It was nearing midnight as she walked home alone on the poorly lit streets. She didn’t seem to mind the dark though, she continued talking to amma about work and eventually put down the phone to enjoy the walk. As she was about to open the gate of her house, she heard a whistle. Startled, she turned around and there he stood, in the middle of the road, leering at her. He whistled again when she caught his eye. She put on her bravest withering look but it only seemed to broaden his smile. He knew she was cornered in the dead-end road, with no one to call out for, so he stood and watched her, hunter eyeing his prey. Then, he inched forward, sending bolts of fear into every fibre of her being. He came till her gate and disappeared when she ran and woke her neighbours.
This isn’t just my story. This, in various other forms, is a situation that most women have experienced. A lot of people dislike it when we women make our experiences into a collective, but unfortunately that is the case. Women, be it cisgender or transgender, are systematically harassed and the fear it induces, the psychological damage that men cause us (intentional or not) is something they will never understand. They can never understand it because by virtue of being a man, they’ve been bestowed a privilege that renders most of them deaf and dumb to the plight of women. Those rare ones who do understand can only sympathise, never empathise, because the power dynamics between the genders is that skewed.
That is why when I read an article defending Kabir Singh, calling him “a man flawed like many around us”, I was infuriated. The premise of the article is that ‘Kabir Singh’ is a reflection of our society and so, such a portrayal and movie are acceptable. The writer seems to think that the critics, by outraging over it, are in denial. Except, what the article fails to see is the nuance here — critics aren’t (only) against the movie for the kind of character it portrays; yes, we are all aware that there are abusive, angry, alcoholic stalkers in the world. Women, who have been the most vocal critics of this film and its Telugu counterpart ‘Arjun Reddy’, have to put up with such men every day, so no, we aren’t oblivious.
The film is problematic because it glorifies such behaviour, enables, encourages and validates it. It puts it on a pedestal, which, let’s face it, is unnecessary. ‘Kabir Singh’ isn’t a reflection of reality, it’s a romanticised version of it. It’s a perversion born out of reckless toxic masculinity, because the director seems to have put no thought into the damage it will cause for an entire gender. I doubt the author would laud a friend or even a stranger for making a woman drop her pants at knife-point, so why encourage a film that heroises a character that does the same?
In the second paragraph, the writer puts in quotes the film’s portrayal of toxic masculinity and its endorsement and celebration of an abusive character. Right after that, he talks about the bumper opening the movie enjoyed. It’s the writer’s use of ‘however’ here that bothered me (‘The film has, however, had a bumper opening’). A film can be a war cry for men to stalk and abuse women, and, at the same time, be a miss at the box office. A film’s box office collection is not a reflection of Reality. Rather, it is a reflection of one reality, and by conveniently stamping ‘Kabir Singh’ as ‘entertainment’ and only that, the defence is brushing aside the reality that women face.
The article makes a series of inaccurate comparisons that start when it puts ‘Kabir Singh’ in the same category as ‘Silk Smitha’. Just because two films are entertaining and controversial to an audience doesn’t make them comparable. “Many films have shown flawed characters — both male and female — in the past without being reviled and ridiculed,” adds the writer, later on.
Notice the choice of words used to describe male characters versus the women: in ‘Sholay’, Dharmendra is ‘loved’; in ‘Darr’, Shah Rukh Khan is ‘loved’, but in ‘Badla’, Taapsee Pannu is ‘endured’ and Tabu’s character in ‘Andhadhun’ in ‘intriguing and entertaining’. Just by virtue of calling the female characters as ‘endured, intriguing and entertaining’, they cannot be compared to Kabir Singh. Tabu’s character in ‘Andhadhun’ was shown, as the author says, to be ‘vile and toxic as a serpent’; she was not glorified, we rooted for Ayushmann Khurrana’s character.
When the writer himself makes such linguistic distinctions, the impact of the movie and the characters on the audience is apparent. In ‘Darr’, which is the ultimate stalker movie in peoples’ memories, the audience glorified the character more than the filmmakers. At the end of the film he is killed and remains the villain, while Sunny Deol gets his partner back.
This is not to say films shouldn’t portray ‘dark, depressing and volatile’ characters but that filmmakers should consider the impact their work will have, especially if it’s largely negative for an already oppressed community. ‘Andhadhun’, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, much of Vishal Bhardwaj’s work are just a few examples of how grey characters can be shown without heroising them. And that’s just Bollywood.
To say that ‘the purpose of cinema is to entertain, not to educate’ is reckless and reeks of privilege. Films need not teach you the ABCs but they can be responsible because they do have a lasting impact on viewers, whether they like it or not. In 2015, an Indian security guard accused of stalking women avoided a conviction in an Australian court after he blamed his actions on a passion for Bollywood movies.
It is not ‘entertaining’ when men shadily hum film songs at a woman as she walks by. Everyone picks up behavioural characteristics from watching their friends, family, movies, reading books, listening to music… Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment in the 1960s, which helped formulate the social learning theory, concluded that people largely learn by observing, imitating, and modeling other people’s behaviour. Bandura’s research helped better understand observational learning, which can be and is applied to film viewing. So, when we talk of the influence of mass media, why do we conveniently ignore films? Because they are also entertaining?
The article asks, what is wrong with watching ‘Kabir Singh’. The real question is, where was the director’s sense of responsibility when creating the movie?