One tight slap for love

A shorter version of this was published in the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times.

“Intimidation has its own charm,” director Sandeep Reddy Vanga informed us while being interviewed by film critic Anupama Chopra on the YouTube channel, Film Companion. Vanga is the director of the Telugu film Arjun Reddy and its Hindi remake, Kabir Singh. The latter has made a little more than Rs 200 crore at the box office – a number that Vanga flaunts with much smugness in the interview, which is fair. After all, when a film with a regressive plot, insipid acting and unremarkable filmmaking goes on to become a blockbuster hit, it must feel good. Especially when said film has been ripped to shreds by respected film critics.

While Arjun Reddy received its share of criticism for being sexist, the reaction that Kabir Singh got from most Anglophone film critics was intensely negative. Most of them couldn’t believe that in 2019, a man declaring a woman his possession (“Meri bandi hai wo”, Kabir says of the heroine early in the film. Incidentally, bandi originally translates to ‘captive’ or ‘servant’, but we’re supposed to gloss over that detail) and slapping her around could qualify as a romantic ideal. Or that forcing a woman to strip at knifepoint could pass for charming.

Public service announcement: Boys and gentlemen, do not try this at home. In fact, do not try this at all unless your partner specifies that they’d like to be dominated. Why is that detail important? Because in the latter scenario, you have a consensual partner in your sexcapade, as opposed to a mute bandi who gets kissed, slapped, abandoned, retrieved etc. There are umbrellas in the Virar Fast that have been treated with more love and consideration than Kabir shows Preeti.

Vanga may pretend that all he cares about is the box office, but from the way he attacked those who have criticised Kabir Singh, it’s evident that he’s hurting, the poor dear. When Anu mentioned certain women had felt uncomfortable about the film’s celebration of toxic masculinity, Vanga said, “So I feel these women [critics] who are talking about this [toxic masculinity], I feel that they were never in love." If your response to this is, in the words of Haddaway, “What is love?”, rest assured that Vanga has the answer – one tight slap.

“If you can’t slap, can’t touch a woman wherever you want, can’t kiss or use cuss words,” said Vanga, “I don’t see emotions there.” What one also can’t see in there is consent. He is also genuinely perplexed that anyone would object to such random violence and declares that without the freedom to inflict random acts of violence on one’s partner, “there is nothing unconditional about it [love], it is all conditional.” Evidently, Vanga isn’t conversant with the meaning of either conditional or unconditional. He doesn’t clarify if, in the name of love, women are free to slap and touch men wherever they want too.

For anyone who has seen Arjun Reddy and/ or Kabir Singh, these sentiments will come as no surprise. Had there been a feminist romantic lurking behind Vanga’s unkempt beard, confessing to loving Bridesmaids and Maid in Manhattan, that would have been newsworthy. Instead, Vanga shares a predictable kinship with his hero, beginning with the mulish conviction that he’s being victimised.At least in the first 12 minutes – which is as long as I could watch Vanga without suffering a stroke – everything that Vanga says, you can imagine being said by Arjun or Kabir.

Which begs the question: Why give Vanga a platform from which he can insult the critics he doesn’t like and champion toxic masculinity? Couldn’t his incoherent rambling about slap-happy love, “fat” critics and other demons have been edited? (I live in hope Vanga has something else to say about cinema.) Would an editorial stand against his obnoxious behaviour be out of place? Even if it wasn’t edited to take out his guaranteed-to-go-viral diatribe, couldn’t at least the cover image for the video (“The Criticism Was A little Bizarre”) give some indication that Vanga isn’t exactly as mild-mannered as “a little bizarre” implies?

There is an impression that journalism tends to give that Q & As (or question and answer sessions) are neutral. The implication is that since the subject – rather than the journalist – is doing most of the talking, there is no editorialising. Even if you turn a blind eye to the fact that it is up to the journalist (or publication) to make the questions easy or difficult for the interviewee, the business of deciding to whom one gives a platform and why can only be neutral if the subject is uncontroversial.

Even on the internet, it is physically impossible for every person who makes a film or show to get coverage. As a result, there are choices that every editorial team makes. When someone is chosen for an interview, they’re being given an opportunity to put their point of view across without interruption. This is a privilege. It is a privilege that Vanga misused when he chose to spend 12 minutes on insisting that consent is inconsequential and justifying toxic masculinity. He made wild claims that can’t be substantiated (like the contention that women have come up to him saying they want an Arjun/ Kabir in their lives) or are inaccurate (like his declaration that critics are crushing creativity and are more damaging to the film industry than piracy). He attempted to emasculate critic Rajeev Masand by repeatedly referring to him as a “fat” (insert eye roll here) and essentially tried to discredit his critics by making odious, personal attacks (they’re stupid, they haven’t fallen in love etc). And Film Companion let him.

You could argue that in the interview, Vanga was given enough rope to hang himself with, but I would argue that all he got was a platform for self-aggrandisement. The Hindi film critics are attacking me because they hate me, he said at one point (I paraphrase for coherence). No, they attacked your film because they’re mature professionals. That distinction was not made for his benefit and neither was there a proper takedown in the early portions of the interview. Here’s a director who already has a film in the theatres to do his preaching for him, and now he’s got a web interview that will also circulate his views.

Especially when we as a society are trying to respond and redress long-standing power imbalances, particularly in the way media has functioned, the question of who gets a platform is more critical than ever now. Recently, author Kiran Nagarkar — who has been accused of misconduct by several women journalists — was interviewed by Mint Lounge in what the publication’s editorial team probably figured was the most neutral way to deal with the release of his new book. The interview is not a particularly riveting read, but that’s not the point. It gives Nagarkar a chance to put his denial across, which is not a privilege accorded to his accusers by the publication. We’re also told that the author’s partner was present at the interview along with a mysterious third person, and that they cut in when the questions got “sticky”. To most of us this sounds like code that is looking to cover up “sticky” bits rather than lay anything bare.. The introductory paragraph doesn’t state clearly that the author probably asked his partner and a third person to be present because he has been accused of behaving inappropriately with interviewers in the past. Neither does it make the point that to interfere in the interview is either attempted censorship or intimidation. Nor does the publication explain why it chose Nagarkar over other authors whose books are out this month. Personally, I’d be far more comfortable seeing a review of his book, rather than an interview in which Nagarkar gets to clear his name again. Why? Because it’s his personal opinion and as in so many cases of #MeToo allegations, due process is not an option. Under the circumstances, to present Nagarkar’s claims without any counterbalance is far from neutral. Arguably, it is actively unfair to his accusers.

Similarly, in the first 12 minutes of Vanga’s interview on Film Companion, the director’s opinions flow as freely and foully as the Mithi River in monsoon. I appreciate that it’s tricky to take to task a person you’ve invited to interview. Still, Anu’s gentle and polite demeanour is both grating and frustrating because Vanga behaves like a boor. I appreciate that he must be feeling defensive about the barrage of criticism. However, there are more graceful ways of dealing with it and I doubt he got any sense that there was anything wrong in the way he attacked his critics or his attempts at logical reasoning. More importantly, neither will anyone who thinks he’s justified and his opinions are sound. For instance, when Vanga made the tired and ridiculous argument that though he grew up watching gangster movies from the 1980s and 1990s, he didn’t become a gangster, Anu accepted his contention that films don’t influence their audiences. She didn’t point out that Vanga has replicated that era’s sexism and alpha masculinity in Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh.

The effect of those old films – which fetishized violence against women and normalised male-dominated narratives and agency-less, objectified heroines – in Vanga has been to replicate that regressive gender equation in Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh. It’s too early to tell what the impact of Vanga’s films will be on audiences, but what we do know for certain is that masculinity is a social construct. This means that it shapeshifts depending upon its context. One of the factors that influences this construct is mainstream entertainment.

Critics (whom Vanga dismisses as “parasites”) could point out that there was briefly a period in the early 2000s when popular Hindi cinema woke up to the 21st century and flirted with the idea of vulnerable men and complex women as leads. Popular Telugu cinema is yet to see such a phase. While Hollywood – read: Disney and Marvel – films have been encroaching upon the multiplex audiences in India, the Hindi film industry’s reaction has been to woo a different demographic to bolster its dipping earnings. Telugu cinema has helped to that end. Ever since 2011, when Ready (another remake of a Telugu film) became a blockbuster and reintroduced the over-the-top male as hero, Bollywood seems to take one step forward and then two steps back as far as gender dynamics is concerned. To argue these films don’t impact how masculinity is constructed in our societies is naive. We can only say that it’s too early to tell the nature of the impact for sure.

At one point within those first 12-odd minutes, Vanga alleges that Hindi film critics are clueless and would commit suicide if they were forced to confront the kind of reality that south Indian films like Paruthiveeran show. Just to give his chosen film credibility, he tells us that Priyamani won a National Award for it. She did indeed and it is true that compared to what happens to Priyamani’s Muththazhagu in director Ameer Sultan’s, Vanga lets Preet(h)i off easy. Because hello, what’s a little slap and emotional abuse next to proper violence, threats of chopping her into little pieces, gang rape, murder and dismemberment. What Vanga chooses not to mention is that while praising Paruthiveeran, critics did point out that there’s a lot about Muththazhagu that is frustratingly patriarchal, beginning with her falling in love (at age 8) with the man who literally saves her life to the way her dignity is equated with sexual purity at the end. It is far from easy to watch the violence that Muththazhagu suffers, but it’s worth noting that she’s not a ‘bandi’ who suffers in silence. You may not agree with her, but there’s resistance and agency in her decision to oppose her father and love the outcast(e) hero. In a film about caste and injustice, the fact that the innocent Muththazhagu faces the brunt of the violence from practically everyone is arguably a comment on the way women are treated by patriarchy. Also, the hero doesn’t emerge triumphant at the end of Paruthiveeran the way Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh do.

Particularly because we’re surrounded by a reality that is verging on dystopic, art – particularly popular entertainment – has a responsibility to do better than it’s doing now in India. Like most creative media, cinema both reflects reality and influences it. We absorb what it shows us and glean meaning from it. It helps impose an order upon the chaos around us, either by explaining it or by offering an escape from it. Cinema with its music and imagery slips into our dreams. It gives us ideas and it teaches us to dream of a better, happier ideals. It makes sense of our relationships by offering parallels and it helps to make the tangled mess of our own emotions seem more legible. To argue that films, with all their persuasive charm, won’t impact how boys, men, girls and women understand and construct the concept of masculinity is naive.

In 2014, the International Center for Research on Women and the United Nations Population Fund released a study titled Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India. The study spoke to 9,205 men and 3,158 women, between the ages of 18 and 49, from Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh about gender norms and relationship control. Perhaps the most heartening finding of the study is that notions of masculinity are influenced by social and cultural factors. Men pick up cues as boys – from parents, in particular – and from peer groups. This means that all those men who have snapped back and rejected Vanga’s vision of masculinity are potentially moving society towards creating a new model of positive masculinity. Let’s hope this is true, because do we ever need an upgrade on the current version.

Among the findings of the study is the statistic that two out of three men expected partners to agree if they wanted to have sex. One out of three partners admitted to controlling how partners dressed. One out of two men wanted to know all the time where his partner was. The study found that 93% of the men they spoke to believed that “to be a man, you need to be tough” and that 93.6% men believed “a woman should obey her husband”. And in case you were wondering, the women agreed with them in almost the same percentages (85% and 91.1% respectively). Is it a coincidence that these attitudes are also reflective of how gender identities and roles in Hindi cinema have been depicted for years?

On June 29, a teenaged boy threw a teenaged girl off the eighth floor of a building in Mumbai, allegedly because she had rejected him. The last words she heard were the boy saying, “Meri nahin toh kisi aur ki bhi nahi [If you won’t be mine, then you can’t be anyone else’s].” On July 2, two boys, 10 and 11 years old, allegedly raped a five-year-old girl in Delhi. The three were friends and used to play together. The sexual violence that is becoming a regular feature of our news is born of myriad factors. One of these is an increasingly visual culture filled with images depicting a certain kind of sexuality, violence and gender dynamic. We could argue that cases like the above are outliers, but the reports of horrifying sexual violence keep coming. Films like Kabir Singh don’t cause these crimes, but they do inform the imagination. It might feel like a slap on the face of men who see themselves in Kabir Singh, but when such cinematic characters become ideals, there is something rotten in the state of Indian masculinity.

The Preethi Shetty/ Preeti Sikka we deserved, but didn’t get

The Preethi Shetty/ Preeti Sikka we deserved, but didn’t get