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What “Kabir Singh” Tells us about the Need for Change in Indian Cinema

Warning: This post contains spoilers for a movie you definitely do not want to watch.
Trigger warning for rape, abuse, and substance abuse.

Kabir Singh, a Bollywood movie based on a 2017 Telugu movie called Arjun Reddy, released on the 21st of June 2019 and, so far, people seem to be loving it. With a rating of 8.2 on IMDb it would seem as though the nation had fallen in love with this character all over again.

The movie is about a house surgeon, Kabir Singh, who turns to substance abuse after his girlfriend leaves him. Simple enough, right? When you see that plot you instantly think of the girlfriend as some kind of horrible, vindictive woman who clearly didn’t care about this wonderful man and how she ruined his life. It makes you want to sympathise with Kabir even before you’ve watched the movie. It carefully mentions the decline of his life without talking about how he caused it.

What it fails to mention is basically everything else. Kabir is manipulative, toxic, abusive and controlling. The female romantic lead, Preeti, has barely any dialogues or self expression and when she does, she fits into the tactile mould that the filmmakers had perfectly envisaged for her. She is docile and meek and constantly in need of ‘saving’ except for when she’s defending Kabir or fulfilling his needs or (gasp!) talking about their sex life to her parents in a (horrible) attempt to justify her relationship to them.

Throughout the film, she is treated as an object with no agency. She is given no choices. Kabir wants a relationship with her so he announces to their whole university that she’s ‘his girl’ and they date. Kabir wants to kiss her so he does, with no consent or even the hint of desire of any kind on her part. Kabir picks her friends and roommates and, when she hurts herself, he infantilises her further by forcing her to move in with him. He begins to turn abusive and slaps her. Her only defining moment in the entire film is when she slaps him back.

But no worries! The film has a happy ending, you see? They end up together. Kabir is finally happy and he stops using drugs to fill the emotional void in his life so now he can go back to being a surgeon in 5 years and maybe this time he want OD and collapse on the floor of the surgery room. Whoops.

Which brings us to the whole operating under the influence thing. His medical licence is suspended for 5 years. When he goes back home, his father sends him to their family farmhouse to sober up and get his life back together. This is essentially the savarna (translation: upper caste) cis het version of a slap on the wrist. It is almost certain that the consequences — and the public reactions to it — would have been far more severe had he not ticked ever box of privilege.

During the whole movie, Preeti isn’t really depicted as her own person so much as she is ‘his’. She is not a person, but an object, a symbol of his status, another shiny thing through which he can exert his influence over the people around him. He does not treat her with any respect at all. Despite her studying for the same degree as him, he constantly mansplains things to her, acts like he’s better and smarter than her, and even prohibits her from going to her classes because his teachings are oh so much wiser than those of their professors. Also, because he’s so swoon worthy, we’re supposed to let it go.

During his 9 month breakup (just enough for her to get knocked up with his kid and then not tell him about it!), he drinks, he abuses his status as a surgeon to get access to drugs like morphine, and he hooks up with random women. When one of these women he picks up has the audacity to say no to him, he rapes her at knife point. I am told that there was laughter and cheering in the theatres at this point.

However, Kabir’s general disrespect for women isn’t simply limited to the ones he sleeps with, oh no. At one point in the movie, a domestic worker in his house breaks something while washing the dishes. He proceeds to then chase her out of the house and down the stairs of the apartment complex while threatening her. This is supposed to be comic relief.

At the end of it, we are expected to look at this as a love story. His reckless, toxic behaviour has been romanticised so thoroughly that many actually believe this, although it is anything but. It is a horror story of rape, abuse, and control that serves as a warning to all the Preetis out there.

With such toxic masculinity and abusive themes applied so liberally to the script, surely there must have been something to redeem him or some message against the influence of the patriarchy carried forward through it all? If you thought so, you are sorely mistaken. Kabir apologises (briefly) for the wrong things he did without ever really taking ownership of his actions and he and Preeti proceed to sail into the sunset with their unborn child. Bet she doesn’t know about the woman he raped.

This movie is quite obviously a trash pile of toxic masculinity and misogyny, but the fact that so many people seemed to unapologetically and uncritically enjoy it is far more concerning. The movie has, as of 26th June 2019, made over 800 million rupees. Many movie goers thought of the movie has horrible and its message as unappealing but far more read into it and readily adopted it. Bollywood has a history of promoting narratives with the message ‘don’t give up. If she says no, try again.’ In a lot of such movies, anger issues, stalking, obsessive behaviour, excessive control, and other such traits are common in male romantic leads. (Just think about the popular book turned movie half girlfriend where the entire premise is that a boy wants to date a girl who does not want to date him so she agrees to be his half girlfriend when her rejection should not have meant any compromise at all.)

In such a time, the need is not for films that increase this sense of complacency and righteousness that many people (mostly men) have in their actions. We do not need more affirming narratives that teach men they can continue to act as they wish without consequences and that if they try hard enough the woman will be theirs. We cannot continue to treat issues like rape and domestic abuse as punchlines in bad movies.

The argument that this movie doesn’t matter in society because we are all aware that it is simply fiction is irrelevant. The media we engage with and the way we engage with it tells us a lot about ourselves. In the world- and especially in a culture like India where our art has been so important to the shaping of our society — we cannot continue to engage with media uncritically and cast it off as a ‘form of entertainment’. We need to think about what our art is trying to say and what this communicates to young, impressionable people.

The need of the time is for more films like Pink that promote a fight against sexual abuse and do not treat rape as a simple device with which they can move the plot forward. We need more self aware, critically produced media that engages with viewers in a way that helps society heal and move forward rather than hurts it and forces to regress.

Featured Image Via Adda Today

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