Kabir Singh shouldn't be banned for its toxic masculinity; its existence should be validly critiqued
Kabir Singh is more than just a movie; this makes its onscreen masculinity dangerous
Kabir Singh, the Hindi remake of the Telugu movie Arjun Reddy, will undoubtedly be a hit like its source material which made over ten times its minuscule budget. Adapted by filmmaker Sandeep Reddy Vanga (who also wrote and directed the original film), the movie starring Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani has invited extreme reactions. While some reviewers called it a “romantic saga,” with great praise for Shahid Kapoor’s self-destructive act, some others have been quick to note its misogyny and glorified representation of toxic male behaviour.
I, for one, have no intention of watching Kabir Singh. If it is indeed a scene-by-scene remake of the original, as some have pointed out, then I have no desire to relive the toxicity that was so rampant in the Telugu film. I am sure that at every theatre where Kabir Singh is being screened, laughter and applause will find its way into the movie’s most problematic moments, and most of these reactions will be from men. Of course, that’s a commentary on an audience that finds abuse hilarious, and obsessive love aspirational. Over the last weekend, hoards of men, fans of both Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh, have incessantly harassed, abused, trolled women reviewers who criticised the films on Twitter, myself included. They used the vilest insults, going so far as proving the point that many of these journalists were making. But attributing Kabir Singh or Arjun Reddy’s success to a misogynist audience doesn't paint the full picture.
Among mainstream Telugu cinema, Arjun Reddy stood out for a very alternative, matter of fact treatment, with none of the polish and performativity that is synonymous with mainstream Tollywood. This approach, popularised by Anurag Kashyap and ilk in Bollywood, and notable Telugu filmmaker Shekhar Kammula, uses natural, easy dialogues inspired by local dialect, sometimes with expletives, to reflect the way “real people” talk. Camerawork that is handheld and rests on natural light, real, organic locations, and rock music for background score give the movie a rootedness that overtly glossy Telugu films lack.
But within the indie sensibility of the movie, lies its most dubious intention. Masquerading as a raw, honest portrayal, the movie goes to great extent in lionising its eponymous protagonist. The problem isn’t that the movie centres on a selfish, short tempered and abusive character. Indeed, as trolls have pointed out, many movies and TV shows exist that have been driven by complex, morally grey characters. But while those works have attempted to tell those stories by fully fleshing out the context, and the consequences this harmful behaviour has on others, Arjun Reddy is content with giving its hero alpha moments full of guttural, impulsive, violent reactions. Any suggestions that he may be harmful can only be implied then, depending on who’s watching it.
Think of Mad Men, and the man at the center of it — Don Draper. He often partakes in misogyny; he is a serial philanderer who uses women to feel better about his own life. But the times when Don Draper misbehaves with his wife or other women are not filled with quote-worthy dialogues. They show him at his most pathetic, and even as a viewer who is aware of his complexity, you cannot help but dislike him in those moments. The same can be said of BoJack Horseman, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly and Dev D, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, or even Game of Thrones. As delicious as Ramsay Bolton’s psychopathic behaviour is, you never come out rooting for him. You do root for an ending that is as cruel as he is.
Arjun Reddy, on the other hand, gets the most quotable, whistle-worthy dialogues. When Arjun Reddy meets Preethi, the female lead, for the first time, he kisses her without consent. Ideally, this moment of unchecked entitlement and sexual harassment, should make a viewer deeply uncomfortable. But Reddy’s longing gaze, and soft romantic music sell this moment as the beginning of a love story. For the rest of the movie, he orders her around, mansplains to her, is abusive to his house help while his medical staff and friends continue to hail him as a genius. And eventually, he gets the happy ending the movie sets him up for. Where does Reddy’s anger come from? How do the women he harasses feel?
Good storytelling is deeply connected with the lived reality of our times. A toxic character on screen never exists in a vacuum. They exist in the same social-political context that the audience grapples with daily. In the world where Arjun Reddy is unbothered with respecting the women around him and their agency, there are women who are harassed and stalked, whose rejections of men are never taken lying down. It's also a world where domestic help have no job security or basic human rights. A movie is never simply, just a movie.
That doesn’t mean one cannot show a character behave in that manner, but those actions should be met with outrage by other characters. There should be some accountability. If an audience watches a problematic scene and laughs and applauds at it, then that storytelling has failed to honestly portray the ramifications of awful behaviour.
Arjun Reddy is not a particular anomaly. For years, mainstream Telugu cinema has flagrantly disregarded its female leads, objectifying and reducing them to plot devices and arm candies. And this isn’t specific to the Telugu film industry either. Bollywood continues to have its share of deeply misogynistic movies. Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh simply push the boundary, make it ideal for young men who believe anything goes.
Comparing these movies to boundary pushing works like Veere Di Wedding or Lipstick Under My Burkha reeks of patriarchal hypocrisy. These films centre on women who choose independence and pleasure, and do not hurt men. Their rebellion is radical and subversive, and seeks to question the gender roles Indian women are forced into. Arjun Reddy’s rebellion is tired, bland, and regressive. It only continues to affirm toxic maleness, validate actions that continue to hurt women in India.
But that doesn’t mean the movie needs to be banned. But its existence should be validly critiqued in an industry where filmmakers like Shekhar Kammula, Maha Venkatesh, Pa Ranjith, and Nag Ashwin are approaching sensitive stories that are making male vulnerability accessible, where women filmmakers are rarely to be found. And men who return this criticism with abuse would do better introspecting on their own toxicity.
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