For starters, a defining quote from critic Ananya Bhattacharjee. “Kabir Singh is a film that spends 120 of its 154 minutes of playing time showing its hero either drinking, drunk, snorting cocaine, scrapping with people, screaming or slapping his girlfriend, with all of 24 minutes allocated to repentance. This entire package beamed across 3,000 plus screens, pan-India and is adored by the viewers, making it a monstrous hit!”
Phew! We clearly live in strange and troubled times. On the one hand, there is the much-lauded ME TOO movement. On the other, it seems to be ‘care two hoots’, with Team Kabir Singh offering some amazing comments defending their regressive film. Director Sandeep Reddy Vagra – from whose super-hit original, the Arjun Reddy horror story was adapted – describes his Hindi version as “an unusual love story”. He goes on to explain that he didn’t want his hero to be another stereotypical character of a Boy-meets-Girl plot. “It’s about a guy who has a specific way of expressing his love and emotion for his lady love.”
Really? Since when did toxic masculinity, bullying and over-powering domination become pyaar, ishq, mohabbat? Hero Shahid Kapoor – enjoying a solo hit film after ages – brings his own take. “As my fans know, I’ve always been attracted to flawed characters: Kaminey, Udta Punjab, Haider. They challenge the artiste in me and I go for it in a fearless fashion. The very fact that my character KS has hit a sweet spot across the board and earned so much appreciation, both critically and box-office-wise, indicates the changing perceptions of new-age audiences to the earlier concept of either black or white. Grey, if powerfully, engagingly, convincingly portrayed, can rock!”
Respected Film critic Saibal Chatterjee is hugely amused at this “naive and simplistic” explanation. “To any right thinking individual whose heart is in the right place, the cheering of the aam junta [women included] every time the hero gets into toxic masculinity mode, should come as no surprise. This is the New India. Sure, in earlier movies there were chasing and ched-chaad – Teri Pyari Pyari Soorat Ko, Lal Chadi Maidan Khadi, Khuli Palak Mein Jhoota Gussa, Bund Palak Mein Pyar, Meri Mun Ki Ganga Aur Tere Mun Ki Jamuna, Teri Peecha Na Chhodhunga Soniye – but it was played out with fun, romance and music.
The KS model is about unadulterated entitlement and dadagiri of a bully who chooses to use the girl as a plaything and who eventually succumbs to his vitriolic charms! Instead of being put away in a mental home, this goon is being roundly cheered by a dumbed-down audience! What can I say except – we get the films we deserve.”
Aligarh-born Esha Arora – now working in a Mumbai production house – is next. “Saibal Sir is right. Shocking as it may seem to the sane mind, this is life in hard close-up, without make-up! You can have the best education, family, social and cultural background, but scratch the surface and out comes the cave man! This is true, as much in Aligarh as in Mumbai, or any other big metro city in India. It’s about telling women aukat mein raho!” Adman, theatre and screen actor Bharat Dabolkar joins the party and cuts to the chase in a flash. “Boss, we have to understand two things. One, that the number of individuals who see KS as only a piece of time-pass entertainment and nothing more – chewing gum for the eyes – is miniscule.
Two, across the sexy metros to the tier 2 and 3 spaces, the draw, charm and mesmerising influence of Bollywood has to be seen to be believed! The rich and famous in India and the diaspora – professionals, corporate houses, politicians, sports persons – they are all blown away by movie stars. They see them as role models and continue to mimic them in terms of fashion, mannerisms, attitude – the works. KS only adds dangerous momentum to this mindset. This great talk of women’s empowerment and liberation, again, is restricted to a very tiny segment. It’s the KS syndrome that rules all the way.”
But instead of glorifying violence and getting basic instinct to tango with indecent proposal, shouldn’t production houses, film makers and stars have some moral responsibility in terms of content dished out to an insatiably, star-crazed audience forever looking for titillation and mard-giri?
The last words must come from a young, focussed, passionate, Mumbai-based activist, Chandana Hiran, who runs an online campaign against misogyny in Bollywood movies. She believes that KS has hit an all-time low in terms of both cheap thrills and offensive behaviour, compared only to the mind-boggling crap of the eighties, headlined by the likes of Govinda, Kader Khan and Shakti Kapoor.
She wonders how, being Pankaj Kapoor’s son, Shahid could stoop so low, but then, when his amazingly populist, sadak-chaap songs are remembered – Khali peeli rokne ka nahin, Tera picha karoon to tokne ka nahin, Tujhpe right hai mera, tu hain delight hain mera or Gandi Baat – it seems to fall in place! Maybe after the pansyish role in Padmavat, when Ranvir totally stole the thunder with his ferocious portrayal of Khilji, something stirred within? “Kapoor doesn’t seem to realise that in India, fans equate the actor with the character. Most can’t differentiate between reel and real and use the swag and aggression as reference points. If a Bollywood hero can do it with so much style and success, shouldn’t we give it a try? My entitled friends, for their turn, ask me to cool it and not take it so seriously but they miss the damage – both subliminal and real – that these films cause to society, at large.
They glorify, romanticise and champion a template which states: Misogyny is cool and so is treating women as your property, bullying and terrorising them to submission. Actually, he is a nice guy with a good heart but because he is damaged goods, his self-expression is a little unorthodox...hota hai yaar!”
At the end of the day, some facts need to be cleared. Of course, as Shahid’s mom Neelima Azim points out in his defence playing negative roles, Brando played a brute in A Street Car Named Desire and Don Corleone in The Godfather. Rod Steiger played a serial killer in No way To Treat A Lady. Tony Curtis played the schizo killer in The Boston Strangler and Michael Caine in Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.
Point is the western audiences are much more mature, sophisticated and cinema-literate than us and are also less impressionable. Despite the combative defence of the film, KS celebrates a brand of heroism hollowed out and emptied of meaning; a predatory organism with a thin constricted imagination revolving entirely around tickling the baser instincts of people to maximise bottom lines. And our mass audiences, punch drunk with the heroics of Rambo, Rocky and our very own Bhai, and now powered by a startlingly realistic portrayal from Kapoor, willingly throw their hat into this seductive ring to play both voyeur and participant in the hope of enhancing their non-existent image in the journey called life.