Readers Write In #428: The Puzzling Case of Kabir Singh: A Sociologist’s Take: Theoretical Vs Empirical

Posted on November 24, 2021


(by S Srinivas)

I was really piqued by the controversy generated by the movie “Kabir Singh”, and I wonder if I can use a sociologist’s lens to cast light on the issue.  A bit of background, when I was studying Sociology in the US, my professor once refused to pay any attention to my theories, saying I needed to collect empirical evidence to prove my point.  But, more on this later.

Coming to “Kabir Singh”, the movie was a remake of the Telugu blockbuster, “Arjun Reddy”, and was a huge success at the box office. It is a seemingly misogynistic take on modern relationships,  the hero is a toxic male, hell-bent on pursuing and winning his girl at all costs. His girl does nothing to resist his advances and almost admires his toxic masculinity. He even gets physically abusive, but she sticks with him in the name of “true love”.

Although this “love story” was seen as regressive and anti-women by reviewers, the public gave it an enthusiastic thumb up.  So, one was forced to take sides, who was right, the reviewers or the public?

The reviewers took on the role of theorists saying that the film portrayed women as docile, and subject to the whims of patriarchal masculinity. I am sympathetic to this argument as a feminist myself, who feels women have not gotten their due in modern society. I was applauding Rajeev Masand when he reviewed the film.

But what of the public reaction to the film?. Does this mean the masses were out for their opium fix, to paraphrase Marx?  I submit as a sociologist that this is not the case. As a sociologist involved in fieldwork, I am forced to confront daily the enduring reality of the caste system. The caste system instead of withering away has stood its ground and grown stronger over time.

What if the hero was seen by the so-called masses as a noble warrior against the caste system, and his aggressiveness against this recalcitrant and anachronistic institution spilled over to his love life? That would explain the popularity of the film, especially among young people facing similar struggles. And, also the reason why his girl stood by him.

My intention is not to take sides in the matter but cast light on a puzzling conundrum. What if both the reviewers and the public were right, only looking at the same situation from a different angle. The reviewers were arguing from theoretical grounds. The youth were championing their hero, who was fighting for modernity, based on their empirical reality.

Coming back to myself, as a student studying Sociology in the US, I once approached my professor with a theoretical proposal only to be rudely rebuffed and was told that I needed empirical evidence to back it up. At that time, I was somewhat aggrieved but over time my views have softened somewhat, and I realize we both were right, just arguing from different planes.

The celebrated palaeontologist Steven Jay Gould once said that religion and science were both “right” as they were dealing with different domains of reality. Maybe this is why the controversy around Kabir Singh remains an enduring one.