Director: Sandeep Reddy Vanga
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Kiara Advani, Soham Majumdar, Arjan Bajwa, Suresh Oberoi
Given that awful people make for great stories, Kabir Singh should have been the greatest film ever made. But it isn’t. Far from it, actually. Because Kabir Singh is a terrible man, a monstrous lover, a thankless friend, a futile son, an ungrateful brother…but he isn’t a tragedy. Or at least his creator doesn’t think he is. He isn’t the first hypermasculine jerk to be romanticized on screen and he won’t be the last.
The cinema of sociopaths is an interactive one – either it thrives on making us feel guilty for empathizing with them, or it counts on us feeling sorry for their lack of self-control. But Kabir Singh is impossible to feel for; he is that hopelessly entitled villain of a high-school movie who we’re conditioned to hate. You know, the kind of overdramatic brat who seems to behave a certain way only because he is positioned opposite the hero. But writer-director Sandeep Reddy Vanga, who also made the Telugu original Arjun Reddy, visibly believes that his toxic protagonist is a reckless hero. A genius with anger issues. A winner with a loser’s soul. A violent pest who knows no better. Not because he is complex or troubled, but because he is the central focus of the movie. Because he is the movie.
On another day, in another country, Kabir might have been Christian Grey and Preeti, Anastasia Steele, and their hostel room, the Red Room of Pain
The setting is common: Kabir (Shahid Kapoor), a surgeon with the lifestyle of a rockstar, is well into his downward spiral when we first meet him. The nurses hold his lit cigarette while his gloves are bloody after an operation, they indulge him, they protect him. He is desperate for empty sex; he holds a horny lady at knifepoint when she asks for more than a two-minute romp. We then see why he has turned into this bearded beast: As a senior at a Delhi medical college, his eyes fall upon the docile “white Salwar-kurta types,” Preeti (Kiara Advani). Naturally, it’s 50 Shades at first sight. Kabir is the college bully, the King who smashes enemy faces to pulp on a football field and humiliates the dean in public. He gets a kick out of exploiting her virginal meekness. He orders her around and enforces his presence upon her. There’s no collar involved (I think), but she loves it. This “wooing” phase is ripe with the tension of a dominant-submissive relationship. On another day, in another country, Kabir might have been Christian Grey and Preeti, Anastasia Steele, and their hostel room, the Red Room of Pain. With “Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein” as their safeword. Note that R. Madhavan’s Hindi film debut, a remake of a Tamil hit, had him essay a similar ‘romantic hero’: Maddy was a bully too, with an envious academic record, a loyal sidekick and a penchant for stalking. If not for the haunting soundtrack of that film, I suspect we might have recognized that people like Maddy need therapy.
We spend so long cringing at Kabir’s attitude that by the time we are supposed to have a change of heart for him, he is beyond redemption. For example, he forces Preeti to befriend a plump girl because “healthy chicks are loyal; they gel well with pretty chicks.” (Which explains why his best friend, Shiva, is short and dark). The length of the film, almost three hours, is understandable: The longer you stay with a problematic character, the more likely you are to rationalize his personality. In other words, it’s not just Preeti but even the film’s viewers that need to be infected with Stockholm Syndrome. You sense that the director has deliberately designed him with some redeemable traits that are meant to make us feel conflicted: Kabir is a skilled surgeon who saves lives, he loves his grandmother, he loves his dog, he respects his elder brother. Most of all, Kabir pushes back against an archaic caste system and the orthodox-family narrative. It’s as if the film is proudly declaring: For all his flaws, here’s a man who is encouraging his partner to stand up against her father and fight for love. Here is a hero who is rebelling against the standard star-crossed-lover narrative by harming himself so that nobody else can harm him.
Kabir doesn’t drink booze, he downs bottles, immune to the frowns of disapproving onlookers. He doesn’t stub cigarettes, he flicks them away as if he can hear the stylish background score in his head
But this progressiveness is merely an accidental byproduct of his own regressive feelings: Kabir isn’t trying to make a cultural statement, he just wants Preeti at any cost and uses the liberal counter-commentary as a crutch to manipulate us. He is too selfish to inspire a woman or show society a mirror. Never mind the irony of doing all this to ‘own’ her (“meri bandi” etc) existence. Speaking of irony, the director thankfully omits the one scene from Arjun Reddy that has the man lecture Shiva’s potential brother-in-law about the ills of objectifying air-hostesses.
The prospect of “mainstream entertainers” telling man-child stories is often a self-defeating one. The heightened sensory language makes it seem like the films are normalizing their vices for effect rather than humanizing or judging them. Alcoholism, drug addiction, sex and rage automatically turn into performative personality traits rather than serious diseases. They become artistic subsets that service the larger umbrella of #self-destruction. For instance, Kabir doesn’t drink booze, he downs bottles, immune to the frowns of disapproving onlookers. He doesn’t stub cigarettes, he flicks them away as if he can hear the stylish background score in his head. He doesn’t get upset, he gets livid and slaps people (including Preeti). Like Denzel Washington in Flight, he even snorts coke to get sober before a court hearing. (Unlike Flight, the writers here believe that making him suffer professionally is enough to merit a second chance in his private life). His crotch becomes an uneasy visual crutch: We are subjected to everything from pee stains to blood stains, and the camera hovers over his pants after he wets them in a heroin(e)-induced haze. These are the only dimensions to his character.
The only moving part of this film is a brief montage of the two in a four-year long-distance relationship. She weeps, he struggles
Shahid Kapoor immerses himself in this questionable role, but he oscillates between his volatile Vishal Bhardwaj version and an actor who is trying to compensate for overcooking Padmaavat’s self-righteous Rajput ruler. He has Vijay Deverakonda’s babyface-assassin swag, but the effort in his case shows because of how familiar he is to Hindi movie watchers. Kiara Advani fights a losing battle with a Deepika Padukone hangover. She channels Padukone not just in her uncanny dialogue delivery, but in a Tamasha-like separation sequence where she must beg and grovel by holding him while he physically lashes out. The secondary cast has less at stake. Soham Majumdar, as sidekick Shiva, has the best lines because his gaze is what the director hopes for the audience to have, while playing an anxious father comes naturally to Suresh Oberoi.
I once had a childhood friend, a Parsi boy who looked to have grown up on movies like Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh. He boasted about bedroom exploits to his jock group, objectified his girlfriends, gaslighted them, even physically abused them, but they’d keep coming back for more. He never changed. Recently, when I heard that his wife (with baby in tow) had filed for divorce, the news livened up my day. Now that’s a happy ending, I thought. For the wife, for humanity, for the child, for me. Kabir Singh makes an interesting point about love. It exists to prove that, whether we like it or not, abusive love doesn’t necessarily conform to our personal perception of modern gender politics. That such stories can have mutual happily ever afters, too. We may not like their power dynamic, but that doesn’t make them less real. It’s not wrong to acknowledge them. If only the filmmakers today understood that these couples are in fact resounding tragedies…especially because they end up together. They are
fairy cautionary tales. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the only moving part of this film is a brief montage of the two in a four-year long-distance relationship. She weeps, he struggles. Deep inside, perhaps it was reassuring to see them far apart.