Around 56 minutes into Kabir Singh (2019), Preeti (Kiara Advani) asks Kabir (Shahid Kapoor) what he likes about her. It’s the first time in the film that Preeti has articulated a full sentence (and a question at that! To Kabir! How brave). “I like the way you breathe,” he replies, and she smiles. Apparently, this is exactly the response she wanted, which is fair enough — mainstream cinema has long emphasised that love defies logical explanations — but it doesn’t help explain why Preeti is with a man whom haters have labelled the ambassador of toxic masculinity, and who is delicately described by his fans as troubled.
We first meet Kabir Singh, drunk, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, just as he is about to have sex with a woman saved as “Fracture Case Fiancée” on his phone. He lifts her onto the kitchen counter and barks at her to remove her clothes. She’s too slow for his taste so he grabs a nearby knife to slash through her clothes. Unfortunately, much like The Rolling Stones, Kabir can’t get no satisfaction because the Fracture Case shows up and his fiancée demands Kabir exit left. Kabir points that same knife at her, which according to some is a moment of comedy. To others, it’s an appropriate response to a woman changing her mind about having sex. Finally, there are those who will heave a sigh of relief that Fracture Case Fiancée got out of Kabir’s clutches.
Our hero, meanwhile, finds himself thrust into crisis mode when all of his booty calls fail but his erection does not. Ultimately, he shoves a handful of ice cubes down his pants to relieve himself. When he gets out of an auto moments later, the driver notices the wet patch Kabir has left on the seat and asks Kabir if he did in fact relieve himself. To which Kabir responds that he is wearing a diaper. Comedy.
Now that we know our hero is a man of wit and unfailing erections, we are also informed that he has an impeccable academic record. Kabir used to be the topper of the Delhi Institute of Medical Sciences. His only flaw, as his dean (Adil Hussain) puts it, is that Kabir is a zero in anger management. He simply cannot control his emotions and what’s more, he doesn’t want to. After brutally beating up the captain of a rival football team, Kabir proclaims, “I have no regrets. This is me.” He further expounds on the sheer satisfaction he derives from beating people up, convinced of his moral righteousness. It’s almost as though he has the chorus of Salt-n-Pepa’s “Whatta Man” playing in his head as background music.
The final cog to complete the masculine wheel of Kabir Singh is the pretty new student Preeti, upon whom Kabir stakes his claim right after clapping his eyes on her. Literally. He goes from class to class, warning all the boys to stay away from Preeti because she belongs to him. Has he said a word to her? Of course not. It doesn’t matter what she feels about him or what she thinks. In any case, how will she resist him when Kabir takes it upon himself to become her bodyguard? He protects her from ragging seniors and helps her revise her coursework. He decides which desk she will sit at in class and who her friends will be. “Chunni theek karo, (Fix your dupatta),” he tells her at one point. How’s that for romance? Kabir later has her move into the boys hostel with him because “woh bachchi hai (she’s just a kid)”. To be fair to Kabir, though, Preeti gives little indication of being able to make her own decisions.
Preeti passively floats through the early stages of this “relationship”, pale as a ghost and twice as emotionless, taking whatever Kabir throws her way in complete silence. She expresses her first emotion when Kabir thrashes the men who harass her during Holi — tears (which may be justified) and throwing herself into his arms as a sign of gratitude (which is more perplexing given he’s as much of a brute). We’re shown their relationship deepening through a montage that allows us to forget Kabir Singh’s regrettable story and instead, lose ourselves in its excellent soundtrack.
Although Kabir starts out as gentle towards Preeti, he slowly begins to snap at her so often that she prefaces her questions to him with “Please don’t be mad.” (It’s worth noting that in the future, a lovelorn Kabir will name his pet dog Preeti, whom he takes out for walks and whose diet he strictly regulates. He also frequently shouts at her to shut up — Preeti the dog, that is. In many cases, it’s a great honour to have a dog named after you, but this does not seem like a tribute. It’s difficult to decide whether we feel worse for human Preeti or canine Preeti.) The other men in Preeti’s life are just as controlling. Her father decrees she will only marry the man of his choice, and that man is not Kabir. Needless to say, our hero does not take this well. “Kabir Rajdheer Singh ki bandi hai tu, that's it (You’re Kabir Rajdheer Singh’s girl, that’s it),” he tells Preeti, and she tearfully agrees. He gives her six hours to convince her parents to accept their relationship. When she protests, he slaps her. Apparently, it’s not abusive when it comes from a place of obsessive love? (It is.)
Unsurprisingly, the women around Kabir constantly walk on eggshells. He bellows at a nurse to get out in the middle of a surgery because “No lipstick in the OT (operation theatre).” When his housekeeper accidentally breaks a plate, Kabir chases after her in a murderous rage (the upbeat background music does not undercut the terror of this scene). When Preeti’s mother interrupts his conversation with Preeti, Kabir picks up a flower pot and charges at her. Yet women continue to adore and put up with Kabir.
At one point Kabir pushes Preeti to tell her parents how much sex they’ve had, remarking that the only reason her parents don’t understand Kabir and Preeti’s love is because they themselves haven’t been having sex. (No one points out that having copious amounts of sex has done nothing for Kabir’s temperament or sensitivity.) “Imagine this is not 2019. It’s the time of kings and queens,” Kabir tells Preeti in possibly the most bizarre exchange of the film. “If at that time [your father] came between you and me, what would I have done? I would’ve waged war against him. I would’ve locked him in a cage and married you in front of him. Traditional style.” (Thankfully, we live in the 21st century.)
At a later point, a film star (she’s also an IIT graduate, we’re told) falls in love with Kabir (who regularly smashes plates and yells at her), undeterred by his telling her clearly that he is only interested in a sexual relationship. (His honesty with this woman is one of the few moments in Kabir Singh when it seems like Kabir just might be in the vicinity of treating a woman as an equal.) Similarly, Preeti is unfazed by all the physical and emotional violence he’s put her through and welcomes him back into her life at the end. A heart-breaking quote from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower springs to mind: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” One must concede that while much of director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s storytelling requires suspension of disbelief, the way Kabir is not held to account by the women around him is entirely believable. We see it all the time in real life — like in the formidable female fan following that Kabir Singh has.
More than anything, though, the film is a terrible bore. Kabir Singh is at least two hours longer than it needs to be, with a second half that drags, burying the audience under scene after scene of Kabir drinking, doing drugs and lashing out at those who care about him (and more shots of his crotch than strictly necessary). The dialogues are self-important at best and ridiculous at worst. “We live in a physical, growing world,” says Kabir to the group of men who harassed Preeti. He also tells them to not harass her because Kabir really loves her (that is, of course, the only reason to not violate a woman). Kabir’s delusions of grandeur, his insufferable main character syndrome and hyper-volatile nature make it impossible to root for him in any capacity. He’s also monotonous, saying and reacting in the same way for the entirety of the film.
The only silver lining lies in the rare moments of (unintentional) humour, like when “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” plays at a funeral or when the film’s aspect ratio abruptly narrows to mimic a vertical phone screen as Kabir browses through his pictures of Preeti. At one point, sick of his whining, Kabir’s best friend points out that at least women’s mood swings last only four days a month, whereas Kabir’s PMS goes on all month long. Towards the end of the film, a desperate Kabir implores to Preeti that he’s travelled all this way to meet her. Preeti swiftly disabuses him of this notion by reminding him that he’s only come from Bandra to Chembur.
Kabir Singh greatly polarised audiences when it first came out, and continues to do so today. Throughout the film, Kabir is convinced that his every action is justified. His violence towards the opposing football team is evidence of his love and loyalty for his college. His control of Preeti is all for her benefit. Kabir, who is proud of his career as a surgeon, frequently wallows in drugs, alcohol and self-pity. “Do I deserve this?” he asks Preeti, referring to his dismissal by her family. He compares his struggles to a woman’s pre-menstrual syndrome (which is the kind of parallel only a writer without a uterus would make). In the second half, Kabir comes across as pathetic, unreasonable and juvenile. The film, however, paints him as some sort of misunderstood hero. “Democracy does not accept free-spirited people,” says Kabir’s lawyer, which may be true of present-day India, but given Kabir’s controlling nature, this is a particularly ironic statement.
For some (including the cast and crew of the film), Kabir Singh is a study of a man obsessed, consumed by his love for one woman, rather than a certificate for his behaviour, right or wrong. For others, it is a romanticisation of an aggressive, controlling masculinity; one which encourages the infantilising of women. By giving Kabir a happy ending with Preeti, the film forgives, justifies and rewards his behaviour. Off-screen, the film was rewarded, despite its regressive ideas, by tremendous box office success. Evidently, there are rewards all around for everyone but the Preetis of this world.