The ‘boislockerroom’ Instagram group scandal has led to a string of posts on social media about ‘oh where did we go wrong’. Unless the question is entirely rhetorical, we actually don’t have very far to look. While we are all aware that popular culture often comes stamped with misogyny, this is a good time to reflect on the degree of misogyny and scale of impact.
To pick a sample of what the Indian audience is consuming in terms of mainstream cinema, I found out which was the biggest box office hit of 2019 in India and watched it. It was a film titled Kabir Singh starring Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani, directed by Sandeep Vanga.
The film released in June last year and grossed Rs 379 crore at the box office, the highest of the year and the 10th highest for any Indian film. This film is a remake of Telugu film Arjun Reddy, which made Rs 51 crore at the box office. It has also been remade in Tamil by the name Adithya Varma. To understand what these numbers mean, let’s take the average ticket price of a movie ticket to be around Rs 150-200, and do the math. This means around 2.5 to 3 crore people watched this film in theatres (I’m deliberately counting people who watched the film twice as equal to two idiots). The films are now on Netflix and Amazon Prime and we are all locked in because of COVID-19, so we can safely double that number. All combined, we are talking in terms of a sizeable percentage of the population of the country, and an even larger portion of the youth, who have been exposed to the film. And I used ‘exposed to’ with great circumspection.
The story goes thus: Kabir Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a medical student. There is a lot of emphasis throughout the film on the fact that he is a genius. He is doing his MD from a medical school in Delhi. One day he sees a first year MBBS student Preeti (Kiara Advani) as she walks into campus on her first day and decides he likes her. The two soon develop a romantic relationship. How that comes to pass, we will discuss shortly. Eventually, the girl’s father opposes the relationship and forces her into marriage with someone else. Kabir Singh, now a practicing surgeon, is heartbroken and tries to engage in casual sexual encounters to make himself feel better. He becomes an alcoholic and drug addict and finally snaps out when his license is suspended for performing surgery after ingesting alcohol and cocaine. He decides to clean up his act and then one day finds Preeti sitting in a park, 8 months pregnant. She tells him that she left home 3 days after marriage. There is a lot of emphasis on the fact that she didn’t let her husband touch her and that the child is Kabir’s. They live happily ever after.
I am not on Kabir Singh’s character as an entitled, rude, inconsiderate, self-centred, egotistical guy with anger management issues that the film presents without reproach and with more than a touch of hero-worship. Nor am I on the story of alcoholism and drug abuse or his obsessive depressive spiral occasioned by heartbreak shown in the film. The treatment of those subjects suggests that such personalities exist and the film itself indicates that substance abuse has consequences on oneself as well as others. I am only discussing the first half-hour of the film, where one is supposed to be blown away by the courtship and the romance.
Simply put, the ‘love’ story is a mix of sexual harassment, molestation, coercion followed by an abusive relationship. While practically every shot and dialogue of the film is demeaning to women, this article is not about toxic masculinity, which has become passé, and which most mainstream movies are anyway guilty of, since toxic masculinity is not a ground for restriction of free speech under our Constitution. This is about offences under our law, including instances of sexual harassment and molestation being glorified and passed off as an alpha male idea of romance and love. Some of the more noteworthy incidents and dialogues from the film that are presented as ‘funny’ or ‘romantic’ are given below. I have added corresponding provisions of the Indian Penal Code and other laws that deal with such ‘romantic’ acts:
• Assault, criminal intimidation, molestation and sexual harassment (Sections 351, 354, 503 IPC): The film begins with this scene where Kabir Singh is nursing a broken heart and is trying to sleep around to make himself feel better, but when his partner in a casual sexual encounter changes her mind because he is being forceful and violent, he tries to force her to have intercourse at knifepoint, but then mercifully snaps out of it and leaves. The treatment is such as to make the entire episode seem comical with ‘Meri umar ke naujawano’ playing in the background and the girl’s fiancé knocking on the door. Similar treatment is accorded to him calling up his female medical students and asking them to come to his apartment for seminar lectures, because he is feeling sexually frustrated.
• Sexual harassment (UGC’s Prevention of Sexual Harassment Regulations, 2015 read with the Supreme Court’s guidelines in the Vishaka case): Preeti just about lands up in college and because Kabir Singh sets eyes on her and decides he likes her, he and his friends go from classroom to classroom ‘marking his territory’ by announcing that Preeti ‘belongs’ to him and all other men are to stay away from her. Being a resident doctor and Masters student, he walks into the first-year classroom every morning in what is clearly a very hierarchical campus known, we are told, for its ragging, and orders Preeti to skip class and come with him as he will take the day’s lecture for her privately. He also tells her where she is to sit in class from now on and who she is to sit with. He randomly selects a girl in the class (who is just somewhat overweight) and tells Preeti that this will be your friend and roommate from now on because “healthy chicks are like teddy bears, warm and loyal. They make a great combination as friends for good-looking chicks”. Yes, that’s what he said.
• Sexual harassment and molestation (Section 354 IPC): The same evening that he first sees her and without having really spoken with her, Kabir summons Preeti out of her hostel with the same air of seniority and kisses her in full public view – completely uninvited and clearly unwelcome conduct from a perfect stranger – and then leaves saying don’t worry, no one saw anything.
• Criminal use of force (Section 352 IPC): At one point in the film, Kabir loses his temper and slaps Preeti and tells her that she has no identity in college, people only know her as Kabir Singh’s girl. Preeti’s response? “You are right. I am no one without you. Now baby, please calm down.”
Under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, “public order” and “incitement to an offence” are among the grounds on which reasonable restrictions can be placed on the freedom of expression. This has manifested into Section 5B of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, under which the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is duty-bound to refuse certificate allowing public exhibition of any film that is against the interests of public order or is likely to incite the commission of any offence. The question then to be asked is, can a film that depicts acts of sexual harassment, molestation and other forms of violence against women, not as a commentary on society or as part of a social message but glorifying them as a macho idea of romance, be said to fall within the permitted restrictions of free speech?
A film critic on Firstpost defended the film saying, “If Kabir Singh were to inspire Indian men to turn into alcoholics, raging maniacs, would it be safe to assume that in a few years we’d see a full generation of youngsters inspired by biopics on our prime minister?” While I find myself torn into half in choosing between either of the two very likely and equally ghastly possibilities suggested by the author, the point is well taken that the audience, especially of A-rated films like Kabir Singh, have a right to decide what they want to consume and have to be given some credit of exercising their better judgement and not allowing such depictions to influence their own thoughts and actions. It is not as if every film depicting a crime has to be automatically denied censor certificate. So, what then, is the threshold a film must meet to obtain a CBFC clearance?
The answer is reflected in guidelines issued by the Central government through a notification dated December 6, 1991 to aid the CBFC in discharge of its duty, which include directions to CBFC to ensure that:
• “anti-social activities such as violence are not glorified or justified”,
• “scenes degrading or denigrating women in any manner are not presented” and
• “scenes involving sexual violence against women like attempt to rape, rape or any form of molestation, or scenes of similar nature are avoided, and if any such incident is germane to the theme, they shall be reduced to the minimum and no details are shown”.
The Supreme Court has time and again said that films are a powerful medium that enjoy a high degree of attention and retention and are more likely to have an influence on their audience and motivate thought and action than other media. It is equally true that there is great emphasis in our jurisprudence on artistic freedom being protected, and rightly so. The standard cannot be better stated than in the words of Justice Hidayatullah in a judgement related to K.A. Abbas’s film, A Tale of Four Cities, where he said:
“Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read.”
Having said this, the court has gone on to clarify that it is not the elements of sexual violence themselves that deserve the censor’s scissors, but how the theme is handled by the filmmaker. Therefore, depiction of sexual violence, for instance, may be justified if there is what the Supreme Court has described as a “preponderating social purpose” or message sought to be conveyed. However, sexual harassment and violence as a normal and even admirable element of courtship guaranteed to sweep the girl off her feet surely cannot be tolerated in light of the standards laid by both the government and the courts.
Kabir Singh is merely representative of what is consumed by the youth of our country, film after film, year after year. There is no doubt that freedom of speech is a precious right that has to be jealously guarded. Even a slightly loosely worded precedent from the Supreme Court will have bigots of every hue and colour running to court to stop the screening of films they disagree with. The instances which spring to mind of when the courts in recent times have been called upon to adjudicate whether a film’s CBFC certificate should be cancelled or the screening injuncted or FIRs registered against filmmakers have included certain Hindu organisations objecting to the film ‘Padmavati’ (later renamed Padmaavat) for showing Allauddin Khilji having a song and dance sequence with Rani Padmavati in his fantasies (because how dare he even dream of touching a Hindu queen), some Hindu organisations objecting to the film ‘Loveratri’ (later renamed Loveyatri) because it showed young people falling in love over the course of the festival of Navratri thereby demeaning the holy festival, PILs filed alleging that the film Kedarnath hurt Hindu sentiments by showing a love affair between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy thereby promoting ‘love jihad’, some Muslim organisations objecting to a scene in Malayalam film Oru Adaar Love where Priya Prakash Varier winks while a local Islamic folk song, which some Muslims suddenly found blasphemous, plays in the background, and an overzealous ‘activist’ moving court saying Salman Khan had insulted the nation by calling himself ‘Bharat’ in his film by the same name.
I had occasion to appear in a number of these cases to defend the filmmakers and while the courts stepped in to protect freedom of expression in each of these cases, the pattern I see emerge is that the only people willing to stand up for whatever principles they believe in and take legal recourse are people with exclusionary, narrow-minded and often right-leaning communal mindsets. Meanwhile, those who believe in dignity, respect and an equal status for women are the ones pulling their punches, and remain content with decrying ‘toxic masculinity’ in drawing room or Facebook echo chambers or registering their severe protest by giving Kabir Singh one and a half stars. The result is for all to see. Filmmakers are increasingly wary of subjects that are even slightly communally sensitive and deal with them with kid gloves, while misogyny is par for the course.
And are we to always give credit to the viewer to exercise discretion and critical thinking? No. Unlike the US, where the freedom of expression is worded in absolute terms and very limited restrictions have been judicially carved out, in India restrictions are built into the right itself and a degree of paternalism, albeit very strictly defined and confined, is allowed to the CBFC and to our courts to decide what is fit or not for the Indian audience to consume. The Supreme Court in the K.A. Abbas case indicated that artistic and inartistic presentation of the same subject cannot be treated alike and said that the delicate task of deciding what is artistic and what is simply offensive without its artistic merit or social value in any way over-weighing its offending character is to be performed by the courts and, in the last resort, by the Supreme Court.
While we may agree or disagree with this position of the law, the way the law stands at present, it allows the courts a certain degree of parent-like oversight into what the audience is to be exposed to and allows us as citizens to invoke the jurisdiction of the court to exercise that oversight. That is the only participation allowed to citizens to force filmmakers to be circumspect about what they present. Because our only other role is as consumers, and 379 crores is hard to argue with. And if we choose not to exercise these rights and invoke these remedies and remain passive bystanders to the casual misogyny of our popular culture, then let us not wring our hands and ask ‘oh where did we go wrong’ every time we find that 18-year-old boys in our society have no respect or regard for their female peers.
Nizam Pasha is a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @MNizamPasha