How Kabir Singh is different from films like Devdas, The Wolf of Wall Street in its portrayal of flawed characters
Arguably the biggest criticism Kabir Singh has received is the lack of accountability the titular character had to face for his actions in the end
Ever since the release of Kabir Singh last month, the internet has been abuzz with numerous think-pieces and critiques as to what the existence of a film like this in 2019 says about our society, how it’s anti-feminist and promotes toxic masculinity. All of which is valid criticism, as the movie undoubtedly glorifies bad, at times illegal, behaviour. The director, Sandeep Vanga Reddy made his vision and ideas very clear in an interview with Anupama Chopra last week.
In less than a month, Kabir Singh has managed to completely polarise audiences, all the while creating a loyal group of followers who are relentlessly defending the movie by harassing its critics.
Arguably the biggest criticism Kabir Singh has received is the lack of accountability the titular character had to face for his actions in the end, all the while getting a happy ending by being with the love of his life. The defenders are chalking it up by calling him a flawed character and the romance being as an unconventional love story, something that is ‘realistic’ and ‘common’.
One thing needs to be clear, Vanga Reddy is no trailblazer for having an imperfect character as a lead in his story. Anti-hero, by definition, is supposed to lack heroic attributes and they have existed ever since the art of storytelling has, but all the difference lies in the execution, something that he wasn’t particularly successful at.
The loyal army of fans are defending Kabir Singh by comparing it with the likes of Devdas and Wolf of Wall Street, to prove that critics are being judgmental and unaccepting of a mainstream Bollywood film showcasing a character like that. But I’m afraid, that argument doesn’t hold that much power. Sure, Devdas and Kabir Singh have many, even if superficial, similarities. Both of them are titular, anti-heroes with self-destructive tendencies and little-to-no regard for people around him. Not to mention, both of them are intense love stories. But while Kabir Singh looks cool and rebellious doing drugs and mistreating people, Devdas looks like a pathetic alcoholic with very serious emotional issues who ends up dying as an unknown man.
Also, once seen from a feminist lens, the romantic relationship between Devdas and Paro isn’t what one would consider particularly healthy (at least by today’s standards), but even keeping that in mind, the romance and power dynamics of that story are much more complex than Kabir Singh. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay famously tried his best to not get Devdas published as he was ashamed of the work and possible amoral values it might promote. Over the years, critics have undergone a long-winded discussion about the novel and its themes, but even in quick short debates, Chattopadhyay’s lack of enthusiasm for the book should be taken into consideration when comparing it with anything.
When The Wolf of Wall Street was originally released, just like Kabir Singh, it managed to create two extremes camps with rampant discussions on whether or not it glorifies drug use, corruption and casual misogyny (it does, and it gets boring very fast). But what made it a prestige Oscar-bait film apart from the cast and crew involved, was that Scorsese knew the kind of film he was making, which was a satirical crime-comedy about the capitalistic nature of the American Dream and the kinds of people Americans put on a pedestal for worship.
The debate surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street is ongoing and will probably continue on for a long time, but it’s comparison with Kabir Singh doesn’t fare all that well because just by the plotline, the latter is a romance movie with not a lot of themes to support the narrative. The reason why Kabir Singh’s detractors have such a strong argument is because there is no visible grey area to ponder over for hours. Kabir Singh is very extreme in its story-telling with little-to-no nuance, something that the supporters are finding hard to argue with (in a mature debate).
There's a possible chance that Vanga Reddy was trying to make a love story that tackled the themes of a co-dependent relationship, which is undoubtedly very toxic in nature but also has an intense romantic story, something that the audience would have been intimately invested in. But this is a trope that in the hands of an inexperienced story-teller can fall flat and end up becoming either too vanilla or too extreme, the latter of which Kabir Singh was a result of.
A critical thinker would explore the power dynamics between the couple, psychoanalyse the characters to give them depth and present us with a messy relationship where it becomes almost impossible to point out who is wrong and why. It is not a rare thing either, as many mainstream films have managed to address these topics and still be entertaining.
In Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson presented us with a plotline that was enough to give the viewer an idea of who holds the power in the relationship. It’s a story about a genius fashion designer in the 50s in London who undergoes a drastic change when he falls in love with Alma, his muse. Sounds similar to Kabir Singh, doesn’t it? But what PTA did differently was that he managed to twist the concept of a muse-artist relationship and turn it on its head, but commenting about who really holds the power in that setting.
Kabir Singh and Phantom Thread are as different films can get, just in style and direction, even if both of them are love stories with rude, controlling, egotistical main leads. But where Kabir Singh fails and Phantom Thread prevails is that the story-teller was fearless enough to truly make his character vulnerable, without glamorising his faults and leaving him out in the open for the audience to objectively like him or hate him.
Even with all its faults, it shouldn’t be considered a crime to admire a movie. But if the fans of Kabir Singh truly like the film, they should take the lesson of true love that the said film offers, and call out the faults when they see them. It shouldn’t be a big deal, it’s just a movie after all.
Shivani Yadav is a fashion critic who also writes about film and pop culture.
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