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Gender roles and the depiction of violence
Cheers for the bully

Kabir Singh is doing well in single screens as well as multiplexes.
Kabir Singh is doing well in single screens as well as multiplexes. | © The Economic Times

A young doctor and his excesses thrill India’s cinemagoers. The Bollywood drama, Kabir Singh, is the most successful film of the year so far. Yet many critics are appalled.

By Martin Jahrfeld

Kabir Singh is not a man you would want to mess with. With his constant outbursts of violence and an exaggerated sense of self-importance the behaviour of the young doctor and his environment repeatedly borders on the unacceptable. In a football match, he thrashes an opponent virtually to death; an alleged rival who comes too close to his beloved girlfriend has his face punched bloody. Even his maid who has broken a glass has to flee his fists. No doubt about it: the man has serious anger management issues. In real life, one would advise him to go to a therapist and seek urgent help.

The most successful Bollywood melodrama at the moment, about Kabir Singh, a surgeon who slides into self-destructive behaviour and drug abuse after an unhappy love affair, but is reunited with his girlfriend at the end and matures into a responsible family father, has triggered a bitter debate in India about gender roles and the depiction of violence. With a focus on the aggressive but charismatic protagonist, the film has been praised in some reviews as a refreshing contrast to traditional romantic dramas. According to these reviews, an unconventional, fast-paced plot and a stirring performance by the main actor, Shahid Kapoor, keeps the audience spellbound for almost three hours. But the film has set alarm bells ringing among most critics who believe that the production, directed by Sandeep Vanga, trivialises violence and glorifies male dominance. They claim that the relationship between Kabir, an egomaniac, and Priti (Kiara Advani), the gentle medical student who passively succumbs to her admirer, is an expression of a traditional relationship based on violence and subjugation. Some of the women who watched the film spoke of their discomfiture afterwards because of the manner in which the violence on screen was being cheered and applauded by the men in the hall.

Given that women still experience violence in all its forms in everyday life in India, their fear is not unfounded. That women can rarely feel safe in public and are required to adapt in various ways in front of husbands, parents and parents-in-law is a reflection of a patriarchal culture that even several Bollywood films had started to question a long time ago. Against this backdrop, Kabir Singh seems to slide back into a repressive tradition that not only India’s feminists but also sections of the younger generation would like to see behind them sooner rather than later. The film’s success at the box office has been discouraging for those who work on gender equality and newly defined gender roles at many different levels.

Identifying with assertive and ruthless male characters and with images of passive and submissive women is apparently still widespread among the country’s moviegoers. ‘The most misogynistic Indian film in a long time. An obnoxious celebration of toxic masculinity,’ was the subdued view in the Hindustan Times.

Sandeep Vanga, the director of Kabir Singh, which is a remake, cannot understand the controversy surrounding the film. His protagonist’s excessively violent behaviour and his intermittent addiction to alcohol and drug are no glorification but personality traits, was his response to his critics. Violent outbursts and drug abuse, according to the filmmaker, are much more a reflection of a complex character who is consumed by a passionate longing for the woman he loves. The director obviously does not see a political or psychological dimension to male violence, which he considers to be a universal human trait that could – as he admitted in an interview – also mean that both partners in a relationship have the liberty to slap each other.

With such a simplistic understanding of violence, one should not expect a particularly in-depth study of the subject on the screen. Throughout the plot, the protagonist’s repeated outbursts of violence are unmotivated and have no social consequences. Why the popular, good-looking and successful doctor carries so much anger in him seems just as puzzling as the question as to why nobody tries to control his egomaniacal desires. His affluent and good-natured parents remain on his side as do his devoted friends who do try to restrain him but never turn their back on him. In real life, such unearned devotion is experienced at most by dictators.

And so, after 180 fast-paced minutes, Kabir Singh portrays an image of an Indian upper class where disregard and egotism are everything while compassion and compromise mean practically nothing: winner takes all.  For all those who would like a different India, there is still much work to be done.