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What's so obscene about Kabir Singh?

Last updated on: July 19, 2019 17:00 IST
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'By ruffling dignified feathers, and by polarising its audience, Kabir Singh has put movies and art back into our public discourse,' says Sreehari Nair.

In January appeared the Netflix special, Soni, which was immediately classified as a brave film, and which I thought was as tame as they come.

Soni, set in Delhi, did not advance any conversation on the subject of Women's Safety.

It had nothing new to add about Gender Politics than the convenient, conventional view that we are living in the most anti-women period in history.

The film almost begged to be called Meditative and was mounted just so -- in truth, it spoke so less because it had very little to say.

When a film like Soni, which takes no chances, is hailed as a Brave Film, it calls to mind the sort of banner messages that populate many college campuses: 'We are against Racism, Sexism and Homophobia.'

Well honey, *who isn't?*

This article, then, is for those stuck between the manufactured braveness of Soni and that movement that secretly wishes Kabir Singh banned, for its overt sexism.

I haven't watched the Shahid Kapoor film, or its Telugu original, but I have watched Director Sandeep Reddy Vanga's interview with Anupama Chopra -- and before you spit on the man, let us approach the conversation with some anthropological interest: For I think it is the most important interview you will see this year.

By adding yet another women-hater to your grand list, you aren't going to accomplish much; so might as well consider a few interesting paradoxes that Reddy's controversial statements throw up.

Here's one.

Before we establish whether or not a film is racist or fascist or sexist, perhaps, we need to mull over the following.

Is it possible to make a sexist work of art?

Can an artistic production be thought up that is racist, and yet of enduring value?

Can a fascist masterpiece be posited?


I submit that such categories are entirely feasible; and the history of art is laden with examples.

Think Rolling Stones's Under My Thumb with those marimba riffs underscoring the quip, 'It's a Siamese Cat of a girl'.

Think Huckleberry Finn with its casual 'Nobody got hurt. Only a nigger got killed' line.

Think Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will with that iconic shot of thick clouds and a plane wading through them, which plane turns out to be a carrier of Adolf Hitler -- Holy Mama! Gorgeous!

The fact, as much as we try to suppress it, is that any creation that comes out of one's deepest convictions has a shot at being a work of art. (Riefenstahl honestly believed in the Nazi agenda: It was her belief that gave her film its unique power).

Just as Syam Pushkaran's love for women or Truffaut's immense curiosity for the female race reach out to us, so also can we value the sour rage that an artist feels for women, should he choose to express the same.

Art (like nature) is not the slave of any one ideology. But most importantly, art *isn't meant to be polite.*

Art can be pugilistic. It can be disruptive. It can make you uncomfortable.

There is beauty in Starry Night, sure. There's beauty, also, in Giotto's Beheading of St Paul.

Art gets you responding, often, when it conveys that which is just below the orderly surface.

So it can be vulgar.

It can be absurd.

The best art is, always, always, more on the side of the outlaw than the uptight schoolmarm.

My grouse, then, about this whole Kabir Singh fiasco, is that all discussions about the film seem to be proceeding from the argument: Nothing that disrespects women can be art!

This reducing-art-to-a-doctrine attitude points to a larger sickness of our times: the Utopian belief that human beings are perfectible.

That if we can, somehow, fine-tune our social mechanisms -- of which the 'cleaning up art and making it sanitised' is a big component -- we will eventually get to human happiness. And then, perhaps... to world peace. (Oh, how many great empires and terribly tiny poets have been destroyed by this thinking?).

Sandeep Reddy is (in my reading) blessed with the sort of verbal inchoateness that is often associated with a certain class of talented artists.

So when Reddy says, 'Two lovers who don't have the freedom to slap each other, have perhaps never been in love', he is only half-expressing the 'primal' emotions he is speaking out of.

But guardians of Puritanism and those who believe that art ought to be totally inoffensive, have countered Reddy's statements in the most middlebrow, bureaucratic manner possible.

What these dangerous neatpants and their reactions betray is an absolute contempt for the deep irrational forces that govern human interactions, and for the dark side that resides in each of us. (As it is, the neatpants want firm sex codes, more suited to courteous office spaces, to be imposed on performing arts -- which breed in charged, explosive environments).

The sexes's hatred for one another, a man expressing his revulsion for the female body, a woman thinking a man an idiot, a man reproving the control that he feels women exert over him -- there is a degree of truth in all of these, that art and artists must be allowed to confront.

I doubt if Shakespeare could have created half of his characters, or written scorchers such as 'Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above,' in this day and age.

What would have become of poor Hamlet owing to his unreasonable, sexually loaded berating of Ophelia?

Art thou toxic masculine, Prince of Denmark? Fie! Pha! Ban!

IMAGE: Kabir Singh Director Sandeep Reddy Vanga speaks to Anupama Chopra. Photograph: Kind courtesy Anupama Chopra/Instagram

As I see it, obscenity in art can never be linked to its compliance with or deviance from a particular principle: The marker of obscenity is when you can sense no conviction behind an artistic choice.

In an item number, the real obscenity is not the flesh on display, but how the whole enterprise smells of money.

Resorting to sensationalism is obscene.

Blindly following trending topics is obscene.

In my experience, there's no film more obscene than Abhishek Varman's 2 States.

Absence of imagination is obscene.

Obscene it was when Anushka Sharma's 'World's Best Biographer' character in Sanju shed a tear for Sanjay Dutt's crappy my-drug-dealer-did-me-in story (If you think that was 'okay', but are quick to put down a taciturn female character as 'lacking in agency', then you are just a spokesperson of some club and not the master of your own sensibility).

A movie that doesn't try to move its audience humanly, or through the truth of its maker's experience; but tries to move them by touching their sentimental hotspots, and by playing at their weaknesses with great skill -- is an obscene movie.

Obscene it is when a movie uses violence to give its audience a kick.

But the highest expression of obscenity is this equating of a motion picture's value with its box office figures.

Sandeep Reddy's defence of his film by mentioning the Rs 200 crore it has lapped up thus far, is, perhaps, the most obscene remark he made during the interview.

Obscenity must be made of such sterner stuff.

Try telling this, however, to the average critical eye that takes the first sign of discomfort, or complexity in a work of art, as an excuse to baby up and flip out.

Whatever may be your parameters for deciding who is a good critic of the arts; the mediocre ones, without exception, would belong to the subsequent three categories: They will be Poet Laureates of the Obvious; Slayers of the Most Easily Available Dragons; and Peddlers of the Most Liberal Values.

And when neatness, politeness, love, affection, and upholding of brotherhood become your sole benchmarks, you have already rendered yourself incapable of comprehending the power of a motion picture whose nature-like fury may be constructed to blow our pillars of civilisation away.

Regardless of whether it's a good movie or not, Kabir Singh's greatest achievement is that it has brought something out of people (both the dissenters, and those who were seduced by the slapping scenes) in what has been a spectacularly dull year for Hindi movies.

By ruffling dignified feathers, and by polarising its audience, Kabir Singh has put movies and art back into our public discourse.

Come to think of it, Fanny Hill did the exact same thing for the virtuous England of the 18th century. A mass audience is always better for such assaults on its set tastes.

On the topic of Sandeep Reddy, the almost pandemic chastising of him seems to be a part of a larger project that Manu Joseph calls 'the reformation of men -- by women and some very phony men'.

But when you force this reformation upon artists, when the rigid demand is made of artists to 'behave properly and say the correct things', you snuff out the very essence of what makes their trade so special.

In my view, a culture loses vitality when its transgressive artists decide to grow up.

This is why we need, among our artists, those who are freaks, outcasts, rebels, and sinners to maintain their status quo.

I can think of at least one Hindi film-maker who made his most exciting works in that period when a section of the media used to regularly brand him a misogynist. And now that this gent has become a responsible, evolved, conscientious artist, it has had the effect of his films turning completely docile.

It is, maybe, because all ambitious art is created in a state of the Waking Dream (Jonathan Franzen calls it Deliberate Dreaming) that they come embedded with the strength of the Unconscious -- and our Unconscious is not an arbiter of proper public behaviour; it is, merely, a reservoir of powerful moments that we don't completely understand.

In this state of the Waking Dream, the artist and the madman are the same. To disown one, is to disown the other.

It is not said fancifully that mania and obsessiveness are the key ingredients of art.

And if this is indeed true, is there a greater artist than one who recognises the poetry in the rants of the madman -- the madman that is him?

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