India’s deeply influential Hindi films have always had a problem when it comes to depicting women, and a popular new film – that tells the story of toxic masculinity and normalises rape culture, misogyny and patriarchy – emphasises the seriousness of the problem and has aleady notched up 1.2 billion rupees in ticket sales since its release on June 21.
Kabir Singh, directed and written by Sandeep Reddy Vanga, is a remake of Arjun Reddy, a 2017 Telugu film also written and directed by Vanga. The protagonist, Dr. Kabir Singh, played by poplar Hindi film actor Shahid Kapoor is a surgeon who suffers from heartbreak. His girlfriend, Preeti Sikka played by actor Kiara Advani, is married off to someone else.
The toxicity and the normalizing of the rape culture starts early in the film. In one of the opening scenes, the leading male protagonist is portrayed in a consensual intimate moment with a woman. At some point she asks him to stop. Enraged he whips out a knife and asks her to undress.
In the real world, such an action would have amounted to anything between sexual harassment and intimidation to rape as Section 375 and 354B of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes assault or use of criminal force against a woman. However, similar cases have taken place in recent memory. The 2013 Mumbai gang rape, also known as the Shakti Mills gang rape, involved a 22-year-old photojournalist being gang-raped by five people, including a juvenile. The accused held a broken beer bottle against the woman’s head and threatened to kill her if she said anything. Similarly, in 2005, a fourth year medical student was raped at knife-point in the middle of the day on the terrace of a monument in New Delhi.
Such cases show a correlation between what is depicted on the screen and reality.
Itisha Nagar, assistant professor of psychology at Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi, studies gender and feminism. She said: ”Kabir Singh is not just showing a troubled person, it is glorifying toxic romantic relationships. It allows normalization of gender violence in intimate relationships, not just for women, but also men.”
Nagar added: “If we as a society are cheering for the male protagonist who forces a woman to undress at knifepoint, runs after the domestic help, or threatens to undress in front of a nurse just to irritate her, then we are cheering for a behavior that the law states is rape, assault and sexual harassment. I find it baffling. How hard is it to connect this celebration of toxic masculinity and glossing over the concept of abuse to stalking, harassment, physical, emotional and sexual abuse of women?”
But Vanga defends the two versions of his film saying that it does not promote or trivialize rape. He said: “There are films where the hero is holding a bazooka and killing men, will people start doing that now? The film is essentially entertainment and it is for people above 18 years.’’
The biggest criticism against the film is its successful attempt to normalize a ‘rape culture’. India has one of the worst track records on sexual violence against women as recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). According to the data, crimes against women rose 83% between 2007 and 2016, where there were four cases of rape every hour. In 2015, as many as 34,651 cases of rape were registered. The number increased to 38,947 in 2016.
In 2018, a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. Despite this, when a film which show a man being idolized for toxic behavior after assaulting women, it has a negative impact on the society and tends to normalize such crimes.
Vidushi Dhawan, a senior research associate on gender issues, said that the film also displays an utter disregard for women. In the movie, the male protagonist walks into the female lead’s classroom and declares her as his ‘property’. He also kisses Sikka on the cheek without consent, making her visibly uncomfortable.”This is the kind of male toxic behavior that is appealing to the masses thronging cinema halls as they cheer and hail Singh’s character as a romantic hero. As a feminist this infuriates me,” she said.
Vanga responded: “Kabir (Singh) was naive in his approach towards Preeti. I don’t think his character would write a love letter for the girl. He is so exuberant in his expressions that he would announce it to the world, like he did by asking other boys to stay away from her.”
The female lead is also shown to have no authority or control over her life, both at home and with her boyfriend. She has to marry her father’s choice and does things dictated by the male protagonist.
Sucharita Tyagi of Film Companion, a website for movie reviews, was trolled and faced a backlash from men on social media for criticizing Kabir Singh. Speaking to Asia Times she said: “There is no harm is showing a flawed and a self-destructive character but the problem arises when you glorify such an abusive relationship as an ideal one and romanticize mental and physical abuse.’’
Critics have called out the male protagonist’s behavior as misogynistic and sexist. He mansplains the female lead about her medical degree, chooses her friends and roommate for her and dictates she spends time with him on the pretext of teaching. Mansplaining means the practice of a man explaining something to a woman in a way that shows he thinks he knows and understands more than she does. Later, the couple gets physically abusive during the course of the film.
There are sufficient reports and studies that show stalking-related crimes against women, where women have been harassed or killed for rejecting a man’s affections. While some have called the film a “romantic-saga”, many others have criticized it for mainstreaming and glorifying male toxic behavior.
”Movies don’t exist in a vacuum, they are a part of the culture. It is art which goes a long way in shaping culture, that reaches across people and has a huge impact, as currently seen at the box office,” said Tyagi.
While Vanga talks of Kabir Singh as a core story about a person with a broken heart and no control over his anger, some scenes glorify the male lead’s overly aggressive and obsessive behavior. Film critic Tanul Thakur calls it the cinematic equivalent of a man with a ‘golden heart’, stretching the argument of “boys will be boys” to its most terrifying conclusion.