Terribly toxic trends

The Asian Age.

Entertainment, Bollywood

Shahid Kapoor-starrer Kabir Singh has triggered a debate on the glorification of toxic masculinity in movies.

Shahid Kapoor

In a scene from Kabir Singh, the film’s eponymous lead visits a female acquaintance and unbuckles right away. As she struggles to undress, he can’t contain himself and grabs a knife to tear her out of her top. Just then, the lights go off and the girl’s fiancé arrives at the door. She requests him to leave but he demands instant gratification. This is when the electricity resumes and the repulsive act is highlighted, forcing the hero to retract. But what this repulsive scene also underlines is the misplaced perception of masculinity and misogyny that the original Arjun Reddy and its subsequent remake embody. The films try to idolise their leading man’s eccentric behaviour and portray him as a genius. And unsurprisingly, Kabir Singh has received one of the biggest openings this year.

When Arjun Reddy released in 2017, it was hailed as the landmark film for its ‘unique’ love story and a lead who was more of an anti-hero. Helmed by Sandeep Reddy Vanga who also directed the original, it only seeks to reinforce the problematic portrayal of the lead and his relationship with the woman he loves. But Arjun Reddy’s toxic machismo wasn’t denounced the way Kabir Singh is being panned by the critics.  Critics have unanimously trolled Kabir Singh, calling it ‘no film for a woman’, ‘Baahubali of toxic masculinity’, ‘despicable’ and ‘an ode to meninist-incels’. Movie buffs have literally taken sides, one arguing that it’s a film and not the moral message that matters in the entertainment industry while others slam the celebration of the problematic antics of a psycho abuser, disregarding space for consent and how hero-worshipping violent, unruly males become a bad influence on youngsters who might think that being a baddie is the new cool.

Undeterred by the criticism, director Sandeep Vanga asks people to watch the films from a dramatic perspective. “Whenever any new art form breaks away from the stereotype, people get upset. It is not about celebrating toxic masculinity; I don’t want my films to be preachy, but to only entertain. It’s unfortunate that these comments have been coming. In a movie starring a respected actor like Shahid, it just goes to show that the emotion of the protagonist is genuine. I have never showed women in a derogatory manner in the film. All those who are passing comments can rather shift focus on better things to improve society,” he feels.

The negativity surrounding the movies, however, doesn’t affect Sandeep in any manner, “These comments don’t change me as a person. I am what I am and will continue to be so. As a filmmaker, these comments will hinder my thought process while trying to pen a character with genuine emotions (for my next film), but I wouldn’t change my writing style; I’d better quit my job than change myself.”

Kiara, who played the lead in Kabir Singh, had been promoting the film as an ‘innocent raw love story’. Stressing that the film doesn’t propagate or glamorise the self-destructive character in any way, she says, “Through this film, we are trying to say not to go through a self-destruction path as it is not good for you and your loved ones. For me, it is okay to be a protective lover, but there is a thin line between being a protective and obsessive lover. Kabir is not obsessive, he is a protective lover.”

But film critic Neelima Menon is shocked at the appalling glorification of toxic masculinity that such films showcase. “Of course, it passes a wrong message and whether we like it or not, cinema subconsciously influences us. For ages, thanks to cinema, we have accepted that stalking is a part of legit wooing, as the heroes were all popular actors and it was considered cute and endearing.

It’s ok to depict misogyny on screen but it’s not ok to glorify or endorse it on screen. It’s problematic when you add celebratory background score to an act of verbally abusing a woman with sexually coloured remarks or beating her up or decide to make these acts sound heroic.”

Film critic Hrishikesh Bhaskaran is of the view that movies are always about experimenting. “Sometimes some of the experiments become super hits and some flop; there’ll always be people who love and hate a movie. This is exactly what happened with Arjun Reddy remakes. Cinema has been one of the media that have kept with respect to the social changes. There is a thin line between making things look derogatory and raw. It is a film maker’s discretion to approach a subject in whichever way he wants to and expect people to get entertained. However, the problem arises when misogyny, toxic masculinity and other negative aspects are celebrated in the movies. In a country like ours, male egos have always been overinflated and women have never had a say on matters of even their personal likes and dislikes. But if a new age movie maker is in a mood to show celebrate such male egos on screen, I definitely have an issue with that.”

Stressing on political correctness, Neelima recalls how she used to think about the kind of man Prabhu Deva is after watching ‘the horrendous Action Jackson’. She says, “One has the freedom to create art, but we are equally liable to bear the consequences of what we create. Once made, cinema is free to be analysed, discussed and criticised; no art form is above that. And in a way, it also reflects the mindset of the director. In the latest Malayalam film Ishq, the hero is a misogynist and he is rejected by her and that’s the way to do it. Our filmmakers and writers need to figure this out at the earliest as a crime against women and children are on the rise these days. Political correctness in cinema is the need of the hour.”

There are movie buffs who see Kabir Singh as just another entertaining work of art. Like trade analyst Vinod Mirani, who says, “All these bashing used to happen even with Manmohan Desai films and that doesn’t matter. Eventually, it’s the figures that speak. This film is Shahid Kapoor’s best opening by far and he has done a great job in it.”

Agreeing with him, sociologist Dr Sudeshna Mukerjee says, “From the reviews, I have been reading of Kabir Singh, they have been quite harsh and there is a lot of toxic masculinity and gives a wrong message. It’s the director’s freedom. And he has got a go-ahead from the Censor Board! Yes, a movie being a very powerful medium that sends a very strong message has social commitment. But as adults, we should be capable of seeing the pure entertainment aspect and not take it for what it portrays.”