Some scenes that faced excessive criticism is the one where Karan holds a knife and asks a girl to undress, the non-consensual first kiss, Kabir running after the maid in rage for breaking a glass and so on and so forth. If it was me on the other end, I’d probably slap the dude and call him out on social media for abruptly kissing me without consent or for any sort of aggression. But masses reacted with laughs, empathy and/or excitement. Tanul Thakur does a much better job at critiquing the movie, so go ahead and read There’s Some Movie In This Misogyny which, according to me, set the ball rolling for the popular debate.

Is this the reel life?

Well, it’s actually real life. Cases of domestic abuse and violence are on the rise.
Abuse is not just physical – it’s anything from manipulation, bullying, verbal and mental torture to physical aggression, rape and even death. With domestic violence alone, it has been reported via the National Family Health Survey (NHFS-4) by the Union Health Ministry, that every third woman, since the age of 15, has faced various forms of it in the country. Why am I bringing this up? Well, if so many people (we haven’t even accounted for how much abuse queer people have to face) are physically abused, there must be just as many or more abusers. And this large population of abusers are probably going to be movie-goers. And this is in both urban and rural settings. They watch a movie like Kabir Singh and feel validated as hell not just by this Hero figure, but the audience that applauds this incredibly complex character. He’s not a fucked up person – he’s just complex and “raw”. Yuck. Say that to the woman who gets hit by her husband every night, followed by a morning of make up intimacy. Kabir Singh is a very very real person/people. They might not even be as obvious as Kabir Singh. And do I have to talk about young adults and growing children who are exposed to such glorified toxic behaviour?

India currently has anger management issues.

Yea, if you haven’t been up-to-date with the shit that is going around in India, well here’s a quick update. Massive water crisis, lynchings, protests, people are getting beaten up, even the climate is getting hotter. Everybody seems to be on edge – either high on the election results or utterly disappointed by it. So, propagating anger as a desirable character cannot come at a worse timing.

Feminism is not a bad word, guys.

Twitterati seems to hate feminism. And you know what, now that I consider it, most men and actually quite a few women I know don’t identify as feminists even though the avoidance of the term is accompanied by “but I obviously believe in equality”. Must I give you a discourse on how feminism is about empowering oppressed genders and sexualities to bring them to the position of equality, as well as break up toxic and harmful impacts on men themselves, and to dismantle patriarchy – the man’s world and build a more equal world? Honestly, why do people hate the concept of feminism so much? At least in India, it seems so. It is disappointing to see a country, as it progresses and becomes more relevant in global dialogue, going backwards in its thought processes. I mean “woke feminist” and “intellectual liberals” are spat out as insults. I mean, what? Those terms are great!! Woke and intellectual? Thanks for the validation, man.

I read about how it is definitely a red flag if there’s somebody who defends Kabir Singh. At first, enraged and disappointed, I nodded my head aggressively. But I think it’s a lot about holding a conversation. I think its about how feminist intervention or calling out on popular movies with popular actors for their toxic depictions is something so new for a country like India, that most people are even unaware of why people are getting “triggered”. It is important space out why you or in this case I, am “triggered” by it.

I am triggered by it because the following has happened to me:

– Age 13 – School has ended for the day. My friends and I are taking the usual route – first the pani puri guy, then the bus stop. While we eat pani puri, a bunch of guys on bikes (Dhoom 2 had just released a few months ago) does some weird stunts on their bikes and later stalk us till the bus stop. Being a naive child (having viewed numerous sleazy films myself), I was flattered, even thought they were so cool and started talking to one of the guys because he was acting oh-so-very charming. I would later find out that the guy was a 20 year old. A 20 year old guy pursuing a 13-year-old girl. And I, misinformed by Indian cinema, couldn’t even identify his behaviour as dangerous or predatory.
– Age 14 – walking on the road near my tuition classes with a friend on a break at some time in the late afternoon. A guy, on a bike, passes us by and smacks my friend’s butt, and looks back and grins. My friend is shaking. I am shaking.
– Age 14 – a guy I hardly knew plants a kiss on my lips – with tongue. I was devastated. At first, he looked at me lovingly, with his face still right in front of my face with our noses touching – like those romantic movie scenes but I was NOT feeling it! When I tried to push him off me, just to get off his grab, his expression changed to anger. His grip got tighter. I was trapped.
– At numerous times in my life – eve teasing and cat-calling. Weird cheesy names being thrown at me on the street by strangers. Songs with double meanings being sung. Unasked for winking accompanied by a sleazy expression. Men in cars or bikes getting ahead of me and blocking me from overtaking while they keep glancing at me through their mirrors, locking eyes with me even.

These moments are scary. Not flattering. I have felt trapped and ill-equipped to defend myself. The brain goes into a state of paranoia and thinks of the worst possible outcome. I freeze up.

So – that’s why I am triggered. And I think I, and many other people who must have been through this or so much worse, is very much allowed to be.

And what is your personal reason as to why you aren’t triggered?

Never faced it? This is when you measure out your privilege.
If you are a man, you are less likely to be exposed to harassment disguised as heroism. So that is a privilege.
If you haven’t had to travel a lot on your own without adult supervision, or in public transport, you are less likely to have come across rogue entities or strangers doing this. Privilege.
If you have always grown up in a sheltered environment then you are less likely to have come across this. Privilege.
Less likely – not barring. People with all of those privileges can still be victims to this.

And when hit movies like Kabir Singh glorify toxic relationships, your privilege cannot necessarily protect you from that. Toxic relationships go back and forth between toxic behaviour and excessive intimacy. If your brain has been programmed to think this is romantic and this is true love, you are bound to be trapped and bound to struggle.

So that’s that. If my opinion changes after watching the movie, I shall add an update.
Stay civil, folks.

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