Shahid Kapoor’s latest film, Kabir Singh, has received severe criticism from many reviewers for ‘unapologetically celebrating toxic masculinity’. Despite the negative reviews, the film is laughing its way to the bank, with an opening day business of Rs 20.21 crore. Not just that, if you happen to watch the film in a theatre as I did, you will also find many in the audience enjoying the violent outbursts of Kabir — brilliantly played by Shahid Kapoor — which, of course, tells you a lot about us as an audience.
Despite all the apt criticism directed at Kabir Singh’s character, one of the worst things about this film has to be the leading lady of the film, Preeti Sikka, portrayed by Kiara Advani.
If Kabir is violent and mercurial, Preeti’s ONLY way of showing resentment towards her boyfriend is to slap him. We are introduced to her as an angelic, quiet and demure MBBS student, who resembles a white bedsheet when it comes to showing emotions on her face. Kabir instantly takes a liking for her, without so much as knowing her name, and marks his territory by telling everyone in his medical college, that she is his girl, and therefore off limits.
Kabir kisses her without her permission. Preeti’s face remains blank. Kabir decides her friend and roommate for her. Preeti’s face remains blank. Kabir mansplains, “Yeh koi aisa waisa course nahi hai Preeti, this is MBBS,” as if she, who had supposedly taken the entrance examination to be there, doesn’t already know this. But of course, her face is blank. He makes her skip classes and gives her private educational sessions, which involves a lot of hand holding. He decides that she will move in with him after she injures her foot. Her face, of course, through all these occurrences, draws a blank.
When Kiara’s character does get a few dialogues, they only make her appear more doltish. Director Sandeep Reddy Vanga not only insists on reducing her to an object of desire but also shows her as a nagging girlfriend, who calls Kabir ‘baby’ with such artificial sweetness, that it can put sugarfree to shame. While Advani’s acting prowess is frustratingly limited, Preeti’s actions as a character are also rarely logical, which makes her a challenge for any actress to portray convincingly.
When Shahid’s Kabir reduces her entire identity to just being ‘his girl’, she accepts it as a universal truth. After Kabir slaps her and gives her an ultimatum of six hours to convince her parents in favour of their relationship, she doesn’t seem to care that she was physically assaulted by her boyfriend. Instead, in the next scene, we see her angrily declare to her family that she and Kabir had been between the sheets hundreds of times. As the drill of ‘trying to convince parents’ go, it is hard to fathom why she would think that her account of her sex life will be convincing proof for her parents that Kabir is a good match for her. But nonetheless, she continues to behave in such confounding ways.
While several critics have repeatedly pointed out that Kabir has a problem with accepting authority, most forgot to mention that when Preeti drops in at his Mussoorie college to meet him, he warns her against PDA, saying that this college authority doesn’t tolerate such behaviour, to which she responds by stubbornly insisting on being smooched in the middle of the college ground. When Kabir speeds his bike to bash up the guys who had, without Preeti’s consent, put colours on her during Holi, Preeti is the one holding Kabir’s baseball bat, riding pillion on his bike.
Bollywood has, in the past, made many films with such abusive male leads, but rarely have they been glorified to the extent Kabir has been in this film. More so, in most of those films, the female leads were not such scatterbrains. In Tere Naam, the rowdy Radhe is rejected by the girl he loved because of his violent behaviour. In Devdas, when Shah Rukh Khan’s character, on the night of Paro’s (Aishwarya) wedding asks her to elope with him, she clearly refuses. Although he assaults her during that interaction, Paro stays adamant about the decision she has made about her life.
Both these films give us examples of damaged male characters, who went down the spiral after they lost the love of their lives. The self-destructive tendencies of these men, fueled by guilt and helplessness are easy to understand, and sometimes even easy to sympathize with. Kabir Singh, however, comes off as a sullen child who had lost a toy and somehow for no apparent reason all his friends, supporters and family members are finding it in their hearts to put up with his ill-tempered behaviour as he looks for his doll.
Unfortunately, of all the characters in the film, the only one that is logically consistent in his behaviour is Kabir Singh. Shahid Kapoor channels his character from a burning pit of relentless rage. As an unforgivable, drug-addled drunken jerk, he is so convincing, that you truly find it hard to be happy for his happy ending, when it comes in the end. But then again, I really don’t think that Preeti and Kabir building a life together is a happy ending after all. It sounds more like a domestic violence lawsuit waiting to happen, and let’s all pray that Sandeep Reddy Vanga never thinks of making that film.
Kabir Singh normalises ragging, which hasn’t happened in Bollywood for a long time, and brushes aside all discussions on caste, which we are told was the reason why Preeti’s parents refused Kabir’s proposal in the first place. At a time when several medical students are being directly affected by ragging and caste-based discrimination is rampant in many medical colleges, one would think these are perfectly good themes to delve into, but Vanga gives more screen time to Shahid’s abs and the close-up of his crotch than to any of these topics.
However, the main problem with Kabir Singh isn’t JUST the toxic mix of testosterone and patriarchy, but also the fact that it reduces its leading lady to a confused, illogical woman, who is quite volatile herself.