Kabir Singh, the Hindi remake of the Telugu film Arjun Reddy is doing great business at the box-office. However, the film has also been slammed for its evident misogyny and the way it glorifies toxic masculinity. While several film critics and women on social media have written about the problems with the narrative, there are many defending the film because they feel it should be viewed as a “work of art”, and that there's no reason to be riled up by its messaging.
To begin with, no piece of art exists in a vacuum. Whether it's a song, painting, book, or film, it is a product of its culture and carries the imprint of its maker's politics. Art is indeed subjective and that's why we have many ways of looking at the same product at different points in time, and from different perspectives. When it comes to a mass medium like cinema which requires enormous amounts of money to be made, it is only to be expected that artistic choices are influenced by what is considered acceptable and will sell in the market. This means that more often than not, and especially in India, films rarely challenge mainstream ideas and norms. Instead, they reiterate and magnify these sociocultural values repeatedly through the popular actors whom the public loves and trusts.
Patriarchy is not only normalised on screen, it is celebrated in a hero-centric narrative which barely offers other perspectives or experiences any space. Here's a look at eight common situations in popular mainstream cinema which pass off as comedy or love but are actually a nightmare for women in real life. It is because cinema is primarily made by men and for the consumption of men, that the female experience of the same situation is not given any kind of importance whatsoever.
1. Peeking when a woman is changing/taking a bath
The hero peeking at the heroine without her knowledge when she's taking a bath, or being in the room without her knowledge when she's getting dressed, is usually shown as a comic adventure or romance. One of the highlights in Simbu's terribly misogynistic film Anbanavan Asaradhavan Adangathavan is of him trying to catch the heroine, Shriya Saran, while she's undressing.
Comedians peeking at women bathing is also considered to be humorous. The first Malayalam film to enter the Rs 100 crore club, the Mohanlal-starrer Pulimurugan, had recurring scenes with Suraj Venjaramoodu trying to look into women's bathrooms to capture the "kuli scene". Suraj does not play the villain in the film, but is in fact the hero's friend and his actions are let off as an example of "boys will be boys."
In real life, women live with the constant fear of prying male eyes. Many women are afraid to even try on clothes at shopping centres because they're worried about double mirrors, hidden cameras and the possibility that they may be recorded or photographed in the nude. There have been several cases where such visuals and videos have been used to blackmail women and further violate them. In cinema, however, this violent act is considered to be despicable only if the villain does it, and it becomes a plot point for the hero to outrage about. When the "good guys" do it, it is easily excused.
2. Following a woman home or to her college/workplace
Romantic pursuit in cinema translates to following a woman around relentlessly till she says yes to the man. This means that the man finds out all her details, from where she lives to where she studies or works, and does not stop when she expresses her unwillingness. Several films, from Mouna Raagam to Annaiyum Rasoolum, Arjun Reddy and Mr Local have repeatedly glorified stalking as the way to a woman's heart.
However, stalkers in real life are anything but romantic, and way too many women have been murdered in the recent past, thanks to men who are unable to handle a rejection. From threatening them and their families, to creating a scene at their workplace and thereby endangering their jobs, stalkers in real life have made life miserable for many a woman. In cinema, such forceful, violent acts play out with sympathetic background music emphasising the "emotions" of the man rather than capturing the fear that such an incident would evoke in a woman off screen.
Tricking a woman into entering a romantic relationship by pretending to be someone else is another common comic caper on screen. In Minnale, Madhavan's character pretends to be the man that the heroine is supposed to meet for a possible match arranged by her family. From cutting the phone connection in her house to actively lying about his real identity, this hero goes to great lengths to win her heart – and all because he saw her dancing in the rain. In Kamal's Avvai Shanmughi, one of the funny scenes is when the hero, who is disguised as an elderly female housekeeper, is asked by his naked, estranged wife to help her get dressed – we're supposed to think that this is all right because she's his wife after all, even though she has made it clear that she doesn't want him in his life, and does not know his real identity. In Sivakarthikeyan's Remo, the hero disguises himself as a nurse so that he can be close to the woman he loves, a doctor at a hospital, who is engaged to another man – because he saw her on the road and decided that he must get her.
While women in real life may not be so easily fooled by a man in disguise, there have been many instances when men have concealed their real identities to engage in a romantic relationship with women. From courting and marrying multiple women to engaging in sexual acts while pretending to be someone they're not, the same situation in real life is hardly a happy ending for the concerned women. Further, scenes like the one in Avvai Shanmughi reiterate the idea that a wife is the husband's property and that her consent is not required for sexual activities between the two. Considering we're still fighting an uphill battle to recognise marital rape, it's not a surprise that the vast majority of the audience laps up such depictions.
Taking obsessive love to an extreme, even the abduction of a woman is glorified as love in cinema. And of course, the Stockholm syndrome helpfully kicks in when it's the hero doing it. If Kamal's Guna was about a man with mental health issues who abducts a woman, Vikram's Sethu had him threatening to break the head of the woman he loves with a stone. Raavanan, a contemporary take on the Ramayana, had the heroine being abducted and held against her will (to take revenge on her husband) but sympathising with the man who did so because he's actually of good heart.
Needless to say, such instances where women are taken captive by violent men who claim to care about them are not uncommon. To romanticise such a traumatic incident, where a woman's consent is given zero emphasis and she is stripped of her agency, is deeply problematic to say the least. On the other hand, the few times we've had women abducting men, like Julie Ganapathi (remake of Misery), the woman is portrayed as undesirable and villainous.
A resounding slap from the hero to "correct" the heroine's behaviour and show her who's the "man" in the relationship is pretty common in our cinema. What's worse is that the woman is shown to interpret this as a sign of love, and becomes attracted to the abusive behaviour. Her consequent submissiveness is painted as her reformation. Further, several comedians routinely slap their wives on screen and put them in their place for being outspoken. Kovai Sarala, for instance, has played several such roles as the male comedian's wife who gets slapped around.
Though there is a law in place against domestic violence, surveys have shown that a majority of the population still believes that a husband hitting his wife is not wrong. Domestic violence covers a wide range of abuse, from emotional blackmailing to physical violence and even murder. On screen, we've rarely seen domestic violence committed by the hero as a crime. And even when it has been portrayed as wrong, like in Kaatru Veliyidai, we're shown the woman going back to the man. Of course, in real life too, women often go back to their abusive spouses but in cinema, the abusive spouse also receives a sympathetic narrative which makes up for his past behaviour and justifies everything as "love".
6. Controlling what the wife/girlfriend should do
Possessive behaviour is represented as love on screen all the time. In Arjun Reddy, the hero treats the young woman he's interested in as a plaything to do as he pleases. From telling her where to sit in class to announcing to everyone that she's "his girl" before the two have even exchanged a word, the film expects us to think of the hero as this "cool" and "radical" young man who is lost because of his addiction to alcohol and drugs. In Sivakasi, the hero tells the heroine how she should dress, going to the extent of justifying the sexual harassment that she had just faced from a bunch of goons. This has been replicated in various films to different degrees.
Controlling behaviour is a sign of a toxic relationship, whoever exhibits it. In man-woman relationships, where men are often more physically powerful than women, it can progress to violence quickly. Many women end up getting caught in a cycle of abuse. The Malayalam film Uyare depicted one such relationship gone wrong, with Parvathy playing a young woman who is attacked with acid by her possessive ex-boyfriend. The film was uncomfortably close to reality for many women in the audience who've experienced similar toxicity in real life.
7. Deciding the sister's relationship
The hero's sister in our movies is even more of a plaything than the heroine. The hero gets to decide where she should go and what she should do, including who she can date. He can threaten the boyfriend, beat him up, and order his sister not to see him any more. He evokes the family's "honour" to justify his exercise of control (remember the "emotional" scene in Baasha when Rajinikanth's character sees his sister out on a date with a man, and asks the couple if they want to go to a lodge?). Ironically, the hero in many of these films is stalking the heroine and forcing her into a relationship with him.
The hero also decides who the sister should marry – and paying the dowry becomes an act of supreme brotherly love, rather than questioning it. Even when the sister is clearly in an abusive marriage, the hero does not think of asking her to walk out but goes on paying for her because it's his family's honour which is at stake.
In many families, the girl child grows up in a highly restrictive environment where her brother is seen as her guardian. The family's "honour" is considered to rest with her, and her romantic life is therefore strictly curtailed. Any kind of love outside the boundaries drawn by the family can invite extreme violence. A macho brother watching over his sister's shoulders in real life seldom translates to a pleasant experience. Moreover, way too many women have stayed on in abusive marriages under the compulsion of their respective families, sometimes even being killed in their marital homes.
8. Vilifying abortion
Just as pregnancy is routinely romanticised on screen, abortion is almost always equated to murder. In Arjun Reddy, even a planned pregnancy is considered "unnatural" by the hero because it isn't "spontaneous" love. The woman maybe in very difficult circumstances and having a baby could be detrimental to her well-being, but she will still keep the foetus because our films don't consider abortion to be an important reproductive right. Films like Sindhu Bhairavi and Kaatru Veliyidai make a "strong woman" out of the heroine because she chooses to continue the pregnancy. Some like Karu/Diya have taken it one step further, demonising abortion within the framework of a horror film.
Abortion in India can be legally performed on various grounds till 20 weeks of a pregnancy and after that in exceptional circumstances. Considering how little responsibility men take for preventing a pregnancy in real life relationships, blaming women for making a legal choice is nothing but hypocrisy. A woman may want an abortion for various reasons – from rape to just not being ready for it – and considering the toll pregnancy and childbirth take on her body, denying a woman this right cannot be considered an act of love by any stretch of imagination.