In the addictive thriller You, Joe Goldberg, a young man who works at a bookstore, becomes obsessed with a woman, who he chases, stalks, gags and locks up, all under the guise of ‘passionate love.’ While the woman falls for the man - she doesn’t know yet he’s her stalker and potentially a murderer - the director’s gaze doesn’t ever justify the man’s stalking. Instead, it looks at it with a critical lens, treating him as a troubled mind that needs help.
In short, we don’t root for him. We root for her to escape.
Kabir Singh may not be a murderer (although he isn’t too far from becoming one) but his actions are arguably worse than the male character in You. In the American show, Goldberg goes to great lengths to conceal his actions. He’s aware of his own creepiness but not concerned enough to do anything to fix it. Unlike Goldberg, who knows that the minute the woman finds out about his sickening behaviour, it’s going to be over, Singh and the film treats those patterns as a wooing mechanism.
In Singh’s mind, the stalking and harassment serve as a badge of honour—a reinforcement of his twisted notions of masculinity. What’s worse, the film’s celebratory tone romanticises this entitlement by packaging it as love. Over the weekend, if you hung around Film Twitter, you’d have seen several people from the industry saying things such as “Films aren’t an HR manual” and “Cinema isn’t a class on moral science” and “Relax, it’s cinema; it’s meant to entertain. For every #KabirSingh, there is a #Tanu ! You won’t find either in real life. Be entertained, Just!”
It’s kind of like telling the audience to be okay with a film justifying casteism, or maybe having a cow-vigilante as a superhero in a sci-fi film. His superpower? Lynching, obviously.
Landing some months after a wave of #MeToo allegations exposed men guilty of sexual crimes across industries, and started important conversations on consent and agency, the tone-deafness of Kabir Singh is particularly startling. And its success — the film opened to over Rs 20 crore, one of the highest this year — is dangerous. Bollywood’s tendencies to replicate a successful template means that more Kabir Singhs are likely to be made. Don’t be surprised if the industry, which has turned a blind eye to known abusers, rolls out a film about male victimhood before confronting the monsters that lurk within.
A film cannot be removed from its societal context, it’s inevitably tied to it; That there is even a debate around Kabir Singh being problematic is laughable. But then, this is a town that was long in denial about nepotism being a fact. This is also the industry that counts Salman Khan as its most successful superstar, a damning indictment of the ticket-paying audience’s misplaced sympathies. That we’ve accepted Khan or Kabir Singh or Raanjhanaa show that despite an illusion of heightened gender consciousness, we remain a deeply patriarchal society still hungover on misogynistic ideas of romance. Films capture a moment in time and years later, when we look back at 2019 and what it signified culturally, Kabir Singh would be an appropriate barometer of Bollywood’s apathy towards #MeToo and the troubling lens with which it looked at women.
The argument that ‘it’s just a movie’ is lazy. That it’s made by those in the entertainment business is even worse because what they are effectively doing is infantilising the power and influence of their own medium. We gauge the success of a movie not by the money it makes but by the cultural footprint it leaves behind. Nobody remembers how much Tere Naam made at the box-office but everybody remembers the Tere Naam middle-partition haircut, which many dudes adapted (unintentionally great because it was a visible red flag for women to stay away).
“The primary problem with 'Kabir Singh' is that its makers romanticise their lead character’s anger issues and despicable treatment of people around him, especially his girlfriend”
The subliminal effect that cinema has on people often manifests itself beyond a haircut. It’s in the wit you absorb from a sitcom or mannerisms you pick up from a character who’s projected as charming. Which is why the filmmaker’s gaze and treatment of the subject is so important.
Reflecting reality is one thing, celebrating it as acceptable, or even laudatory, is quite another. It’s important to make that distinction—the primary problem with Kabir Singh is that its makers romanticise their lead character’s anger issues and despicable treatment of people around him, especially his girlfriend (whose character, our review pointed out, is a misogynist’s dream).
In the last three years alone, over 18,000 cases of stalking were registered in India. Thousands of women are made to feel uncomfortable, harassed, assaulted and, many times, killed by men who couldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The last thing filmmakers should do is bolster their entitlement and violence with glamour.
Kabir Singh could remain exactly the film that it is. Only if its leading man was shown as what he is—a sick man in need of immediate help.