Readers Write In #78: Kabir Singh (Arjun Reddy), a Rorschach test

Posted on June 25, 2019

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(by Vineet Kuruvilla)

I read an article in HuffPost India, Kabir Singh’s Success Dismantles Our False Illusion of Wokeness. This is a response to it. But before I dive into a response to the article, I want to state that I haven’t seen Kabir Singh. I have only watched the original Arjun Reddy. The author of the article, Ankur Pathak, thinks he is exposing the mindset of the Indian public and the “illusion of wokeness”. But I couldn’t get past the feeling that all he achieved was to expose his own (other people who think on these lines) patriarchal mindset and possibly a bit of immaturity. 

Arjun Reddy (or Kabir Singh) is a film. It is a work of art and it is a work of fiction. When people say “it’s just a film”, they mean we are mature enough to differentiate between a work of fiction and reality. We are perfectly capable of deciding what is right and wrong for us. Ankur Pathak is a censor board chairman’s dream. He is the kind of person who would love to plaster the entire frame of film with disclaimers “Consumption of alcohol is injurious to health”. If it were in his power, probably, he would put disclaimers about misogyny all over Arjun Reddy as well. And, you must have noticed how he conflates the movie character with a murder, mob lynching and cow vigilantism. He thinks about and treats the audience (and his readers) as infants and he has to show us how to operate in this big bad world. 

His reading of the film further emphasises this patriarchal mindset. He terms the girlfriend character, Preeti, as a “misogynist’s dream”. (Probably just like he is a censor board chairman’s dream.) Let’s do a bit of digging into the movie. To be fair to the author, there is very little from Preeti’s perspective in the movie because the movie is about Arjun Reddy. Well, that is in a way expected as the film title is Arjun Reddy and the film is almost entirely from Arjun’s side. But whatever little we know of Preeti, it seems she was smitten by Arjun, the college stud, from day one. As can be seen in the later portions of the film, she is no pushover or hostage to Arjun. Wasn’t she showing off the anatomy drawing Arjun did on her hands to her friend? Wasn’t she the one who got a blanket for Arjun when he slept with his head on her lap? Didn’t she willingly move into his beach house? Wasn’t she the one who initiated lovemaking with Arjun in their beach house? Didn’t she slap Arjun for shouting at her?

For all we know, she liked him and must have been happy to get Arjun Reddy’s attention and be in a relationship with him. Why consider Preeti as a weakling who can’t stand for herself. Don’t mistake her silence in the early portions in the movie for suffering in silence. Even after knowing that Arjun is the father of the child in her womb, she didn’t return to him. If Arjun hadn’t seen her in that garden, completely by chance, she would, most probably, be taking care of her child as a single mother. Doesn’t that show strength of character? It is almost an insult to women by saying Preeti “is a misogynist’s dream”. Who are we to say who is right and wrong for a woman? Aren’t we exposing our patriarchal mindset by judging her for her choice? Women are completely capable of taking life decisions on their own. They don’t need your advice. Quit infantilizing them!

Arjun Reddy is a textbook example of an asshole. He treats people around him like crap be it, friends or family. Like his friend, Shiva, says “Being your friend is like pissing on oneself”. The parts where he intimidates Preeti’s batchmates to not have a relationship with her for “she is mine”, the way he kissed her without consent (I have doubts about the consent) is vile. He fights on the football pitch, he beats a fellow student who plays “Holi” with Preeti. I am guessing “Holi” is a euphemism for sexual molestation. He is so juvenile as well. Look at the way he refuses to congratulate his friend on his wedding just because his relationship didn’t work out. He even insults his best friend because his friend was running a small clinic while he is a surgeon. 

He is no saint but he is not a symbol of toxic masculinity either. Toxic masculinity is about the suppression of emotions, maintaining the appearance of hardness, violence as an indicator of power. Arjun Reddy is someone who cries at the slightest distress. He wallows in sorrow and drowns in alcohol, drugs and empty sex to numb himself just to get over the void in his heart. He pines for his ex-girlfriend. He is someone so soft that he can’t even say goodbye to his girlfriend! He is not afraid to show his emotions. He doesn’t see it as a sign of weakness.  Not only that, Arjun Reddy shows some sign of reformation, since his college days, in his attitude towards women, in the scene where he admonishes his friend’s future brother-in-law for making sexist remarks about air hostesses. 

Arjun Reddy or Kabir Singh is not a movie which celebrates misogyny or toxic masculinity. The title character is not perfect but notably, the female lead character is not a helpless, defenceless child, who is being pushed over and forced to comply by a dominating boyfriend, and is definitely not a “misogynist’s dream” like is being described in Ankur Pathak’s article. The fact that an unpleasant person like Arjun gets what he wants is confused as a “celebration” of the person’s unpleasantness by the author. Well, isn’t that life? Sometimes, even not so nice people get what they desire. It seems to me, that one’s response to the movie reveals more about oneself that the makers, like a Rorschach test.

The article, in fact, exposes the author’s and like-minded readers’ mindset which infantilizes both the lead female character in the movie and also the movie audience. It needs to be reminded, over and over again, even to people who consider themselves “woke” that a woman does not need a patronizing society and for sure, does not want to be told what is good and what is bad and how to lead her life. They are perfectly capable of making choices in their lives. And most importantly, they are perfectly capable of dealing with its consequences, be it good or bad.

Let me end by shouting out my innermost desire as a cinema lover and on behalf of all cinema lovers: We too want to be treated as adults by filmmakers and the government. Quit infantilizing us!