NEW DELHI :
Ignoring outrage over its alleged misogynistic content, Indians at home and abroad are queuing up to make the romantic drama Kabir Singh this year’s highest grossing Hindi film yet. Reported box office collections are ₹350 crore worldwide.
Its earnings are higher than Salman Khan front-led Bharat ( ₹304 crore) and war drama Uri: The Surgical Strike ( ₹338 crore). As far as domestic earnings go, the Sandeep Reddy Vanga directed film is currently the ninth highest grossing Hindi film of all time. Trade website Box Office India said footfall—the number of people who have watched it in theatres—is in the range of all-time hits like Chennai Express, Ek Tha Tiger and Dabangg.
The film, a frame-by-frame remake of 2017 Telugu hit Arjun Reddy, also helmed by Vanga, is a modern-day take on Devdas, a classic story of a heartbroken man who drinks himself to self-destruction. Describing it as everything from “a horrific, harrowing ode to misogyny" to “a hugely problematic film that seeks to lend normality to acts of dreadful delinquency and sickening misogyny," reviewers, social media influencers and even sections of the audience across the country have criticized director Reddy for unabashedly glorifying a narrative of male entitlement. Many are especially aggrieved by the fact that the film comes months after the #MeToo movement hit the country, as society learns to acknowledge and oppose toxic and inappropriate male behaviour.
“In 2019, post #MeToo, you really can’t separate art from the artist. If the artist is a misogynistic, patriarchal, sexist, violent aggressor, then his art is coming from his experiences, and from a worldview that has supported that art," said Rituparna Chatterjee, an independent journalist working around women’s issues.
Endorsing his violent and aggressive protagonist and responding to criticism that he termed “bizarre", director Reddy said in an interview to Film Companion: “If you can’t slap, and if you can’t touch your woman wherever you want, if you can’t kiss and you can’t use cuss words, I don’t see emotion there."
Chatterjee said normalizing these things becomes hugely problematic given that domestic violence and intimate partner violence are hugely unaddressed issues in India.
“So, this is an art born of a lot of women’s struggles and one that diminishes a lot of women. In that case, you can no longer separate the art from the artist, because if you do, you’re sending a message to survivors that their trauma is lesser than his fame," Chatterjee said.
To be sure, objectionable depiction of women or the glorification of obsessive love is nothing new in Bollywood, as several films like Darr, Tere Naam and Raanjhana show. Stalking, harassing and fighting over women seen as trophies, have been themes in cinema for decades, as have been songs with explicit lyrics.
However, as the success of all these films, and most recently Kabir Singh shows, popular choices in the country do not reflect cognizance of this.
“We’ve released a film that was cleared by the censor board... This is a work of fiction simply meant to entertain the public. We’ve never said people should become like the character," said Bhushan Kumar, chairman and managing director at T-Series, one of the producers of the film.
“The conversations on Twitter exist in some kind of echo chambers based on the people we follow and often within elite and socially aware circles. The average person out there is not even aware of Vanga’s interview, he is just going to watch a new film that he has heard is nice," said film critic Baradwaj Rangan. “We may want films to reflect ideal scenarios but that can’t happen. There are all kinds of stories and they should all be told."