OPINION | The Real Question About Kabir Singh aka Arjun Reddy That No One is Asking
The major criticism of the movie Kabir Singh revolves around the issues of abuse, power, gender and justice.
Shahid Kapoor in a still from Kabir Singh
Disclaimer: Neither am I a film critic, nor have I watched Kabir Singh. I have watched Arjun Reddy multiple times and have keenly followed the reviews and reactions to Kabir Singh.
Couple of years ago, while travelling to Hyderabad on work, I saw that the city's bus stops where plastered with posters of Arjun Reddy. Considering that it has been ages since I even watched a Telugu movie, I surfed the internet to figure out who or what was Arjun Reddy. Most news articles were on the controversy surrounding the movie even before it was released.
Months later, I saw the movie on Amazon Prime from the comfort of my home. And it was impactful. It also made me think and question certain aspects of the movie, but Vijay Deverakonda’s presence and performance left a lasting impression. I also felt that the film was a brave endeavour in Telugu cinema. I forgot about the movie, and impressed with Deverakonda's performance, went on to watch his other movies.
Fast forward to now. With the release of Kabir Singh, I had a renewed interest in the movie, just to see how the same story is received by a different audience. Not all stories that are remade in Bollywood from the South do well. Not too keen to watch the Hindi version, I decided to pay attention just to the reviews. And after watching the reviews, discussion and drama on YouTube, (thanks to their recommendation engine), here is what I feel.
The major criticism of the movie Kabir Singh revolves around the issues of abuse, power, gender and justice. And I would like to analyse each of these aspects from the point of view of the movie, as though we lived in the universe of the film (Arjun Reddy or Kabir Singh or any other remakes that might come in the future).
“How could he slap her?” asks the critic.
“If you don't have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don't see anything there,” says the director.
Facts from the narrative: He slaps her, she also slaps him.
Was it abuse? Yes.
Is it the same as what we usually think of when we say 'domestic violence'? No.
This is a form of domestic violence or intimate partner violence, where arguments escalate to one slapping the other. It is slightly different from scenarios where one partner controls the other and causes substantial harm to the other. It is situational couple violence.
That being said, I do wish the director had researched this kind of relationship dynamic with a help of a mental health professional, and not termed it as a defining feature of “Love”.
And to the critics, if you think it is problematic that Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh slaps her, why is not an issue when she slaps him? Here the abuse, if defined purely by the act of slapping, works both ways. The added dimension of his seeming control over her, makes us not pay attention to her slapping him.
Situational couple violence is still problematic, and definitely not something that needs to be endorsed. And am sure there are many qualified people out there who can explain it better.
Power and ownership:
He claims that the girl is his, by announcing it to the entire college. He kisses her without asking her permission. He steers her life by making decisions for her – telling her where to sit in class, who to be friends with etc. He takes it upon himself to seek revenge, when she is molested during Holi.
Again, all these scenes have been discussed/questioned/criticised over and over again in various reviews.
I would look at all these instances in its totality rather than analyse one by one. All these remind me vaguely of the idea of love and relationship that existed prominently in cinema and in real life about a decade or two ago.
Considering, parts of this story are inspired by the director’s real life, I would assume the story dates back a decade at least. It was normal then for a guy to chase or pursue a girl in a manner that is not acceptable today. Most families were structured around a dominant male figure, similar to the Preeti’s father (they still are). And most movies from a decade back will show such love stories. It is only in the social awakening of the recent years, that such constructs are being questioned.
I think one of the errors by the director was probably to set the movie in the present time (there is one scene where I remember Arjun Reddy referring to the year 2017). Had the director set it in 1990s or 2000, he would have gotten away with some of the scenes, because critics would agree that 10 years back things were different.
We have already discussed the issue of abuse (slapping), being equally used by both Kabir/Arjun and Preeti.
There have been criticism about the very nature of the girl Preeti, who lacks a voice.
It is a story of people with flaws, where the hero and heroine are imperfect. We all know Arjun/Kabir’s flaws. Preeti on the other hand, is raised in a conservative family with different set of rules and restrictions.
She has a controlling father, and it looks like she was not raised to be independent. It is not an unfamiliar personality type. We all have known such girls who come from very conservative family background in our lives, and as they are slowly exposed to the outside world, they find a voice. As a character, she seemed consistent.
Are they both the ideal male and female leads? No. But, we have already established that we are looking at flawed characters.
Does the director say all women are like Preeti? No. There is Kabir/Arjun’s grandmother, who is shown as a strong, powerful and wise woman. There is a movie star, a girl, who initiates the relationship with Kabir/Arjun by asking one of her bodyguards to get his number.
While I would root for movies that show strong female leads, I can’t be biased against a movie just because the female lead doesn’t fit into that framework.
The Idea of Justice:
Critics objected to the end of the movie, where Kabir/Arjun gets the girl and his baby – and suffers no consequence for his actions. There is also a large consensus on the fact that the movie ‘glorified his flaws’.
He does suffer some consequences, like losing his license to practice medicine, his girlfriend leaving him (even if it was only for a few months), his anger management issues and his battle with alcohol and drugs.
While we are getting technical about the various aspects of abuse, consent etc; it is essential to mention in the same vein that alcoholism or any form of addiction (drugs) is a disorder. So is issues with anger management. If one were to get prejudiced and say that alcoholism and anger are character flaws and not diseases that need empathy, support and help – they are wrong in this context at least.
Do movie narratives need to stick to the idea of justice? I believe yes. It is necessary for movie makers and story tellers to distinguish right and wrong, fair and unfair – while constructing the bigger picture of the narrative, not on a scene by scene basis.
But, was justice served here? Did Kabir/Arjun suffer enough? That remains debatable based on your perspective. The director thinks he suffered enough, while most critics don’t.
The question to be asked here is, if this character will reform assuming the movie goes forward? Will he relapse and ruin Preeti and her child’s life? Or will he seek help (considering he is a doctor) and manage his anger and addiction issues better? I don’t know.
But, does he deserve a chance to live a normal life? Yes. Everyone does.
The real question that needs to be asked, but is not being asked.
Why did this movie do so well in both the languages? This is one question that nobody knows the answer to.
We can all sit and make theories about the movie appealing to the audiences for various reasons – positive and negative.
Positive reasons like the music, cast, aesthetics, marketing/promotions etc; will be cited by supporters of the film. While drugs, sex, abuse, violence, regression will be mentioned by those who don’t like the film. All these reasons remain mere speculation without proper research.
Instead of targeting the director and the movie, it might be beneficial to talk to the audience and understand why it appealed to the majority, and was hated by many. Such an approach is more likely to give better answers and be more productive.
The critics may turn out to be right, proving that the audience collectively don’t share the values of the critics, and that the movie does have negative effects on the viewer. In which case, we need to reconsider how every movie will be made in the future.
Or the critics may be wrong, and the audience might have enjoyed the movie for its merits, and the flaws of the hero has very little influential effect on them.
It is even more likely that the real outcome is a certain mix of the above two scenarios. And the fact remains that Sandeep Reddy Vanga has created a narrative that can't be ignored.
(A ‘happy’ homemaker, the author’s priorities are her six years old daughter, two puppies and her husband — in that order. In free time she reflects on her life by writing. Views expressed in the article are personal.)
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