'Kabir Singh', a remake that shouldn’t exist

'Kabir Singh', a remake that shouldn’t exist

A problematic film that has spawned a troubling remake.

Kabir Singh, a Hindi language remake of the Telugu film, Arjun Reddy, is making waves at the box office. The film has turned out to be the highest grosser of 2019, with earnings in excess of Rs 250 crore as of July 14, 2019. Even as people flocked to the theaters to watch the film, many also continue, in social media forums and in the media, to debate the portrayal of the hero, the eponymous Kabir, and his problematic, obsessive relationship with the female lead, Preeti.

When I initially watched the Telugu version two years ago, I remember I was unsettled by it. At first, by the unjustified troubling scenes – Arjun almost rapes a woman at knifepoint, he unnecessarily hits people, and he conducts surgeries while drunk – and then by the underlying implications of the film. Although the Hindi version is a scene by scene remake, as I have not seen it, I will largely be commenting on the Telugu film Arjun Reddy.

The critical acclaim and the appeal to the masses was, in part, due to the ‘groundbreaking’ depiction of sex, drug usage, abuse, and profanity – things that Indian cinema, particularly Telugu cinema, traditionally avoids portraying on screen en masse. However, simply involving sex, drugs, and profanity does not make for artistic cinema or an edgy film; in this case, it made for the mess that is Arjun Reddy.

Films are not removed from society and they can have consequences. I find this film to be highly socially irresponsible and inexcusable. In a country where millions flee to see the newest releases, where movie stars are prayed to, and where films cause strikes, public protests, political activism, and movements, it is clear that cinema has a social impact. It then automatically becomes a director’s responsibility to understand the social implications and intentions of their films. A film does not simply appear out of thin air – every dialogue, every scene, must be crafted and therefore is expected to be intentional. Unless the director does not know about the issues of misogyny, toxic masculinity, or physical violence, particularly across South Asian society, it is clear to me that he simply did not care.

That Arjun/Kabir are glamorised is evident in the trailer itself. The music revs up intermittently as though each of the aggressive (sorry, ‘passionate’) shots are scenes from an action movie. He claims that he is not ‘a rebel without a cause’, making it clear to the audience that he is meant to be viewed as a redeemable or justifiable character. Just to point out one scene from the film, Arjun risks his own life and that of Preeti’s by turning around to kiss her on a bike. His actions result in an accident but his friends simply laugh and clap on. His friends maintain an expression that seems to say, ‘Classic Arjun!” Reckless behaviour is portrayed as sexy and cool.

This film is far from a cautionary tale; Arjun loses his license but that is little punishment for his actions. Turns out Preeti loved him all along and she left her husband for him, and the baby was his. Arjun's story ends on a positive note and his relationships with all major characters remain intact.

This film is also problematic in writing off the characters that are affected by Arjun's troubling behaviour. Many have noted that Preeti's rationale is unexplored. By not giving Preeti a greater voice, the director fails to take responsibility for the message that his film is conveying.

There are also those trying to analyse Preeti’s actions, claiming that she actively chose to leave her husband for Arjun. She also didn’t say no to most of Arjun’s advances. They believe this shows initiative and choice – that she is half of a flawed couple rather than simply the victim. Micro-analysing Preeti’s scenes and assigning her a voice when she was barely given one by the director is also problematic. Most of Arjun’s actions were disgusting and creepy regardless of how Preeti responded to them.

It is true that many Indian films are problematic in some way or another. Still, if you changed a problematic dialogue here and there, or eliminated a few scenes, most films could largely be the same and produce the same message and general story. However, for Arjun Reddy, the highlights of the film, the essence of its romance and entertainment, are aspects of the abuse, the misogyny, and the physical violence. What is the story, and what is Arjun Reddy, without them?

Another contentious topic is that this movie and its remake are both popular. If the masses like and want something, should they be denied of it? Sometimes. The masses, as individuals, may not care for speed limits on roads. However, as a society, we need speed limits and, in the long run, it would hurt us not to have them. The problematic notions this movie normalises and glamorises reinforces problems that already affect South Asian society. There is no need for additional reinforcements that stalking could turn out okay, that you can hit people if you’re annoyed or angry and have no consequences, or that men can simply claim women and expect to be loved back.

Finally, to those saying that these kinds of people, relationships, and stories exist in real life – of course they do. But do we need to admire these stories? Do we want to portray such people as heroes? I could make a film about a rapist with revving music in the background and a fairly happy ending. Those kinds of people and stories could exist. What about a movie following a trendy and cool serial killer and his forgettable victims? Those kinds of people and stories could also exist. It is all about portrayal and treatment.

Any subject matter is not off limits for art. Who are we to outline what subjects cannot be artistically represented? After all, what really matters is how they are represented. Actively attempting to make Arjun Reddy an appealing character and glamorising his anger management issues and misogynistic possessive attitude as “passion” is a problematic way to tell this particular story. It is regrettable that even the remake, Kabir Singh, did not interact with the subject matter in a more considerate manner.

(Sriya Laalitha Chadalavada recently graduated from Kenyon College in the U.S. with a degree in Economics. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Malaysia and eventually plans to attend law school)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.