Director: Sandeep Reddy Vanga
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Kiara Advani, Suresh Oberoi, Arjan Bajwa, Adil Hussain
Two specific scenes in the Shahid Kapoor starrer Kabir Singh come to my mind when I think of a key trait that shapes Kabir, the angry young man of 2019. In the first half – let’s call it scene A – the hero, in a mad dash to get some booty, turns up at a young woman’s house to romp it up. She is thrilled too, except, she changes her mind at the last minute when her fiancé turns up at the door, asking Kabir to leave. Our protagonist, angered, shoves a knife in her face asking her to undress and make good her word. No, I am not making any of this up.
In the other scene in the second half (let’s call this scene B), Kabir and a popular Bollywood actress (played by Nikita Dutta), snuggled in the latter’s car in the middle of nowhere, seem to be assessing each other’s breaths before making a carnal move. Guarded by a reluctant, mildly disgusted driver standing a little distance away from the car, the two, in hurriedly stripped-down states, ready themselves to get it on – when a soft “I love you Kabir” jerks our hero back into reality. In a split second, all plans of sexual gratification are flung out the window, as he walks away, leaving a shocked, heartbroken, half-undressed woman calling out his name, pleading with him to come back.
Kabir doesn’t. He hates the mere mention of love.
And perhaps, the woman’s exercise of her agency in matters of sex and relationships.
The trajectory from scene A to B is clearly steeped in copious amounts of expensive and dirt-cheap alcohol, drugs, cussing, irrational aggression, familial abandonment, social humiliation, public ridicule and condemnation, and more – never grazing the one characteristic in the hero that ought to have been addressed, one that could have redeemed the character to a great extent: Kabir’s sense of entitlement and a stubborn will to play by the rules. His rules only.
The pattern is prevalent from start to finish. In fact, it is no more apparent than in a showdown with the dean of the college (Adil Hussain) over his violent, uncontrolled behaviour on the football field resulting in a well-deserved suspension. Kabir, quick as lightning, respectfully retorts, reducing the dean to a mere employee “who was just doing his duty” while asserting himself as one of the torchbearers of the university and its pride by virtue of his position as a student par excellence, on and off the field. There are numerous other instances where we get to witness that flash of privilege in Kabir’s demeanour – the very first time he locks eyes with the docile, demure Preeti (Kiara Advani) and walks into a classroom to “inform” the juniors of his newfound interest so as to “mark his territory” via the announcement “Woh meri bandi hai”, or the way he kisses Preeti on the cheek – without her consent, no less – in full public view- cementing his mark – both are testimony to a full-scale manifestation of toxic masculinity. Backed by raucous laughter and soft chuckling on this side of the silver screen, of course.
If that is not enough to establish our lead’s bravado, then please note: Kabir is also the super brain, multitasking orthopaedic surgeon who holds a record of operating hundreds of patients (more than his fair share) – without causing a single life to pop out – all while being stoned drunk. Thankfully, this one flaw in his character is not celebrated despite the subtle and overt eulogies tendered to his other traits.
As flawed and precarious the character arc is, we are not quite sure what makes Kabir Singh the raging, vicious wayward man he is. But we understand, that having wealthy influential parents, a doting brother (Arjan Bajwa) who ought to have slapped him at least 20 scenes earlier, multiple academic and professional badges of honour caking his persona, and a gang of friends who enable his crass, abusive behaviour by either cheering him on or laughing it off – is far too much temptation to will away. In these given circumstances as well as the heightened context lent to the character by placing him in Delhi (the land of false machismo and regressive gender attitudes), what is a man to do but turn outward and unleash his most destructive states on his immediate environment?
Kabir Singh is what most men dream to be – the holder of an “impeccable academic record”, topper of the board and the university, “one of the best ever” – and the wearer of jaw-dropping sexiness in that I-don’t-need-to-try-hard-to-get-chicks style is the allure that men and women secretly wish to possess. Albeit, in different capacities. Raw maleness dripping in every frame, the hero’s near-obsessive attempts at securing the woman’s affections, intense combats with opponents/anti-heroes and a subtle theme of ‘love conquers all’ has long been a staple of Hindi movies. While on one hand it reaffirms the social standing for the men, it projects to the women the kind of guy they must aspire to because, well, that is the stuff Mills & Boon is made of.
Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh, however, cuts out the rigmarole of delving into the female lead’s internal conflict and her thoughts about the potential lover in question. There is no internal dialogue, no conversation shared with friends as regards the suitability of the suitor and no objection raised to Kabir’s manhandling of Preeti as he walks into her classroom, asks her about the topic of the day and leads her out saying he would tutor her on the same. Heads bow down collectively, justifiably prying eyes turn away from the couple as Kabir takes Preeti around the college, out riding his bike, even as he packs her bags and gets her to live with him in the boys’ hostel.
To say it was mildly disturbing yet funny (primarily for the director’s witty portrayal of the lead pair’s dynamics) would be an understatement. If Kabir, on his part, is supremely confident that his affections and searing interest are being reciprocated, never mind the domination, Preeti, on her part, is equally compliant in the way the relationship begins, progresses, even till the point it breaks off – by following her lover’s lead, content in playing by his rules. In 2019, when feminism and sexuality are a hot topic, the portrayal of a romantic relationship with such skewed power dynamics and the concept of “ownership” is bound to raise eyebrows. And yet, before we castigate the makers of Kabir Singh for being primitive, sadistic and setting a dangerous example for the youth of the nation – it cannot be denied that they are clearly playing to the gallery. The fact that the director Vanga’s original Telugu movie Arjun Reddy (2017) was touted as a commercial and critical box office hit, thus, paving the way for a Hindi remake of the same, is evidence enough of which side of the moral high ground the average viewer occupies.
Shahid Kapoor as Kabir is phenomenal – from the word go. Whether he is ruthlessly smashing opponents on the football field, declaring to the dean that he has “no regrets about who he is”, fighting for the love of his life but also expressing in a moment of weakness his vulnerability or demanding his lover to stand up to her father with the kind of intensity she otherwise expresses when she is with him, like she “owns him” – Kapoor as Kabir hits high octane notes on almost all fronts. It would be safe to say that he manages to render a certain charm – and humaneness- to this gravely unlikable character, so much so that at one point you find yourself rooting for him, despite knowing fully well he has been digging himself trenches for far too long and must, one day or the other, pay the price for it. The sight and sound of a bottle popping up every now and then gets repetitive, however, Kapoor nails it with the nuance of a polished actor. Ultimately, even though he shocks you with his unconventional, insolent attitude, you care for him and want the self-inflicted torture to end.
Kiara Advani, on the other hand, massively underplays Preeti. If you can come to terms with the fact that she does not speak one whole sentence in the first 45 minutes (barring saying her name out loud twice), then there is much to be surprised by how the character transforms as the minutes go by (provided you have not watched the original).
The climax, in particular, pays tribute to her passable evolution over the course of the film – startling both the audience and, for a moment, Kabir himself. Her scenes with Kabir during their time in the college are refreshing, passionate and filled with the sweet angst most teenagers and young adults in love would find relatable. Special mention to Royal Enfield for heightening the pair’s romance on the roads, as well as later redefining Kabir’s relationship with his true self. The frills aside, the infantilization of the leading lady and her largely wallflower-like characterization is bound to rub many viewers the wrong way.
Adil Hussain is commanding, despite a brief appearance. Suresh Oberoi as Kabir’s father packs a punch as the authoritarian rich dad who refuses to take his son’s frequent brushes with authority (both in and outside the college) as well as the boy’s rebellious, angry ways lightly. Kamini Kaushal as Kabir’s grandmother is effective, despite a brief role. Her understanding of her grandson’s defiant and provocative ways, as well as her reluctance to intervene in his processing of his personal grief is subtly philosophical, never treading the preachy route.
In the medley of performances and a bevy of characters thrown in, Shiva (Soham Majumdar), playing Kabir’s best friend, sidekick, and even on occasions his man Friday, puts up a stellar performance. Loyal, trustworthy, patient and miraculously accepting of his bestie’s constant emasculation of his less-than-macho ways and lack of confidence (or should I say an absence of sho-sha of masculinity), he is the kind of friend you want to have by your side when you’re plodding through hellfire. Or well, just to experience life in its sweetest, most sparkling glory. It is a pity Shiva’s constant pleas – asking Kabir to move the fuck on and do something concrete with his life – are met with ignorance and a few more bottles of alcohol.
Despite holding divided opinions on the content of the movie, people are quite in agreement when it comes to the music of Kabir Singh. The timeless ‘Bekhayali’ can compel you to dig up every past pain you may have buried in your chest and cry unshed tears. Yes, even the ones in currently happy relationships. ‘Kaise Hua’, my second favorite from the album, is sweetly melancholic and draws you in as you try to make sense of this odd couple falling in a deep, mad love. ‘Tujhe Kitna Chahne Lage Hum’ haunts you long after you listen to it, spelling the pain and anguish of broken love no song in recent times has succeeded in. The other tracks – ‘Yeh Aaina’ and ‘Pehla Pyaar’ are hummable too.
As for the cinematography, cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran’s captures of camera angles are crisp, taut and soft enough to bring out the different shades of the story. The sequences with Kabir riding the bike (alone as well as with Preeti), a stray scene where the old, dusty bike is getting ‘cleansed’ (quite literally) are impressive. These little details bring out a touch more magic than is indicated by the actual storyline of the movie.
As mentioned earlier, it may have been a more solid redemption had Kabir moved away from “Woh meri bandi hai” (she is my girl) to “pehle usse toh pooch lun” (I should maybe ask her once). Having said that, his character, however blemished, is fierce, fearless, and does not mind taking risks…it is adrenaline-pumping watching a human walk single-mindedly towards the object of his desire. However vehemently the audience may protest such mania.
Kabir Singh is controversy designed as a rollicking good tale, turning love stories on their head, and unabashedly telling you – that not all love is equal, but maybe, not all love needs to be so long as concerned parties come away feeling loved. To summarize it – if the world can go gaga over Fifty Shades of Grey, Kabir Singh would likely seem enjoyable, albeit, a mere warm-up for people intending to explore the darker side of love.
Rating: Purely, in terms of entertainment value and the fact that I have good sense to divorce cinema from its inherent social impact, I’m going with 4/5.