The Problem with Shahid Kapoor

Shahid Kapoor plays the eponymous character Kabir Singh, who is boastfully sexist and violent. The film glorifies him as the new-age Angry Young Man and justifying toxic masculinity as desirable

Shahid Kapoor in Kabir Singh
Shahid Kapoor in Kabir Singh

Biswadeep Ghosh

Toxic masculinity has social acceptance. How else can one explain the phenomenal success of Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s violent drama Kabir Singh, the remake of the Telugu film Arjun Reddy also helmed by the same director?

Shahid Kapoor plays the eponymous character, who takes the road to self-destruction after he cannot marry the love of his life. An arrogant medical doctor who struts around with a sense of entitlement, he can misbehave and get angry without being provoked. Unapologetically sexist, he treats the woman as a doormat – and smokes and drinks, too. Playing the flawed new-age Angry Young Man is another of Shahid’s bad choices, the difference being that the film is a hit unlike many of his uninspired selections in the past.

The actor could have done far better. His talent is beyond dispute, and he can deliver with intensity, sincerity and self-belief like few others of his generation. But he has erred by signing on the dotted line for mediocre or worse projects often, which has prevented him from being a serious competitor for the leading actors of his generation.

Shahid’s early days were unremarkable. He didn’t promise much when he played a college student in Ken Ghosh’s Ishk Vishk (2003), his debut as a leading man. Or, when he disappeared in the crowd of actors in Abbas Mustan’s 36 China Town (2006). Or, when he played Prem, a name identified with Salman Khan, in Sooraj Barjatya’s Vivah (2006), a typical Rajshri romantic drama. These films succeeded commercially without giving any indication of his acting talent that lay hidden beneath the surface.

The actor showcased his versatility in the years that followed. Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, who had made the widely appreciated small-budget film Socha Na Tha, helmed the Shahid-Kareena Kapoor Khan starrer, Jab We Met ( 2007). Playing the character of a young industrialist, who bumps into a garrulous girl on a train (Kareena), Shahid excelled with his spontaneity. The chemistry he shared with Kareena won the hearts of masses and critics alike, accruing in a box-office success.

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009), he was cast in the double role of two brothers, Charlie and Guddu. Charlie lisps while Guddu stammers. While creating two brothers with dissimilar speech defects was a brilliant idea, Shahid brought out their contrasting personalities with such conviction that watching him in action was an engrossing experience.

Every good film needn’t be a box-office success. Mausam (2011), a romantic drama directed by his father Pankaj Kapur, was one such well-made box-office failure. Playing the character of a young man waiting for a call-up from the Indian Air Force, who falls in love with a Kashmiri girl (Sonam Kapoor), he impressed everybody who watched the film.

While intense roles have brought out the best in him, it is difficult to question his natural gift of comic timing. Rajkumar Santoshi’s Phata Poster Nikla Hero (2013), in which he played a wannabe actor who pretends to be a police inspector, has several gut-busting sequences, thanks to the easy and relaxed manner in which he essayed the role. Jab We Met, too, had some hilarious moments of well-scripted comedy, a genre that seems tailor-made for the actor.

His best performance so far has been in Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014), a layered adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night in which he is a student of poetry in Aligarh, who returns to his home in Kashmir following his father’s disappearance. Cast alongside accomplished actors like Tabu and Kay Kay Menon, he took on the challenges of a complex role and disappointed nobody. Similarly, he made an instant impact as the Punjabi rock star Tommy Singh in Abhishek Chaubey’s black comedy, Udta Punjab (2016), which addressed the issue of drug menace in the state.

If Shahid has played the leading man in several critically and commercially acclaimed films, why has he failed to make it to the top? There have been times when he has chosen the wrong role as he did in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s brilliant period drama Padmaavat (2018) in which his character of the Rajput king Ratan Singh was eclipsed by Ranveer Singh as Allaudin Khilji thoroughly. In Vishal Bhardwaj’s ambitious but unsuccessful period drama Rangoon (2017), too, his character of an army officer suffered because of mediocre writing.

Inconsistency has marred his career, with Vikas Bahl’s Shaandaar (2015), a half-baked comedy, and Prabhu Deva’s R…Rajkumar (2013), another aimless comedy, being just two of the zero-impact films he has starred in. Working in an era in which stories have become more important than ever before, he has frequently suffered because he has agreed to do films driven by weak screenplays.

Still young at 38, Shahid will continue to play the leading man for a long time. What he needs to do, for his sake, is take a closer look at screenplays before signing on the dotted line. He is more gifted than most others in the business. Now is the time to prove it – again and again.

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