Arjun Reddy, Kabir Singh and artisitic freedom

July 12, 2019 08:33 pm | Updated 08:33 pm IST

Three weeks into its release, the outcry about Kabir Singh , a film about an alcoholic, unhinged surgeon, shows no signs of abating. A section of viewers and almost all reviewers have pronounced a similar opinion: that the film is a disgraceful glorification of misogyny that takes Hindi cinema back by decades.

Balancing act

Is it? Amid the high indignation, there’s one factor that one ideally shouldn’t lose sight of: the artistic question of how a writer/director telling the story of a dark/flawed protagonist should treat his subject. Should he be ‘socially responsible’ and rein himself in or should he give full play to the despicability/imperfection of the character in order to stay true to his art? How should he tread the fine line between creativity and social accountability? (This is, of course, presuming that there’s a line to be trod at all, and the film is not intentionally pandering to base instincts with one eye on the box-office.)

As someone who’s written on the overt and covert misogyny in Bollywood films, I’m well aware of how pervasive the latter phenomenon is. However, I do believe that Kabir Singh —or more specifically Arjun Reddy , the Telugu original it’s remade from—is not entirely representative of this territory. Here’s why.

Beyond the obvious

Arjun Reddy first since it’s more nuanced than Kabir Singh despite the latter being almost a frame-by-frame copy. The film is no artsy endeavour like, say, AClockwork Orange exploring the dark depths of a brutal youngster’s mind; it’s a commercial film with mainstream elements and a contrived, status quoist end. However, it has a very interesting premise that’s encapsulated in the words of Arjun’s college dean: that a medico with anger management problems is like a murderer holding a surgical blade. In the film’s arc, Arjun, though he makes a mess of his personal life, disproves the dean’s words and remains an exemplary doctor—till the end where he’s unable to handle a case and loses his licence.

How did this narrative get relegated to secondary attention in the minds of detractors who perceived the film as a mere misogynistic caper? Probably because the ‘angry doctor’ track gets overshadowed by the ‘angry lover’ thanks to the film-maker’s choice of primarily pursuing the love story. However, even in the latter, though Arjun’s character is often problematic, he’s not, in my opinion, the incorrigibly sexist jerk he’s being made out to be.

Take the ‘rape at knifepoint’ sequence which is being much cited. It’s useful to remember that this takes place in Arjun’s post-breakup phase where he’s completely lost his moorings while trying to forget his girlfriend in a haze of drugs, alcohol and casual sex. The scene in question is a consensual hook-up which flounders when the girl’s fiancé suddenly rings the doorbell (in a scene that is meant to be comic by the way). And though a furious Arjun points a kitchen knife at her, he comes to his senses, is mildly ashamed (yes, do watch the scene carefully) and leaves. It’s kosher from the point of view of a sinking character, and it’s also pertinent to point out that at no stage do the other characters glorify his behaviour—if anything, they keep telling him how he’s fast becoming a scumbag.

Then there’s the proprietorial way in which Arjun stakes claim to Preeti, the junior medical student he falls in love with. That is unarguably outrageous (and the narrative is manipulated to make her ridiculously submissive). However, though Preeti’s blank face betrays neither resistance nor consent, it’s the latter that comes into play very quickly (the hint of a smile as she looks at the skeletal system diagram drawn by Arjun on her hand, the blanket she calls for when he audaciously plonks his head on her lap and falls asleep). It is she who slaps him first, and she who returns his bordering-on-lunatic love in every way. It might not be the most ideal relationship in terms of political correctness or gender equality or even common sense, but the point is one can’t dictate to a film-maker what his characters should be like as long as they are not actively dangerous to society.

Besides, there are other facets to Arjun’s character—he’s considerate with his patients, has a questioning mind and a commitment to his profession and those close to him. There’s a beautiful sequence of his grandmother’s funeral that brings out both his sensitivity and unconventionality; and a scene in court which brings out his principles. Then there are covert, join-the-dots explanations for his nature in flashback. To me, he came across as a flawed character, over-intense, over-entitled and with a rage problem but undeniably with redeeming qualities; not at all like the average misogynistic lout found in mainstream cinema.

Offensive tweaks

Kabir Singh, on the other hand, appears more insufferable and boorish thanks to a few inexplicable tweaks in the script. For instance, a scene where Arjun slams his friend’s prospective brother-in-law for objectifying air-hostesses finds no place in Kabir Singh; not only that, the friend’s sister is later, noxiously, offered in marriage to Kabir to ‘cure’ his vices. When Arjun moves Preeti out of her hostel, it’s to a rented bungalow he shares with his male and female friends; Kabir marches her off to the uncomfortable space of a boy’s hostel with men milling around. Kabir constantly hisses at Preeti to watch her dupatta and overdoes the “ meri bandi ” (my girl) bit; after an argument once, there’s a particularly offensive dialogue that goes, “ Kaun hai tu? Koi nahin. Campus mein tujhe koi nahin jaanta. Kabir Singh ki bandi hai, bas. ” Why the writer-director Sandeep Reddy Vanga chose to add these pointlessly distasteful elements is anyone’s guess.

The casting exacerbates the problem with Kabir Singh . The very essence of the protagonist’s nature is a burning intensity from where spring his faults (and his plus points); and Arjun Reddy ’s Devarakonda Vijay Sai, with his constantly-on-edge demeanour and fire-flashing eyes fits the bill perfectly. Shahid Kapoor, despite being a very fine actor, is inherently too mild to strike one as a uber-intense lover or a bully who’s feared by the entire college—and in the absence of this fervour, his anger comes across as arrogance and entitlement rather than an inner force driving him down the path of self-destruction. Still, I’d say there’s more to both Kabir and Arjun than people are willing to see.

Sociological reaction

The social media outrage against both characters comes from a template that’s outside the realm of art. Rattled by a character who, on the surface, is a throwback to the misogynistic lout hero of yore, some viewers (even those who haven’t seen the film and say they never will!) are upset about such a man cropping up in the age of #MeToo and the new woke Bollywood hero. I get the social concern—but to expect every fictional character to be bound by the chains of political correctness is not only unreasonable, it’s a crippling of creativity. As long as it doesn't deliberately glorify baseness, art must be allowed its greys.

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