To watch a character like Kabir Singh do this thing for nearly three hours plonks the viewer squarely in a place of conflict. Here’s a fellow who thinks that going through life yelling and shouting, snorting-and-drinking on the job, assuaging his raging libido with crass directness, basically being a sexist so-and-so, is an acceptable thing.
So why do we keep watching, even though so much of what Kabir does is so offensive, so problematic, and sets our teeth on edge? We do this because we are led to believe that he has something more to him. We hope to see that something more, the something that will let us see past the ugly walls he’s built for himself. The thing that makes us human.
Because that’s what Arjun Reddy, the protagonist of the 2017 Telugu film (of which Kabir Singh is a faithful copy) manages: it is a character study of a deeply flawed young man, but one who does, most importantly, have an arc. Arjun Reddy goes from point A to point B, and his journey is marked by a reluctant progression, where a self-obsessed man-child makes his painful way into a sort of adulthood.
Vijay Deverakonda’s playing of Arjun Reddy is fully switched on, and on-point. His single-minded conquest of a much-younger new student, the pretty Preethi, takes you to the questionable space of ‘putting a stamp of ownership’ on another, and we are taken aback by the complete submissiveness of the mouse-like girl in question.
Some of that may be put down to individual natures, and also to the established hierarchies of male-female, senior-junior in professional educational institutions, especially in such gendered spaces as medical colleges. But, and this is crucial, there is a surprising free-spiritedness to Arjun and Preethi’s romance which flourishes, in and out of bed, and which, for a Telugu movie, even in 2017, was quite jaw-dropping.
A lot of this has been lost in translation, and the Hindi version, with Shahid Kapoor in the lead, is the poorer for it. Kapoor’s physical resemblance to the Reddy character is startling, the same unkempt hair-and-beard, the same dark glasses, but it is not an internally realized performance. Kapoor managed that interiority in Jab We Met in which he was outstanding, and, in parts, in Kaminey. Deverakonda lets us in, and is not afraid of breaking the boys-don’t-cry myth (a scene in which he goes after another student with vicious kicks and bloody punches also shows us his wet-eyed heartbreak).
Here are some bare-bones details for those coming fresh into the Hindi remake. Dr Kabir Singh (Kapoor), an orthopaedic surgeon, has blood on his hands. And nothing on his conscience. We soon realize that he is a roaring, raving drunk. He makes no distinction in other things he abuses: they could be chemical, or people, especially those who love him, and more especially, the young woman who adores him. If there was a walking, talking example of a fully dislikeable human with self-destruction as a goal, that would be, yes, our hero.
The list is long, and as the film slides into a flashback of when the protagonist was a senior student in a medical college where his exemplary academic record is held up at the same time as he faces down his ‘anger management issues’, the film threatens to become a endless paean to Kabir’s behavior.
His pursuit of Preeti (Advani) shows us even more violent, aggressive behaviour. But their coming together feels real, feels like two young people hot for each other doing something about it. There’s a credible physicality to their relationship which immediately lifts it above the bloodless, anodyne coupling that Bollywood usually manages to come up with. In these portions, both Kabir and Preeti display equal passion, which is a good thing, because everywhere else, that dynamic is skewed.
The director has said that he has made some changes in the Hindi version. I couldn’t spot too many, but the one I remember from the Telugu version is quite striking: a conversation between Arjun and his best pal about a third young man ‘objectfying women’. Which is rich, given that that’s all they—Arjun and his male pals– seem to do, but it’s also something that leads you into thinking about sexism and sexist behaviour in a nuanced way: can you amplify centuries of graven-in-stone sexist, misogynist behaviour by showing a character who is living breathing example of those qualities? Showing such a character change can be a marker for change, too.
And the setting is important too—the rules that govern public display of toxic masculinity, and what it is like to be a man– change if it’s a relatively provincial setting like in the original movie, or the Delhi-Mumbai ones of the Hindi version. Nothing about the latter rings true, though we keep getting the name of the two cities as reference.
Deverakonda’s undeniable charisma helps his Arjun get past rank bad behavior, but finally he gets to a point where he has to dial back. There’s a redemptive arc, and we are given that as a take-away, and the possibility of a turning-over-a-new-life, which is a great way to end a film.
Kapoor takes the movie and tries to run with it. But he has been a hero at the centre-stage for too long; his responses are too practiced, too familiar. He feels too old for this role, and his dissolution never feels as sharply realized as the one he managed so superbly in Udta Punjab – AGENCY.