- Dinkar Sharma
- 03 September 2019
Misogynistic or Magnificent?
Script Analysis of Hindi film Kabir Singh (2019)
Directed by: Sandeep Reddy Vanga | Writers: Sandeep Reddy Vanga, Siddhartha Singh (Dialogue), Garima Wahal (Dialogue)
Kabir Singh is the remake of 2017 Telugu hit Arjun Reddy. The writer-director of the original Sandeep Reddy Vanga (with additional dialogue by Mandela Pedaswamy) also directed the Hindi version (dialogue by Siddhartha Singh, Garima Wahal).
It earned a worldwide gross collection of more than INR 370 Crores making it the highest grossing Hindi film of 2019 (till date). Overall, the reviews were mixed. Half of the critics said positive things like ‘a welcome change from stereotypical love stories’. However, the movie also generated a lot of strong reactions from a section of critics and audience who felt that it glorified violence against women. They claimed that its storyline encourages male chauvinism and goes against the idea of social and moral equality for men and women. A good number of social media users sided with the opinion that Kabir Singh is “a misogynistic film about a bully, an abuser of women, an alcoholic surgeon, and a foulmouthed hothead” and that it was “no film for woman”. A few journalists questioned the lead actor Shahid Kapoor for even choosing to do a film that actually went on to become his biggest solo hit.
The above is exactly what makes Kabir Singh an interesting case study. How come a film, with a runtime of 172 minutes, could be so morally regressive and yet accepted wholeheartedly by the audience? It can’t be practically assumed that the audience is divided as men and women, and while men flocked the theatres to watch Kabir Singh, women boycotted it. Such box office figures can only indicate that men and women both enjoyed the movie. The same also finds endorsement in the fact that many female social media users posted that they did not find anything offensive in the film.
Even if we were to assume, hypothetically, that only men watched the film, are we then to say that there couldn’t have been any other reasons for the film’s success other than a blanket conclusion that all Indian men are misogynists? People can certainly hold such an opinion but if one seeks to understand the art and craft of screenwriting, one can delve deeper to understand why Kabir Singh might have struck the right chord. In fact, as I tried to analyze the script of the movie for myself, I could sense that there are a few lessons for a screenwriter in this somewhat unusual yet pretty mainstream film.
Here’s what I observed –
1. All reactions are good reactions
The worst kind of reaction to a film is an absence of a reaction. A powerful film will either cheer you up or discomfort you to an extent that you can’t let it pass, but need to talk about it. Therefore, even the criticism must be accepted and welcomed. In case of Kabir Singh, people felt affected. They couldn’t ignore it. Eventually, even the negative reactions created a good hype and those who had not watched it, had to watch it themselves to figure out what the fuss was about.
2. Audience is, mostly, apolitical
I feel, and this is open to debate, that audience, at large, does not react to a film as per their political leanings. They do not wish to morally dictate what a film must be. Of course, I’m not talking about vested interest groups who frequently raise objections against movies. The general audience accepts the anti-hero. They care for the smuggler who was once a slum-dweller and root for the serial killer who commits murders to avenge a personal tragedy. They even cheer for the villain with a sad backstory. They would not pay to watch a poorly made propaganda film even if it has agreeable political ideas.
This is because the audience, always, reacts emotionally and instinctively to a film. If the characters and its story can sway them off for a couple of hours then, in that moment, they would not mind any problematic aspects that they otherwise might not subscribe to in real life. This is not saying that Kabir Singh has a problematic sense of morality, as claimed. It is merely an acceptance that no member of the audience is analyzing a film from political and intellectual point of views, while watching it. They’re just going with the flow of the screenplay. Of course, there are socially and politically aware artistes, activists and critics who would certainly weigh a film for its politics, but not the masses.
On a lighter note, it’s probably true that the audience knows how to leave their brains at home, and only bring their hearts to theaters.
3. Kabir Singh ticks because of Unique Characters
The thing that makes up for the biggest lesson in screenwriting is that Kabir Singh probably has more interesting characters than a mind-blowing plot. The audience relates to its strong, determined and flawed characters – not just the protagonist Kabir Singh but also his love interest Preeti and the friend Shiva.
First, let us talk about Kabir Singh (played by Shahid Kapoor). The Alpha Male protagonist with a fragile ego and anger issues should be a screenwriter’s delight! Only the uninitiated will dismiss him as a misogynistic creep. He is an impulsive character possessing one of the biggest strengths from the point of view of screenwriting: Proactiveness. He is not only determined about what he wants but also acts upon his urges without any qualms. This mental make-up, in addition to his genius as a doctor, gives him explosive dramatic potential. You wish to see what happens to this guy. Whether he gets what he wants or fails. Even though you see him making mistakes, crossing a few boundaries here and there and being pre-occupied with his own self – you sympathize with him because at the end of the day he’s a fighter.
This is how the character is established. Even if he’s devoid of hero-like qualities, he surely has human-like transparency. He only becomes edgier and more violent, as the story progresses. After his break-up, he goes on a death-like journey consuming alcohol and drugs, which is not too different from how one of the most popular characters in Indian cinema Devdas went about it. In real life Kabir and Devdas would be drunkards and social outcasts for failing to handle the key relationships in their lives. But on screen, or in a story, they have dramatic inner struggles. They make men wallow in self-pity and many women, dare I say, even fantasize to be loved by someone in such a self-destructive way. Throughout the middle-part of the film, Kabir Singh brings alive the pain of separation with the beloved (we’ll talk about the end, in a bit).
The girl Preeti Sikka (played by Kiara Advani) has not been given equal prominence in the screenplay but it’s beyond doubt that she turns out to be a match to the self-willed college-boy Kabir. Coming from a protective patriarchal household, she at first remains a spectator to Kabir’s ostentatious display of affection. “Yeh meri bandi hai!” Kabir proclaims openly, about her, which indeed sounds problematic. She takes offence to begin with and calls her father to college. But neither does that put Kabir off, nor it makes him angry with her. In fact, he mixes up his dominance with a gentle display of care and waits for her to warm towards him. Gradually, and very interestingly we see that Preeti starts to like the authoritativeness! She likes being ‘the one’! And she completely falls for him after the Holi sequence, when she sees that Kabir is not a random loudmouth but someone who can stand up for her in a situation of crises. She feels protected and loved.
Of course, any other girl might have reacted in a different way to the ‘special attention’ that Kabir gives to Preeti. Theoretically, and as per many feminists, one should rather report him to police. But life doesn’t follow such moralities and people not always make the most informed decisions. All such supposedly wrong but interesting choices make up for good drama. One can also imagine the role of Preeti’s upbringing in a strict family in making her this unique character who falls for the guy who promises her own space and freedom in return for unconditional affection. She discovers her own impulsive and ‘mad-lover’ side, with Kabir, as witnessed in the scene in which she visits him at his new college in Mussoorie and asks him to kiss her, when he is reluctant, on the campus. This character clearly chose to reciprocate positively to Kabir. It’s wrong to say that she had ‘no choice’ because she had the choice to remain inert or withdraw/flee (from the college), resist/protest or even swear to teach Kabir a lesson. But she’s too young, has just entered college and ends up choosing to be with this crazy lover-boy. This is akin to the fact that many women, and even men, who’re victims of abusive relationships, are often said to be consciously or un-consciously, and for multiple reasons, making the choice to continue with the suffering. Here, Kabir is not abusive towards Preeti and never causes her physical harm (until later when he slaps her). Initially, it’s a downpour of affection she never asked for from this guy she has just met and whom she soon develops a liking for.
The sidekick character Shiva (Soham Majumdar) is loved by the audience for being a gem-of-a-friend. This character brings relief and adds an objective point of view to the story. He mouths what the viewers must have felt like telling Kabir, enhancing the overall relatability of the scenes.
4. Average Plot
Kabir and Preeti are both interesting characters, strong enough to carry the film home. Once you’re hooked into them, the plot becomes secondary. In fact, the film lacks a really superb plotline. What it has instead is an ensemble of repetitive, but relatable, moments one after the other. After a point, you wish for the story to surprise you but still bear with the monotony because you’re invested in the characters. This is similar to what happens in television series, especially daily soaps. The viewers are so hooked to the characters that they do not mind dragging storylines and unnatural twists and turns.
In Kabir Singh, a few key twist and turns seem forced, especially the interval point. Here, Kabir chooses to abuse heavy drugs and passes out while Preeti decides to marry someone else, because Kabir didn’t show up. It felt too convenient, but still did not throw us off, like the climax (I will come to it). We accepted it as the entry of necessary conflict to take the story forward, just like we didn’t mind other stock characters with no great sub-plots. Bottom line – We just want to see what happens to this guy and just can’t have enough of him. This is a great lesson in screenwriting – Strong characters can pull of a weak plot, or even an absence of it.
5. Masterpiece or misogynistic?
I do not think that the film is misogynist because I didn’t feel the character Kabir Singh was misogynist. He is violent towards everybody! Even if he were a misogynist, I would not confuse the portrayal of a problematic character with the entire film. And finally, even if a filmmaker wishes to make a questionable statement, like in a film like ‘Pyaar Ka Punchnama’ (2011) in which all three girls turn out be the wrong kind of people, I would think it is okay. I guess it’s a subjective thing whether you wish for the films to ‘behave’ in certain way or just wish to be a spectator who would either enjoy a movie or find it boring.
As far as the question of ‘glorification’ is concerned, well, the screen glorifies EVERYTHING. The gangster, the super-villain, drug addiction, guns, fire, violence, rash driving, smoking, an illicit love affair – everything is stylized and projected with larger-than-life dramatic intensity because that’s how the medium works! Nobody wants to watch dull moments.
So, is Kabir Singh a masterpiece then? No! Far from it. Because although you like these characters, it does not come across as a great story in the end. The biggest flaw of the screenplay is its contrived ending. It seems that the writer had a great grip while establishing the story world and the characters but he chose to turn it all into a ‘movie’, or a commercial love-story, in the end and thus opted for a happy ending.
In fact, the end kills the latent potential of the story. The conflict of the story was internal and integral to Kabir Singh and his way of being and it should not have been resolved in this manner. The ending does not recognise the ‘Fatal Flaw’ of an otherwise well-defined character. Kabir Singh is inherently incapable of handling a relationship the way most human beings do. He can’t compromise; or bend down for the kind of adjustments someone else would agree for to make a relationship work. This comes strongly in the scene in which he argues with Preeti outside her house and refuses to mellow down to her father. Wouldn’t a bit of patience, persistence and a display of docile courtesy be a small price to pay to get the love of your life? Real life lovers go through much harder turmoil in order to unite. But not Kabir Singh, because his inflated ego and impulsiveness would not allow him to go on back foot and ‘play’ what he is not. This scene establishes, may be unintentionally, that Kabir Singh is the kind of guy who can’t have a successful relationship, ever. He’s to remain the grumpy college lover-boy and never a mature husband. So either he needed to learn his lesson the hard way or – more fittingly – succumb to his internal demons, just like Devdas. This story could have been a great coming-of-age story or a romantic-tragedy. Instead, it chose a happy ending, which defied story and character logic. Why would Preeti not confront Kabir after she separated from her husband? Yes, there was one news bit about him being involved with an actress but the kind of girl Preeti is, wouldn’t she go for definite answers? Why didn’t Kabir ever try to keep himself informed about the girl he loved so much? He didn’t seem like someone who could ignore such impulses so easily.
In addition, some outdated morality is introduced in the climax. We are told that Preeti did not ever sleep with her husband, and thus remained purely ‘Kabir ki bandi’. This indeed was the lowest point for the story which otherwise stayed away from clichés. The lovers-uniting-with-a-stroke-of-good-luck scene ruined the positioning of the story. What could have been a great ‘character study’ became a run-of-the-mill romance. It undermined the whole impact of the story, because eventually Kabir had no real regrets, nothing tangible to lose, no price to pay and nothing significant to learn about life and his own self. Thus, his redemption remained superficial. (What if Preeti’s husband had actually impregnated her, and then left her on the pretext that she was earlier involved with Kabir? In such a case, she would have had a stronger reason to remain unapproachable and eventually Kabir would have had the opportunity to make a more difficult choice to adopt someone else's child in order to unite with her.)
I believe that the final moments of the film broke the unsaid promise of a justified end and this is probably why a lot of viewers and critics felt cheated. Sub-consciously, we’re all aware that life doesn’t give you a free pass and you have to pay the price, eventually, even if your mistakes are the ones that you had no control on. Also, we know that romantic relationships are often difficult to sustain and that love is a complicated, tricky proposition. It leaves you the moment you’re able to get your hands onto it. Or just, eventually, evaporates. That is why the best of love stories are the ones that result in separation or death, like the classic play by Shakespeare ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the Hollywood musical ‘La La Land’ (2016).
We somehow expected a more mature understanding of relationship and life from Kabir Singh because of its unabashed approach towards character portrayal. Alas, it never aims to reach that kind of glory and ends up as a movie-like romance.
Dinkar Sharma is a freelance writer-director and script consultant. He studied screenwriting at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Formerly, he worked with Whistling Woods International as a faculty for Screenwriting. He's a guest script-mentor at FTII and WWI, and guest faculty for recently started FTII short-term script writing courses.