If you have grown up on good, bad and awful Hindi films, you would be familiar with some basic rules of engagement. Girl meets boy. He woos, she shrinks. He sings, she stomps. He lands up at her door, follows her in college corridors, stalks her on streets with his gang of sidekicks — and finally wins her heart.
But Kabir Singh, a tale of intense heterosexual love well on its way to becoming a cult, struck me not just for its angry, chain-smoking self-destructive hero. It’s the pristine woman Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s film worships that is an equally troubling fantasy. Kiara Advani’s Preeti Sikka, fresh-faced to the point of being anaemic, made me nostalgic for the way Madhuri Dixit, Raveena Tandon or Juhi Chawla flounced, fumed and rolled their eyes at the serial harassment they suffered in the guise of courtship in films from the 1990s — even if the script did eventually nudge them into love.
As Kabir Singh, a final-year medical student with a violent streak, goes about “picking” Preeti from a line of freshers walking by, and then publicly owning her by declaring to the boys in her class that she “belongs” to him, choosing where she sits in class, and who she is friends with (fat chicks are best for pretty girls, says this upper-caste meritorious topper), Vanga allows not even a twinge of fear, alarm, discomfort on Preeti’s face (since she remains as silent as alabaster in most of the early scenes, it’s hard to know what she’s thinking). Not even when he kisses her in public, without so much as a prelude, a conversation, or permission, does she flinch.
This is a film which seems to say: Alpha males in true, intense, mad love never have to ask, will she mind? Is she saying yes? In 2019, when a tidal wave of conversations about consent has washed over us, this is not a film as much as a balm for bruised male entitlement.
The #MeToo wave has ebbed, leaving behind several damaged reputations and disturbing questions about how various aspects of our culture conspire to give men enormous sexual entitlement and power over women. Some of these questions have been brushed aside with impunity, silence and indifference of institutions. Indeed, the highest court in the land has come off poorly in appearing to do justice when one of its own was accused. From Tanushree Dutta to Sruthi Hariharan to Chinmayi Sripada, women in Indian cinema have had to pay huge costs for speaking up about sexual violence, while those accused of grievous abuse (Alok Nath, Nana Patekar, Arjun Sarja) have been reinstated. But that is not to say that Indian masculinity hasn’t been challenged by this clamour. That it doesn’t long for a time of innocence, when boys could be boys, and not be held up to scrutiny.
A film like Kabir Singh (or its earlier Telugu variant, Arjun Reddy) — a slickly-made psychologically realistic portrait of a successful man in free fall, who can threaten a woman with a knife into opening her clothes, who chases his domestic help down the road — is the fantasy that consoles, that showcases the sheer seductive power of male anger and privilege. Or, as Vanga pronounced, in his now-famous interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, “intimidation has its own charm”. He followed it with a dubious theory of attachment — “when you’re deeply in love, deeply connected with a woman and vice versa… if you don’t have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don’t see anything there.”
This is, of course, a time when all kinds of boorishness ripples with a new cultural pride. The director tore into critics who had problems with his film (they were “parasites, pseudos, worse than pirates”). While once filmmakers made regressive films with cynicism, and shrugged off critics as they laughed their way to the bank, Vanga insisted he has made a film about a strong woman, that his intentions were honourable because he worked with rape victims. His is the indignation of the “good man”, who cannot imagine why women’s experience would not square with his view of their place in the world. I was reminded of Fahadh Faasil’s excellent turn in the recent Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights as a comic incarnation of toxic masculinity. “Ours is a modern family which gives freedom to women,” he says, while stopping his wife’s sister from marrying the man of her choice. But while Faasil’s Shammy is a caricature, such doublespeak is too real to be comic.
A man’s ardour is often a fatal burden for the woman — you only have to refer to the stories of men stalking, sometimes killing, women who say no. The NFHS-4 survey revealed that “33 per cent of ever-married women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional spousal violence” and only 14 per cent sought help. “Of the acts of physical violence committed by the current or most recent husbands, the most common type is slapping, reported by 27 per cent of ever-married women,” the survey said.
Would domestic violence cease if films such as Kabir Singh or Dabangg or Tere Naam were not made? Of course not. But popular cinema is a powerful way in which a society negotiates its rights and wrongs. The question to ask is this: Do films like these make it easier to disregard, to belittle violence in interpersonal relationships as the natural friction between men and women? Going by the many women who felt compelled to counter Vanga’s sophisticated patriarchal spin by baring their personal trauma on social media, the answer is yes.
Cinema reinforces and is reinforced by “real” life, including the inequalities of societies. But, like all art, it is a way to imagine and contest the possibilities of humanity. And to cinema — two recent Malayalam films in particular — we could turn to find new ways of thinking about how to be a man. Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh’s Revenge) beautifully upends ideas of male honour, with a reluctant avenger for a hero. To reimagine new ways in which Indian men can love and heal each other, build and rebuild their homes, turn to the stellar cast of Kumbalangi Nights — a story of four unsuccessful oddballs and the women in their life, who create a nurturing community of love. Not all heroes need to raise a hand in love. Some pick up a ladle and enter the kitchen.
The article appeared in print under the title ‘Boys like Kabir Singh’. firstname.lastname@example.org
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