There is so much that has already been said about the recently-released Shahid Kapoor-starrer Kabir Singh. The Bollywood remake of the Telugu cult hit, Arjun Reddy, has raked in nearly ₹250 crore at the box office, sparking debates about what healthy depictions of toxic masculinity look like, and what the fine line between portraying something and condoning it is. Some have asked why the Bollywood remake has created so much debate, when, after all, it is pretty identical to the Telugu version from two years ago. Others have offered their responses: maybe it’s because Kabir Singh has brought the story to a new (and larger) audience, or because Telugu cinema has traditionally been known to show more tolerance for on-screen misogyny.
But the controversy elicited by the film pales in comparison to the aftermath of a recent interview of the film’s director, Sandeep Reddy Vanga. Netizens are, understandably, quite upset by his comment that “…if you can’t slap, if you can’t touch a woman wherever you want, if you can’t kiss, can’t use cuss words, I don’t see emotion there”. Many have taken to Twitter to share their own tales of domestic abuse, stalking and harassment, pointing out something that they probably wish they didn’t have to: that nothing about these non-consensual experiences amounts to love.
— make-up handle (@FuschiaScribe) July 6, 2019
The thing is, Indian cinema has always been a treasure trove for toxic masculinity. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t great films told from other perspectives, but it is undeniable that there are still too many cinematic works that glorify stalking, make light of rape (and rape victims) and depict violence in extremely nonchalant ways. And if you, like me, have grown up on a diet of ’90s Tamil cinema, you might even believe that every romantic relationship is built on the foundation of at least one solid slap. Even a film as recent as Saamy 2 shows a man slapping a woman to ‘put her in her place’ and shape her into the kind of woman they would want to be with. Watching those movies, it would be very easy to think that slaps are actually a sign of love, or at least, a necessary prerequisite.
Last year, a couple of friends and I started rewatching some of our favourite Tamil movies from our childhoods — most of them from the early aughts. Gathered in front of a television, we would excitedly share our suggestions: Gilli, Padayappa, Saami, Friends… Invariably though, a few minutes into the film, we would turn to each other and say, “I don’t remember it being so sexist/misogynistic/racist/toxic/problematic.”
There’s the condescending speech that Rajnikanth gives Ramya Krishnan about what a “real woman” should be like (Padayappa); Vijay’s invasive style of flirting in Friends; and one scene in particular from the 2002 Alli Arjuna that even 17 years ago struck me as being incredibly problematic: one where the lead character forcibly kisses a girl in public. The imagery of him covering the scene by holding up a newspaper while he forcibly plants his lips on hers is disturbing, and as is the fact that he only feels remorse because the girl commits suicide and he’s in love with her friend.
By the time we get to the end of these movies (if we even make it to the end), my friends and I shake our heads and jokingly say, “We were asleep then,” referring to our relative lack of ‘wokeness’. We were not yet thinking deeply about equality and consent, were not yet exposed to the high volume of misogyny that would hit us full force as we entered our teens, and were not yet spending our free time pondering the relationship between art and real life (as we are wont to do now).
That’s the thing about the past, though. If we consider ourselves progressive in any way, we’re always going to look back on films/books/songs/memes and say, “I am not okay with that now, even though I was back then.” We’re always going to find new ways to talk about things, to update our opinions based on the expansive conversations that we (hopefully) have had since, and in many ways, that’s what’s great about popular culture. If you believe the aphorism that “we get the art we deserve”, then films are a great way of holding a mirror to our lives and communities. And therefore, they are also a great opportunity to look in that mirror and do something about the things we see that we don’t like.
Sandeep Reddy Vanga has held that mirror up for us. We’re reckoning with a world where, even as scores of abuse victims talk about the film’s triggering effects, the country continues to pay hundreds of crores to go see it. And we’re trying to have a conversation about that. That’s why it’s encouraging to see actress Samantha Akkineni decry Vanga’s views even though her trolls have mercilessly reminded her that she was slapped by Ram Charan in Rangasthalam (2018). I’ll add to that list: Samantha’s 2015 film Thanga Magan featured a flashback where Dhanush followed Amy Jackson to the temple repeatedly, because he was ‘in love’ with her. Why, Samantha’s cinematic debut, in Gautham Vasudev Menon’s hit 2010 Telugu film Ye Maya Chesave has also come under fire for what some perceive to be stalker-like behaviour on the part of the male lead.
Talking about the potential effect of these films is important, so that artistes — including actors like Samantha — can take a look at their work, and hopefully evolve. But those roles don’t strip her of the right to criticise Vanga for his admittedly very extreme beliefs (none of which she has ever gone on record supporting). Same goes for Chinmayi, who was reminded of the time her husband slapped someone on screen when she spoke against Vanga’s views.
This mirror that Vanga is holding up also shows us that we’re using flawed arguments to defend our sexist views. In his interview, the filmmaker expresses disappointment in the people who call his movie an expression of toxic masculinity. And his supporters on social media agree, saying something to the tune of, “Just because you see it doesn’t mean you have to do it”. Why, says Vanga, I grew up watching gangster movies, but that doesn’t mean I am a gangster.
But herein lies the issue: we live in a society that has more or less made it clear that murder, shooting someone point blank, and running a drug cartel are punishable offences. While not all punishments might be enforced, we are aware that murdering someone after watching, say, The Godfather, or dealing in drug trafficking after Narcos, will probably put us in trouble. Because the unacceptability in such cases is rather cut and dried, it’s safe to justify its depiction on screen.
But does that same justification hold good when it comes to a scene depicting a girl being followed home from college? Being kissed her against her will? Being forced to ditch class and go on a date with you? Not punishable, and often laughed off by people saying “boys will be boys”.
And that is why these romanticised depictions of toxic masculinity are a problem: because society is still at a stage where large parts of it believe that that kind of behaviour is acceptable.
As for those who might say, “This is just a movie and not a prescription to young men,” I have this to say: A movie about chauvinism doesn’t have to be chauvinistic. As audiences, we welcome more films about misogynistic behaviour, because that’ll help deepen the conversation about how art influences life influences art. But to parade a movie as something that it is not will not help move the dialogue forward at all.