The Swaddle Team Sounds Off on ‘Kabir Singh’ and Misogyny in Film
Kabir Singh hit theaters on June 21 and has instantly divided movie-goers and film critics with its portrayal of an obsessive, self-destructive, violent alcoholic who goes down a spiral when the relationship with the woman he loves goes awry. Today, we discuss this controversial movie and try to navigate the space between artistic liberty and social responsibility of directors, screenwriters, actors, et cetera.
PP: I’ll begin with a full disclosure: I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I could barely get through the trailer, so I doubt I’ll be seeing it. But from my assessment of the trailer, the songs, and the discourse around the movie, the main question we have to answer as consumers of mass media is this: Is there a way the movie could have reprimanded Kabir Singh? For instance, when he slaps his girlfriend and gives her six hours to convince her parents of their relationship? Could Preeti Sikka — the girl Kabir Singh has almost claimed as his property — have been given more lines and more agency?
I don’t agree with the argument that since it is the tale of a toxic, flawed man, the story will inevitably take on the same shade of misogyny. But the problem here isn’t the flawed hero. No one is asking for Lord Rama to be the main hero in all movies. But there is a certain responsibility that the makers of the movie had, that Shahid Kapoor had, to step in and acknowledge that while men like Kabir Singh exist and are very real, there needs to be a larger commentary negating all the actions of the protagonist, or he needs to be shown facing consequences of his actions. If Salman Khan in Tere Naam can get rejected by the woman he loves for his violent behavior, and Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas can be rejected by Paro for his impulsive, drunken demand she elope with him, surely it couldn’t have been that hard? And just to put a number on the scale of impact these movie-makers have with the art they create, Kabir Singh is three days into its first week of release and it has already crossed the Rs. 50 crore milestone in box office collection, with reports of lakhs cheering at scenes where Kabir Singh lashes out on Preeti, a mute, innocent, angelic woman. There’s a lot at stake here.
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KB: Full disclosure, I haven’t seen the movie. And so, I’ll steer clear of specific references to the plot or characters, and make a more abstract argument in favor of socially and morally responsible storytelling. The most important distinction I would immediately draw is the one between depicting ‘reality,’ and glorifying it. To supporters of the film, who have shrugged off criticism of its rampant misogyny by arguing it simply portrays reality — no, it portrays one version of one side of a very ugly reality. And when filmmakers choose to take on the responsibility of framing narratives around toxic and dangerous social ills, such as gender-based violence, they have a moral and ethical responsibility to illustrate its various permutations and ripple effects.
Gender-based violence is rampant in India, and women have almost come to expect it, but if a director is going to portray this sad but pervasive reality, they should go on to portray the impact violence has on survivors — the emotional, social, financial, and other life-long repercussions of intimate partner violence. And under no circumstances should the character perpetrating such violence be treated by the director as anything other than a criminal. His character and his story arc must be unsympathetic. The calls for ethical portrayals of misogyny are not calls to erase it from our screens — just the opposite, in fact. In order to face a despicable and growing social ill, we need to be confronted with it. But as with any screen portrayals of, for example, moments in our social or political histories that we have come to find repugnant, we must frame these narratives as unequivocally harsh on the perpetrators, and with a heavy dose of introspection and nuance about why we have accepted them for so long.
AM: Like my colleagues, I haven’t seen the movie either, but I’ll confess that I did have plans to watch it last weekend. But, then, I received a message on my very opinionated, woke, and educated alumni WhatsApp group that comprises journalists, authors, and filmmakers, who said, “People, do watch Kabir Singh. If possible, watch it in a packed theater. It is a sad reality check on toxic masculinity. You will hear many cheers as Kabir goes around abusing and violating women around him. And there is no justification for his actions. On the contrary, he is glorified. It’s like Tere Naam, but worse.” My decision was made: there was no way I was paying to watch, or support in any way, a monstrosity that is three hours long, and a horrendous ode to misogyny. To anyone who says films should depict reality, and that men like Kabir Singh do exist: the problem is not in the depiction of reality, but in the fact that violent and misogynistic men like Singh, who have for centuries tortured women, are portrayed as characters that are funny and cool — and hooted for. So, when Kapoor, who plays Singh, defends his choice to do so by saying the character is a man with a “good heart,” who “loves purely” and “wears his emotions on his sleeve” — sorry, but you are not excused.
ADT: One of the reasons why I think many people enjoy characters like Kabir Singh, Arjun Reddy, and Radhe is because the film showcases subtle approval for violent behavior by peers and society. Friends cheer at transgressions and so does the audience. The mute female character returns to her violent partners and the audience internalizes violence as the best way to court a woman. This spread of toxicity feeds into this weird reel-to-real cycle where young men learn that there’s no better way to achieve respect and love than to be an odious prick. Thus, more odious pricks are born, which is fodder for more films about them. Sure, we all occasionally enjoy a rakish, bad-boy character, but they’re obviously chaotic good, rather than the straight-up manipulative nonsense these movies are trying to sell.
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LG: I also haven’t seen the movie. Honestly, I don’t want to — I’m over the whole ‘Look at me, I’m so tortured and misunderstood, the only way I know how to deal with my emotions is to abuse the women around me’ male character. Depict it, fine — there can be a benefit to showing the flawed world as it is — but it’s cheap artistry to romanticize this version of manhood, if for no other reason than it’s the oldest trick in the book. Scream inarticulately into a canyon. Pump some iron. Punch a wall. There are about a thousand (still toxic!) ways to depict a man struggling with his inner demons, other than to emotionally and physically abuse a woman, that could replace what I’ve heard takes place in this film.
Which brings the conversation down to money: Kabir Singh is a very lucrative regurgitation, as PP points out. And it profits off the reality that 52% of Indian women believe husbands are entitled to beat their wives (and presumably as many or more men), according to recent family health surveys — a dynamic that trickles down into premarital romantic relationships, especially when it’s romanticized on screen.
RG: The concept of social responsibility is a tricky one; I could harp on and on about it, and still encounter people who tout ‘good business sense’ as a valid excuse to peddle socially harmful rhetoric to impressionable viewers. If a Salman Khan film, where he pursues the woman and harasses her into saying yes to him, makes crores of rupees, what incentive does the filmmaker, raking in dough by then, have to stop making these films? I’m interested in where the responsibility lies — on Shahid Kapoor, as PP said? But he’s just an actor; he’s looking for work, a role that tests his abilities. On the director, writer? They can now anticipate what kind of movies will do well. Why digress from the norm, when the norm is making them rich? Sure, it’ll draw ire from some feminist publications, but who cares about them, right? They’ll talk no matter what. (Yes, we will, by the way). While all creators of art need to acknowledge the power their art has and need to reckon with the social responsibility they inherently take up when they decide to communicate with the masses (as my colleagues have pointed out very succinctly above), I’m wondering about this: how do we make them care? How do we make them see the line between artistic liberty and social responsibility, and incentivize them to stick to it?
The negative reception to Kabir Singh, in however narrow an echo chamber on social media, is giving me hope. I think the way to make complacent creators of art care is to take away the benefits they get from creating problematic art. If money from movies like Kabir Singh dries up, maybe so will their incentive to make the next Kabir Singh. I haven’t seen the movie, and I don’t care to. I’d like to give my money to artists who care about how they’re affecting society, thanks very much.