June 21, 2019
Sandeep Reddy Vanga
Shahid Kapoor, Kiara Advani, Kamini Kaushal, Suresh Oberoi, Arjan Bajwa, Adil Hussain, Nikita Dutta, Soham Majumdar, Kunal Thakur
Hindi and English with (unsubtitled) Punjabi
It takes almost 50 minutes for the heroine of Kabir Singh to utter her first sentence. “Kabir, what do you like in me?” says this fragile-looking child-woman who was a mute puppet in his hands until then. “I like the way you breathe,” he replies. Ooh, keh diya na dil ko touch kar jaane waali baat!
Okay, my apologies for the flippant tone, but please excuse it as a defence mechanism against one of the most horrific, harrowing, horrendous odes to misogyny and patriarchy ever created by Indian cinema in any language – humourised and romanticised for our viewing pleasure.
Kabir Singh is the Bollywood remake of the 2017 Tollywood blockbuster Arjun Reddy starring Vijay Sai Deverakonda and Shalini Pandey in the roles played in this Hindi version by Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani. To call both problematic is an understatement. As I watched Kabir Singh, I could already hear in my head the tired clichés that are rolled out as rebuttals to criticism of such films and are likely to be regurgitated for this one.
“C’mon ya, men like that do exist.”
“Are you saying films should not depict reality?”
“If negative characters could influence people to become bad then how come positive characters do not immediately reform society?”
Or, as Kapoor himself pre-emptively said earlier this week in a newspaper interview: “If we start judging characters, we can’t make movies that are real.”
Oh brother, stop. Please stop. 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”.
Again brother, stop. Stop with the euphemisms, please. Call the Kabir Singhs of the world what they are and show them up for what they are: obnoxious, ugly sociopaths.
Kapoor plays Kabir Rajdhir Singh, an ill-tempered, aggressive albeit academically brilliant medical college student who one day sees a pretty girl on campus and decides she is his. Her name is Preeti Sikka (Kiara Advani) but he does not know that then. They have yet to even have a conversation, but like a dog urinating to mark his territory, Kabir goes to an all-men junior class, announces to the students that they can have their pick of the other women in the college but this one is his woman, and demands that they spread the word on his behalf.
Mind you, all this and everything that comes thereafter (he is a chain-smoking alcoholic and drug taker who descends further into a spiral of substance abuse and sex addiction when he is forcefully separated from Preeti) is depicted in a comical tone and projected as intensity, passion and profound emotion. Every one of the despicable Kabir’s actions is portrayed as the handiwork of a loveable, mad genius. Besides, the heroine who seems initially intimidated by him soon falls in love with him, he treats another woman like meat and she too promptly tells him she loves him, his friends – male and female – adore him, he is popular with the nurses in his hospital on whom he threatens to vent his horniness... I mean, c’mon ya, if so many people are smitten by him he must be having “a good heart”, no?
Judge for yourself the heart so good that Kabir kisses Preeti for the first time while she stands statue-like, having not expressed any interest in him till then, he physically imposes himself on her subsequently too, he orders her around like one might a pet animal that one is fond of, after they have sex for the first time he instructs her in a proprietorial manner to cover up in public, after she falls for him he roughs her up, treats her like shit, repeatedly hits her and tells her she was a nobody in college whose identity rested entirely on her being known as his girl, and worse.
As if none of this was enough, a song titled Tera Ban Jaunga has lyrics that go thus:
Meri raahein tere tak hain
Tujhpe hi toh mera haq hai
(Translation: my path, every path I take, leads to you / I have a right over just you.)
The point about a “right” over a lover is re-asserted in the song Tujhe Kitna Chahne Lage, in which the words go, “Tere ishq pe haan haq mera hi toh hai” (I alone have a right over your love).
From the 1990s, Hindi cinema gradually bade goodbye to the portrayal of violence, molestation and stalking as legitimate forms of courtship. It never went away entirely, but for the most part, if a leading man was a stalker, he was categorically slotted as the villain of the piece as he was in Yash Chopra’s Darr. The romanticisation of stalking and the mistreatment of women while wooing them has made a big comeback this decade, epitomised by Raanjhanaa (2013) and various Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar starrers. Kabir Singh is in the same league: dangerous to the core because it is such a slick production.
For one, it is well acted, especially by Kapoor, Advani (known so far for M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Lust Stories, Bharat Ane Nenu), Arjan Bajwa playing Kabir’s brother and Soham Majumdar in the role of the hero’s best buddy Shiva. Kapoor, in fact, is so good here that it is heart-breaking to see him use his gift thus, to see the spectacular star of Vishal Bhardwaj’s spectacular Haider (2014) descend to this cinematic abomination.
The cast is one of Kabir Singh’s many pluses. The cinematography by Santhana Krishnan Ravichandran is plush, the editing by Aarif Sheikh and Vanga himself is truly slick, and the songs are attractive. That said, those numbers are ruined by the manner in which they are used in the narrative along with the overbearing, ear-splitting background score. The songs are pleasant when heard separately, but they are slammed into the film’s soundscape like whiplashes akin to the screechy effects used in bad Bollywood thrillers to startle the audience.
Most insidious is the writing of Kabir Singh, which uses humour to lull us into an acceptance of its terrible, terrifying hero’s obnoxiousness. As offensive as his patriarchal, misogynistic attitude towards the heroine and other women is the fact that towards the end writer-director-editor Sandeep Vanga seems to be trying to evoke sympathy for him by getting him to tearfully confess that he is an alcoholic. Clearly with this goal in mind, a few bars from the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star are also woven into the background score – in a silly and tacky fashion, it must be said – when Kabir is dealing with the death of a loved one.
Towards the end, Vanga even seems to be attempting a statement about the limits that supposed democracy places on us when a lawyer says of Kabir that such free-spiritedness in a democracy is not okay. Ah, so being a creep is “free-spiritedness”. Got it.
That line is one of many dialogues in Kabir Singh that are written to sound deep and intellectual, but mean little to nothing especially considering the context in which they are spoken.
The naming of the hero in Vanga’s Hindi remake seems to be a bow to the poet-saint Kabir, and to underline the point, in a voiceover in the opening scene the fellow’s grandmother (Kamini Kaushal) recites one of Kabir’s dohas. I do not know whether to laugh or cry at this desecration of the great man’s writing. Kabir Singh and its Telugu forebear Arjun Reddy must rank among the most disturbing examples of the obsessive stalker hero being glamourised by Indian cinema.
Rating (out of five stars): *
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: