His lover is named Preeti, and so is his pet dog. The way he treats her in Kabir Singh, though, it’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart.
Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s exceedingly faithful Hindi remake of his 2017 Telugu drama Arjun Reddy follows a heartbreak that is as intense as the love that preceded it. When the surgeon Kabir (Shahid Kapoor) loses the human Preeti (Kiara Advani), he gives his four-legged pet her name. When his maid dares to refer to the non-human Preeti as a dog, Kabir barks at her in outrage.
There is an unmistakable element of ownership in Kabir’s relationship with Preeti. The hot-headed and arrogant Kabir is on the verge of abandoning his medical degree when he first spots the demure fresher Preeti. She is the type of student who clutches her files close to her chest, and Kabir is smitten enough to tear up his withdrawal letter. Kabir moves in on Preeti as would an animal on its breakfast, and one can only assume that her shy ways signal consent.
Kabir never asks Preeti for her thoughts on the matter. Why should she have any at all? In a movie that treats Kabir as a demi-god and mythologises his actions, Preeti needs to consider herself fortunate that Kabir gives her coaching tips, protects her from ragging, and bestows his brilliance on her in countless other ways.
The moment when Kabir walks into Preeti’s classroom and tells her where to sit (a medical degree is serious business, Preeti, you must be in the first row) and picks her friends for her (a plump friend is likely to be more loyal than a good-looking one) must count as one of the most sinister courtship scenes in the movies. It worked just fine for Arjun Reddy, which was a blockbuster, and is regurgitated nearly to the last frame in Kabir Singh.
I like the way you breathe, Kabir tells a grateful Preeti. Their ardour only grows, but Preeti’s family is troubled by her wealthier boyfriend’s sense of entitlement. Kabir’s separation from Preeti leads him down an overly familiar rabbit hole. Kabir gives no quarter and takes to drink as he teeters on the edge. The liquor and drugs do not cause his scalpel-wielding hand to tremble, nor do they diminish his appeal. This alpha male continues to command the loyalty of his pack. When he suggests to an actress that they set out on a purely physical and romance-free relationship, she behaves as though she has won an Oscar.
Director Vanga’s realistic spin on the Devdas myth is delivered with the same gusto and gumption as in the original movie. Apart from dropping a few expendable scenes and replacing some of the songs on the soundtrack, the 174-minute Kabir Singh is a resounding echo of the Telugu film. And yet, there is plenty to compare. The casting and performances make all the difference between the original and the facsimile.
Arjun Reddy was steered by a strong and memorable turn by Vijay Deverakonda, who embodied Vanga’s vision of Indian masculinity in psychological and physical ways. Deverakonda was closer in age to Arjun Reddy (who is in his late twenties). The frequently bare-chested hunk made Arjun’s ability to command the loyalty of his friends and the attentions of the female populace seem plausible and lent his self-destructive behaviour more poignancy than it deserved.
Shahid Kapoor plays Kabir with grim-eyed determination and visible energy, but he is already a bit too old for the part (he is 38). Kapoor’s trademark boyishness has been cruelly tempered by age, and his limited emotional range shows up in key scenes, including the moment when Kabir first sees Preeti, and the bust-up between the couple that pushes Kabir towards self-harm.
Kiara Advani does her best to rustle up some chemistry with Kabir, but her Preeti remains the most uninteresting part of the puzzle. Several other members of the supporting cast, including Suresh Oberoi as Kabir’s stern father and Kamini Kaushal as his understanding grandmother, acquit themselves honourably. But this saga of falling and failing in love is mostly a one-person show led by an actor who is willing – but not always able – to carry it through.
Also carried over to the remake is the quality of indulgence, which leads to a bloated run-time of nearly three hours. There are far too many scenes of Kabir knocking it back from a bottle, and the movie slides into near parody in moments when he shows up sloshed at work or lectures his friends on the meaning of true love. The epic length reduces the impact of individual scenes; the unwillingness to improve on them in the remake is a lost opportunity.
Just like the man of the title, the director seems stuck in a moment he doesn’t want to get out of. Kabir Singh reimagines the Indian hero archetype in interesting ways, but its inability to even consider the flaws in its leading man’s romantic outlook is its undoing. Is masochism the flip side of machismo? Both movies seem to agree, but they never ask why.