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Kabir Singh: Depiction Is Not Endorsement, But to What Extent?

Kabir Singh is not merely a flawed protagonist.

Updated
Bollywood
6 min read
<i>Kabir Singh</i> and <i>Taxi Driver</i> are not two sides of the same coin.
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(For all intents and purposes, ‘Kabir Singh’ can be replaced with ‘Arjun Reddy’ everywhere in this article.)

Blame the cyclical nature of online debates, there is a distinct sense of déjà vu permeating the discourse surrounding last Friday’s release Kabir Singh. The film was thrashed by critics, particularly women, for being irredeemably sexist and misogynist in its depiction of a hard-living doctor with anger issues. These reviews were met with a torrent of fury from fans, the more articulate ones claiming that the titular Kabir was a “flawed character” and wait for it, “depiction is not endorsement.”

Some fans claimed these ‘elitist’ film critics would not have issue with a unlikable protagonist like Kabir in an international film. Martin Scorsese’s name was brought up, since the filmmaker has made a variety of films with violent criminals as protagonists. We don’t condone anything the lead characters of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, or The Wolf of Wall Street do, but we still find value in those films. Why not extend the same courtesy to Kabir Singh? After all, depiction is not endorsement.

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So what does that phrase mean, really?

The first result that comes up on Google for ‘depiction is not endorsement’ is a blog about the 2012 political thriller Zero Dark Thirty, which follows the real life story of the CIA team that hunted and eventually killed Osama Bin Laden. Around the time of the film’s release, there was a huge debate about scenes depicting the agency torturing detainees for information.

The issue political critics took with the film was not with the content of the scenes, which are brutal and graphic, but with their outcome. The film shows a detainee post-waterboarding reveal a crucial bit of information regarding Bin Laden’s whereabouts to protagonist and CIA analyst Maya.

Many political and social activists argued that the scene reinforced the repeatedly debunked myth that methods of torture result in accurate information. Chief among them was US senator John McCain who had been a prisoner of war and was tortured during his captivity.

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On the other hand, US film critics were baffled by the controversy, praising Zero Dark Thirty as a raw piece of cinema. ‘Depiction is not endorsement’ was the all powerful phrase brought up to enlighten the masses. Clearly veteran director Katherine Bigelow is not a proponent of torture! As a cinephile who appreciated a lot about the film, I would be inclined to agree, except something irked me. ZDT felt too rah-rah about the CIA, too uncritical of US foreign policy.

A still from <i>Zero Dark Thirty</i>.
A still from Zero Dark Thirty.

In 2015, declassified documents revealed that the CIA was deeply involved in the scripting and production of Zero Dark Thirty. The news undeniably tainted the film, but it already fell into patterns that should have established its problematic nature. The US military and CIA have a history of influencing films in their favour. American films dealing with 9/11 have a history of being myopic. Katherine Bigelow has a history of glorifying law enforcement and an insensitive understanding of racial and geopolitical strife.

All of which a long-winded way to say that “depiction is not endorsement” is an imperfect argument. It cannot be used in a vacuum. To evaluate art it is equally important to look at the culture, industry and artist it has spawned from.

To evaluate art it is equally important to look at the culture, industry and artist it has spawned from.
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Kabir Singh has sparked a wave of bad faith arguments about whether it is at all possible to portray an amoral protagonist without upsetting audiences. Shouldn’t a film with a completely vile lead character make the viewer uncomfortable? Honestly, it’s not an irrelevant question and some people seemed to be approaching it from a sincere place. Here’s The Quint’s Aaqib Reza Khan, for example.

The response to this concern is, “depiction is not endorsement,” except when it is. So how do we know when it is?

One way to check is if the problematic character receives a clear and fair response, if not punishment for his actions in the story. Another test of such a film could be how the audience reacts to the character and their actions. If an audience is discomforted with a problematic protagonist, that’s good. If the audience cheers them on, that’s bad.

Kabir Singh clearly fails here. Kabir is barely punished in the film and never for his treatment of women. If anything the female characters keep throwing themselves at him. Despite the reviews, audiences seem to enjoy the film tremendously, whistling and clapping every time its “hero” blows a fuse or treats a woman badly.

A still from <i>Kabir Singh</i>.
A still from Kabir Singh.
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The fact is there is no simple answer. Scorsese himself knows this. The man has faced controversy multiple times for the violent content in his films. However, there is one thing that has remained constant in his stories. As much as the director likes to celebrate his amoral characters’ highs, he takes an equal amount of time to capture their downfall and them at their ugliest. Scorsese’s cinema has a God, a moral force that doles out karma and punishment. Even The Wolf of Wall Street, which may seem like it doesn’t fit into this paradigm, ends with Scorsese’s lens harshly judging a world where real-life slimeball Jordan Belfort spends a short time in a white collar prison before returning to low-level scams.

A still from <i>The Wolf of Wall Street</i>.
A still from The Wolf of Wall Street.

It boils down to this: every film has a lens and an internal compass that the intelligent viewer can immediately sense. It tells you what the film wants you to think, how it wants you to feel. It is compounded by factors like the marketing and what the filmmakers have been vocal about, but ultimately it’s there in every frame of the film.

It’s not Kabir Singh the character that’s making women uncomfortable, it’s Kabir Singh the film.

It’s not Kabir Singh the character that’s making women uncomfortable, it’s Kabir Singh the film.
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If Kabir Singh is meant to be a flawed character, Kabir Singh has no idea what his flaws are. Is he an addict? Is he someone with anger issues? Is he a raging misogynist? The film clearly doesn’t see some of those characteristics as flaws. His horrific behaviour is played for laughs. Without spoiling the ending, he gets what he wants to a degree that smacks of appeasement. The film loves Kabir Singh.

For all its shocking content, a film like Taxi Driver is genuinely subversive in showing a kind of character that wasn’t seen in mainstream cinema before. Kabir Singh on the other hand feels like direct extension of all the creepy, obsessive “lovers” that populate Indian but especially Telugu cinema. Kabir’s bullying is just a step away from your average hero’s harassment in the guise of courtship. The film is simply playing into the status quo.

Kabir Singh, like so much of Bollywood and Tollywood, feels shocking precisely because how rote and commonplace its misogyny is. There is nothing the film reveals to us about everyday sexism, except that it likes it. Kind of the way a male stand-up comedian doing one too many rape jokes reveals something about them. Kabir Singh is every galli ka launda ever. Now Kabir Singh will inspire more.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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