I am astounded to see a film like Kabir Singh in 2019. Many films in the past decade have broken the glass ceiling as far as the objectification of women and the portrayal of their strength and agency are concerned, such as The Dirty Picture (2011), Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Padman (2018), a movie about menstrual hygiene. They became big hits and laid to rest the unfounded notion that a film would not work if a woman was the protagonist. Not only did most of these films have a strong female lead, they also dismantled stereotypes. They did not depict women as eye candies to gun-toting heroes, nor as sidekicks meekly simpering beside supermen trying to kick 35 goons in one go.
That is why Kabir Singh shocked me. It is a misogynistic film in which the protagonist is an abusive stalker, alcoholic and woman-baiter, who addresses his girlfriend as bandi. It undoes the giant leap that Indian cinema had taken with regards to women’s representation. The film is all the more surprising considering the #MeToo movement rose to prominence last year. The Indian film industry was also in the eye of the storm with allegations and counter-allegations of sexual harassment against cinema veterans.
So far as the submissiveness of the female lead in Kabir Singh is concerned, it is the same old story. In such movies, you have to rubbish one character to prop up the other. Even in Arjun Reddy (2017), the Telugu film which Kabir Singh is a remake of, there was an insignificant heroine who had nothing much to do.
I want to clarify that my opinions have nothing to do with my work at the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). These are my observations as an artiste and as somebody who has been part of the industry. As a professional who certifies cinema, I feel the issue is societal. The film proves that misogyny and patriarchy run deep in this country.
In a country where films are almost a religion, actors must assess what impact the roles they play will have on their fans.
We seem to have forgotten that in a country where cinema is almost a religion, many will emulate a big star despite him playing such a reprehensible character. When people look up to you and you portray a character who treats women terribly without problematising it, you are also implicated as an artiste. Considering the adulation actors receive from the masses, they need to assess what impact the roles they play will have on their fans.
While many have criticised the regressive tropes of Kabir Singh on social media, there have been comments in support as well. I find the justification that Shahid Kapoor’s character was created to ensure a good run at the box office ridiculous. Padman and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2018) were runaway hits and they brought social issues to the fore as well as discussed sanitation and menstruation, topics which rarely featured in Indian cinema earlier. They prove that films can be successful without relying on tired tropes.
There is another fear—once something becomes the flavour of the season in the industry, it spawns imitations. I don’t know how many more Arjun Reddys and Kabir Singhs we will be subjected to in the months to come. And how many producers are already dreaming about their ringing cash registers. I don’t know what can be done to stem this potential outpouring of regressive films.
The success of the film raises an important question: are films merely a reflection of our country and society? It harks back to that age-old debate—does art represent society or society imitate art?
(The author is a member of the CBFC. Views expressed are personal.)