There are just two types of cinema in this world. One is a reflection of our society, interpretation of something its makers may have seen, perceived or felt in the world around them. The other is a celluloid avatar of human imagination, an attempt to give form to a fantasy that is removed from the limits of reality.
That brings us to Kabir Singh, Sandeep Vanga Reddy’s Hindi remake of a Telugu film about a surgeon with a self-destructive streak and his quest for love. A section of critics and audience has slammed the film for portraying “toxic masculinity, endorsing possessive, obsessive love and celebrating alcoholism, violence and abuse of all kind.”
The film has, however, had a bumper opening. In cinemas where it released on Friday, the audiences were clapping, screaming and, generally, having a great time watching the protagonist fly into a rage, fall madly in love, go on a self-destruction spree before finally returning from the road to perdition. Trade experts predict Kabir Singh will turn out to be a blockbuster and one of the biggest earners of 2019.
Obviously, the critics don’t know something that the audience does. Which is, as Vidya Balan said in an equally controversial film, cinema is all about entertainment, entertainment and entertainment. And Kabir Singh, like Balan’s character inspired by Silk Smitha in that film, is entertainment.
Those slamming the film have one common argument: How could a film be made on a man with an anger management issue that’s compounded by a drinking problem and his obsessive love for a woman who behaves like his puppet? The answer is: why not?
Cinema is a reflection of our society, remember? And people who do crazy things exist all around us. Many human beings have serious flaws — some moral, some behavioural and some philosophical. Psychologists will tell you that humans make irrational and illogical decisions all the time because evolution has taught them to think and act quickly, primarily for survival, a euphemism for plain selfish behaviour. Such people come from among us. They are us. And their stories, howsoever dark, depressing and volatile, are still stories that can be told.
Everyone has the right to make saccharine-sweet films about a la la land where every person is deliriously happy, well-behaved and has the requisite skills to deal with anger and heartbreak. But, filmmakers have the right also to explore the recesses of a dark society, and the mind of a flawed person who is making himself and others around him miserable.
And that’s what Kabir Singh is all about. The story of the suffering of a man who can’t control his anger, has a bloated ego, can’t refrain from violence and is bent on self-destruction because he has lost in love. It tells us about the perils of illogical, irrational behaviour, and the extraordinary price of fatal flaws, like anger, obsession and abuse.
Many films have shown flawed characters — both male and female — in the past without being reviled and ridiculed. In Sholay, Dharmendra — an alcoholic with a criminal past — was persistent in his pursuit of Basanti. We loved him. In Darr, Shah Rukh Khan was obsessed with Kiran. We loved him and actually rooted for him. In Badla, Tapsi Pannu goes on a murder spree to hide an extra-marital affair. We endured her. And in Andhadhun, Tabu is as vile and toxic as a serpent. Yet, we found her intriguing and entertaining. What then is wrong with watching Kabir Singh?
The other major criticism of the film is that Kabir Singh just can’t let go. He has a sense of entitlement and can’t deal with rejection or failure. But, that’s standard human behaviour. All of us know how painful it is to walk away from something that we are heavily invested in, even if the morally right thing is to just move on, cut the losses. And, god forbid, if what we are being asked to walk away from is love, the most overpowering of all human emotions. Such dark tales of loss, failure and redemption have every right to be told for what they are—reflections of humanity’s constant battle with its own flaws and failures.
To argue, as critics of the film have, such movies have a bad influence on the society is pure bunkum. The purpose of cinema is to entertain, not to educate. Art exists only to serve one purpose — to give form to a thought or an idea, not to brainwash people into acquiescence. That higher objective is the exclusive domain of religion and politics.
If Kabir Singh were to inspire Indian men to turn into alcoholics, raging maniacs, would it be safe to assume that in a few years we’d see a full generation of youngsters inspired by biopics and on our prime minister? Did India see a revival in Gandhian ideals after Richard Attenborough immortalised the Mahatma with a beautifully inspiring film? No, because, three hours of cinema can’t change a lifetime of learnings.
There is a reason why films are certified for the right kind of audience. When a film like Kabir Singh is released with an ‘A’ certificate, it is automatically implied that those watching it have the critical thinking to differentiate between real and reel, entertainment and moral science lectures, and right and wrong. To argue that the film will be a toxic influence on Indians is a damning indictment of the country’s intelligence.
This, of course, is not to condone toxic behaviour. Anger and violence are self-defeating, in the end they consume its purveyor. Taking refuge in alcoholism to deal with failure is pure mental weakness, in the end it becomes a bigger failure than the one we are trying to forget. To make someone the sole reason for your existence is absolute madness, because the purpose of life is to live for yourself. And to seek romantic love as the defining goal of life is rank stupidity, because, as studies have shown, acts of kindness, empathy and compassion make us more happy.
Kabir Singh takes full three hours to understand these basic lessons. That’s why his tragi-comic story is so entertaining. Somewhere deep down it also reminds us of our own struggles, failures and flaws. His story, like most cinema, is a reflection of the society, a mirror held to many faces. Those who find the image ugly always have the option of staying home and pulling the curtains on the mad, bad, ugly world outside.