Over the years, Bollywood has spawned a curious sub-set of human beings. Named with as much care as you would invest on naming a tick on your dog’s hair. This ilk answers to monikers like Pappu, Raju and Dodo, and have only one purpose in life: To be a human toilet to toxic leading men. I did consider the term wingman, but that would be an underestimation of the vast array of services provided. From fulfilling sober-friend duties (holding the hero while he pukes) to abducting mandap-ready leading ladies, they can go to any length to assure misguided Indian men that they deserve the one thing they actually don’t – the affections of the woman they treat like shit.
In Kabir Singh, Kabir (Shahid Kapoor), an entitled, obnoxious medical student, is surrounded by Pappus and Rajus from the very first frame. His Rajus and Pappus come in different shapes, sizes and genders. From indulgent professors to wet-between-the ears juniors, everyone worships this apology of a human being for no fathomable reason. But the head human toilet to Kabir is Shiva (Soham Majumdar), a character who will wade in a river of shit to ensure that Kabir is peppy enough to assault a domestic help or two. How cute!
Hurling terms like ‘misogyny’ and ‘toxic-masculinity’ at Kabir Singh is like water trickling down Shahid Kapoor’s shapely back. It doesn’t serve any purpose, and ends up making the subject even more sexy to the desired audience (read Indian men and women who have been primed to celebrate alpha males). But it is definitely worth wondering how (and why) a contemporary re-telling of Devdas hinged on such redundant values. Kabir, who we’re told is brilliant at whatever he does, treats everyone around him like filth. Well, that’s every Delhi fuckboi, you would argue. Except that he is not.
The filmmaker, at every possible juncture of the film, reminds us that this man — who is bullying, mistreating and thrashing people around him with such unflinching authority — is an ‘aspirational’ figure. According to the director, he is the guy that every hot-blooded heterosexual man wants to be, but is too afraid to become.
He walks into a class and earmarks a first-year student as his ‘bandi‘ and everyone around him smiles indulgently. That very day, he plants a kiss on the girl’s cheek without her consent while women of the campus squirm with desire. Who wouldn’t want to be molested by a man like Kabir, after all. Right?
The passive girl, in pristine white salwar kameez, does what she is expected to do – remain passive while Kabir and his entourage of Rajus and Pappus go about ensuring that her entire college experience is about being the object of desire of the leading man. Agency? Woh kis chidiya ka naam hai? In fact, for the longest time you don’t even know if this girl, who might as well just be named Kabir ki bandi, is even into this toxic ‘relationship’, or if you are being subjected to some elaborate feudal ritual that should find NO mention in 21st century India.
Meanwhile, any hope of the film redeeming itself by morphing into a cautionary tale for spurned lovers with the ego the size of Gujarat’s Sardar Patel statue, is thrown off the window. As he propels towards self-destruction, Kabir’s ‘suffering’ is glamourised by soaring background music and fawning men and women who are always ready for excuses for him. Even when he wets himself, rubs ice over his member or nicks his pubes in drunken abundance, the camera chooses to celebrate the excesses with lingering long-shots, while his human toilet ‘friend’ witnesses his spectacular unravelling with Nirupa Roy-like helplessness.
The girl is half-forced into marrying a different guy after Kabir assaults her outside her own house. But that little detail has to be ignored because men don’t know how to control themselves when they love someone ‘passionately’.
To be frank, in ita toxic masculinity, Kabir Singh or Arjun Reddy, is a logical inheritor of the hyper-masculinity that was/is so celebrated in both Tollywood cinemas of the 1990s and 2000s. Generations after generations of heroes, like Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Mahesh Babu, have lectured women in films after films about modesty and ‘womanly ways’, while violating them and fetishising their navels even as the Rajus and Pappus nodded their heads in vigorous appreciation.
Clearly, the world hasn’t changed much.