Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Kabir Singh: Review

The bar for grand masochistic gestures by self-pitying men in Indian films is set pretty high. All credit, then, to Kabir Singh for finding creative new ways for its eponymous hero to express his terrible sadness after his girlfriend marries someone else. In one scene, Kabir (Shahid Kapoor), bare-chested and drunk, in the midst of getting yelled at by his friend, grabs an electric razor and starts shaving his undercarriage. He isn’t looking down, though, and his macho posturing is soon interrupted by a red stain spreading across his pyjamas. They say you shouldn’t try gardening under the influence.

They also say you shouldn’t perform surgeries under the influence. Kabir does this too, and though there are eventual consequences, I’m not sure writer-director Sandeep Reddy Vanga (remaking his Telugu film Arjun Reddy) entirely disapproves. I’ll come to that – more about our charming protagonist first. In the film's opening minutes, he hooks up with a soon-to-be-married woman. No problem, two consenting adults, etc., but then she says she isn’t comfortable and asks him to stop. Kabir grabs a knife and tells her to continue undressing. Her horror lasts a few seconds before a song on the radio breaks in comically, but it’s a jarring – and revealing – note to start on.

The same need to control, to impose his will on a situation, is there from the moment Kabir lays eyes on first-year med student Preeti (Kiara Advani) and decides he likes her. His first move is to warn her male batch-mates that she’s off-limits for them. He then barges into her classroom, asks what the lesson is, says he’ll teach her (he’s in his final year, and a university topper), and takes her away. This happens several times. On another occasion, he orders her to sit at the front of the class, then gets a “healthy" girl to sit with her, decreeing that the two of them will now be roommates (thin gossipy girls will apparently distract her from her studies). She injures her leg; he moves her into his hostel room.

When control is wrested from Kabir, all hell breaks loose. A student from a rival college with a grudge against him molests Preeti during Holi celebrations. Kabir finds out and beats the boy’s face bloody in a crowded classroom. There’s the strangest exchange after, with Kabir kneeling beside him, lighting his cigarette and making him promise that he won’t lay a hand on her again, since he won’t be around to protect her when he passes out. This is how important control is to Kabir: he’ll entrust the safety of the woman he loves to her oppressor and his enemy as long as it appears like he’s handled the situation as a man should.

Preeti’s timidity and seeming disinclination to think for herself only makes Kabir appear more dominant. It’s almost a full hour before she utters a full sentence, and it’s “What do you see in me?" Preeti may as well be a Stepford Girlfriend, so passive is Advani’s performance in those early scenes. When her father forbids their marriage – there’s a fleeting mention of different castes – she comes alive for one hot minute and it’s so unbearable to Kabir that he slaps her (there’s a lot of slapping in this film).

Kabir’s rages aren’t about anything (like Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger), nor are they funny (like Dev D’s in the Anurag Kashyap film) or revealing. He’s always angry with someone: friends, girlfriends, family, co-workers. When he chases a domestic worker down several flights of stairs for breaking a glass, the scene is played for comedy, not as evidence as a cruel, disturbed mind. And yet, no matter how badly he behaves, Kabir is a hero in the film’s eyes – beloved of his nursing staff, endlessly attractive to women, supported by his loyal friend. It’s a crucial difference between this film and Dev.D, which had an equally destructive protagonist but saw him for the pathetic weakling he was.

There’s a bang-smash quality to Vanga’s direction which at times lifts scenes above the crude material. When Kabir’s elder brother tries to talk him out of his funk and the two end up scrapping, the situation's a cliché, yet effective. Had Preeti shown some fight too, this might have been a different film, less in thrall of the angry doc. Instead, it takes nearly three hours for Kabir to admit that he has a problem, whereupon he’s immediately rewarded. “Go to the depth of anything and you get zero," we’re warned early on. In this case, it’s absolutely true.

This review appeared in Mint.

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