At 1:08 am last night, before starting to write the review of Kabir Singh, I pinged my friend, a fellow film critic, to check about a moment in the movie. “So there’s a scene at the start where he [Shahid Kapoor] holds a knife and tells a woman to undress?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
I pinged him again to confirm whether the woman was not “Jia”, played by the movie’s second heroine Nikita Dutta, but a peripheral character.
“That happens, right?” I had a sudden impulse to fact-check the entire scene. That bit felt, more so in hindsight, so vacuously shocking that I thought I had made it up.
“Can barely believe myself but yeah.”
Kabir Singh is the kind of film, one steeped so deep in viciousness, that it needs a genre of its own: ‘Lynchian’ misogyny. ‘Lynchian’ – named after American filmmaker David Lynch, the maker of surreal thrillers that keep you hooked and nonplussed – befits this movie, because the relentless misogyny here makes you question your own sense and judgement. Maybe it is not the movie, you first tell yourself, it is me.
After surgeon Kabir Singh (Kapoor) threatens the woman to undress, a part of the audience in a Connaught Place multiplex laughed. The subsequent scenes were no different – the maid in his house breaks a glass; Kabir runs after her: the audience laughed. At the hospital, a nurse comments on his beard and shabby look. Kabir turns towards her, pretends to unzip himself in a bid to scare her, and she scampers: more laughter.
This, quite quickly, becomes a pattern: Kabir, nursing some kind of heartbreak, is a raging alcoholic who is also hooked on to drugs, and his irrational aggression is almost always played for laughs. Maybe it’s just the character, you tell yourself again, not the movie. We, after all, don’t know this guy; it’s only fair to give him, and the film, a chance.
Kabir Singh cuts to a flashback. He’s provoked on the football field, picks a fight and punches his opponent. The college decides to suspend him for a month, but not without the dean (Adil Hussain) informing us that Kabir is the “topper of the board, college and university”, a student with an “impeccable academic record”, “one of the best ever”. Kabir, on the other hand, refuses to apologise, saying, “This is me. I have no regrets.”
Director Sandeep Vanga plants a rather insidious assertion here: that Kabir’s behaviour is excusable because he’s a genius; that he, presumably for the same reason, transcends decency; that normal rules don’t apply to him. This is both an excuse and a defence, the cinematic equivalent of a man with a ‘golden heart’, stretching the argument of ‘boys will be boys’ to its most terrifying conclusion.
Kabir doesn’t leave college because he sees Preeti (Kiara Advani), a girl in a junior batch and, just like that, falls in ‘love’. In fact, it is not love as much as a desire to own someone. “Woh meri bandi hai [she’s my woman],” Kabir threatens his juniors, adding, “barring her, every other girl is yours.” And of course, he has not even spoken to her once.
When Kabir meets her for the first time, the power differential between them is uncomfortably obvious – a senior boy, scary, aggressive, masculine; a junior girl, scared, quiet, hesitant – and, without any context, kisses her on cheek in front of everyone. The film thinks it’s a romantic moment; it cuts to a song.
Kabir never asks Preeti, always orders. Orders her to sit on the front bench with a stocky classmate because “healthy chicks are like teddy bears: warm and cuddly.” Orders her to leave the class with him, in front of everyone, where he’s come to teach, more than once – the film thinks it’s romantic; it cuts to a song. She’s hardly gotten a dialogue by then. Here’s the list of things she does, in fact, before getting a chance to speak: roam around Delhi with Kabir, move into his hostel, make out, have sex, eat pizza.
She gets her first proper line around 50 minutes into the movie. “What do you like in me?” She asks Kabir. Finally, you think, we’d get an answer or something – anything – that would make sense. “I like the way you breathe,” he says, with the confidence of a man drunk on feminist literature. I wanted to walk out.
Let me break down its next 124 minutes for you: misogyny, entitlement, violence, alcohol, drugs, “Woh meri bandi hai”; more misogyny, more entitlement, more violence, more alcohol, more drugs, more “Woh meri bandi hai”; even more misogyny, even more entitlement, even more violence… hang on: I think I need a glass of water. As you can see, there’s some movie in this misogyny. If Jab Harry Met Sejal were a dude, it’d have approached Kabir Singh and asked, “Bro, aise kaise?”
Who is Kabir Singh? Why does he behave the way he does? What does he want? Why does he fall for Preeti – besides, well, his admiration for her respiratory faculty? No idea. (Notable: there’s not much change in his behaviour before and after the break-up.) Repeat the same questions for Preeti: no idea. What does love do, or mean, to these folks? Again, no idea.
Indian films display a warning on screen whenever a character smokes or drinks; Kabir Singh should, similarly, come with a trigger warning every time its hero goes batshit nuts, which is to say the entire movie. Art’s fundamental purpose is to not comfort us or to be ‘morally correct’. But it certainly must be about something, attempt a conversation with something bigger than the sum of its parts (or just the parts themselves).
Kabir Singh exists in a parallel world: one where people aren’t held accountable for their actions, where there’s no introspection, no contrition, no reckoning of self. This could have been so much more – its portrayal of misplaced, exaggerated machismo could have functioned as a mirror where we – the men – would have seen our fractured, vicious selves and taken a step back, to think, to realise. But no such luck here, for this is a movie that is proud of, and even in love with, its hero, escalating and endorsing his misogyny at every turn.
The only silver lining here is the performance of Soham Majumdar, playing Shiva, Kabir’s best friend, whom the film, obviously, consistently derides and emasculates. Advani is profoundly forgettable, although you’re not sure if it’s her limited acting skills or a paper-thin role. Kapoor, to his credit, is convincing as a man out of touch with himself, but because of his one-note character, the intrigue runs out pretty soon.
But it’s all the more chilling to know that stuff like this sells. Kabir Singh is a remake of Arjun Reddy, a 2017 Telugu movie; it won awards, garnered critical acclaim, got picked up by Amazon. A day before its release, the film had 55 paid premiere shows, in Hyderabad, 22 more than Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.
Like Baahubali, Kabir Singh – in vein of a certain kind of Indian ‘masala’ films – keeps increasing its tempo, advancing its world and worldview unchecked. But Baahubali had artistic merits. Kabir Singh, on the other hand, is a Twitter troll (with an egg-shaped DP) masquerading as a feature film; it is the Baahubali of toxic masculinity.