What we watch says a lot about what we think and who we are. Three years after its release, Kabir Singh and its celebrated reception by audiences still strikes a chord of dread
By Muskaan Chaudhary
RECENTLY, a video of a young man hitting and abusing a school-going girl went viral on Kashmir’s social media. The incident took place at KP road, Anantnag and soon after the boy was arrested by the police.
The incident was alarming in itself, yet, what was more jarring was the reactions it had invited. Surprisingly, some people assumed the duo to be romantically involved. There was no evidence of this from the video. Infact, the video was filled with violence with no semblance of sanity. However unsubstantiated or groundless such an assumption, it did expose a perception of man-woman relationships in our society which is predicated on normalised violence.
The power dynamics, performance and perception in conjugal or even non-conjugal romantic relationships is framed in a way that it not only allows violence but also normalises it. What has sanctioned these lopsided dynamics and who glorifies these? Perhaps the answer starts with patriarchy and the agents which legitimise it.
Popular culture is a site of this liaison. Movies, especially from Hindi Cinema, have been notorious in being complicit with the systems that promote social evils. Whether it is the famous Kuch Kuch Hota hai which glorifies a mainstream understanding of femininity or Padmavat which legitimises sati — we’ve all been fed with unethical, exclusionary and uncritical ideas.
This process of indoctrination is not explicit and is almost always clever. However, as a woman, it has become very easy to identify narratives that seek to harm me. This realisation is quite unsettling and presents itself in situations that were otherwise meant to be recreational.
After I first saw Kabir Singh (2019), Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani’s apparently epic ‘love’ story that had audiences in an awed grip and social media in a frenzy. I remember being unable to put into words what exactly about the film that made me uncomfortable to the point of wanting to leave the theatre. After recently coming across the video in which a young man is being violent and abusive towards a girl in Anantnag, the same feeling came rushing back with force. The stance of the man looming over the girl as she stands quietly was so jarring yet so similar. I had seen it before, countless times on countless different screens. But the recall to Kabir Singh, perhaps courtesy of it being the most recent in a lineup of male chauvinist centric Bollywood films, was the strongest. Was it the gross portrayal of abuse and its consequences that gave rise to this feeling of frustration and discomfort? Yes, of course. However, more than that, it was the horrific realisation that this ridiculous amalgamation of the languages of domestic violence, substance abuse, and ‘romance’ is nothing new – neither in Bollywood or the communities that consume and celebrate its content. From the motif of the hero grabbing the heroine’s wrist, bangles breaking from the force of it to the narrative of the hero falling into frenzied love with the heroine at first sight and chasing after her despite constant rejections, stalking and harassment litters the landscape of Bollywood’s romance flicks. Time after time, what are clearly acts of violence against women on screen are repackaged as declarations of passionate love without giving thought to the social ramifications of such a twisted reading of romance and desire.
The most widespread form of violence against women across the world is intimate partner violence perpetrated by either the husband or a male partner. According to statistics presented by UN Women for Asia and the Pacific, ‘33 per cent of partnered women aged 15-49 will experience physical and/or sexual violence from a current or former husband or male partner at least once in their lifetime’. The number of reports filed by women experiencing domestic abuse is already higher than the global average of 27% in countries across Asia, with India at 35%, without taking into account the fact that a large chunk of women do not report in fear of retaliation from the perpetrator, rejection by family and community, and victim blaming by society. Many excuse the violence as a consequence of drug and alcohol addiction, falling into the trap of believing that it is the substances that are corrupting an ‘innocent’ man. Others are shamed into hiding the abuse and many more are trapped due to economic factors, especially those with young children to support. The consequences of this can be deadly, with deaths of women at the hands of male partners numbering in tens of thousands across Asia every year.
Keeping the aforementioned context in mind, Bollywood’s association of violence with passion and love becomes even more heinous. What makes Kabir Singh and its success especially offensive is the timing of its release. With an emerging group of creators embracing the ‘concept’ of activism, making films on all sorts of issues such as destigmatising menstrual health (Padman, 2018) and consent (Pink, 2016), the arrival of Kabir Singh is less of a step back than it is a reinforcing of the Bollywood status quo. The ultimate macho genius hero, who performs surgeries drunk and coked out, is the favourite of one and all, and has all his violent and abusive behaviour excused as courtesy of being a man. The pretty and subdued heroine who despairs but ultimately stands by the ‘hero’, follows him everywhere and is willingly marked as his property. At one point, the hero enters the heroine’s classroom and stakes his claim on her. At another point, he slaps her and tells her that her identity is limited to being his woman. The most reaction this heroine is allowed to give to this is to blush with down cast eyes or cry to herself quietly.
While Shahid Kapoor’s Kabir rages and shouts and expresses himself in all the ways one shouldn’t, Kiara Advani’s Preeti is deprived of even a single dialogue or action that is in service of her character and not the man’s. Towards the end of this nearly three hours long drag of a film, I wondered what kind of a society can unironically hail this vile celebration of male entitlement as a great romance. The answer is as simple as it is hair raising – the kind that hates its women.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
The author can be reached at [email protected]
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