-Vishesh Kashyap, Editor-in-Chief
It is not often that movies, whether through their content or its subliminal implication, cause the initiation of a discussion of the social responsibility of cinema. The controversies surrounding Kabir Singh and Joker, their release separated by four months, have led to just the same, and have lessons to impart on nuance, context and the absoluteness of free speech.
Post its release, Kabir Singh was met with the most markedly polarised reviews for a Hindi movie in long. It was primarily criticised not as much for its cinematic attributes, as for the fact that it “applauds its pathetic protagonist, and ends up an obnoxious celebration of toxic masculinity.” In a similar vein, while Joker, and especially Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the eponymous protagonist, was heralded across the critic board, eyebrows were raised at its primarily being the story of a disaffected clown who resorts to violence, particularly in the era of mass shootings in the US.
"Movies are written, directed and acted in by individuals who have their own points of view with regard to the society; their content cannot be justified by holding the society accountable for how they see it."
In response to the controversy, Shahid Kapoor, who plays the protagonist in Kabir Singh, said, “Cinema is meant to mirror life.” To use the age-old “art mirrors life” epigram to justify genuinely disturbing and intentionally exaggerated fictional content is to inculpate a billion people for troubling figments of one’s own imagination. Movies are written, directed and acted in by individuals who have their own points of view with regard to the society; their content cannot be justified by holding the society accountable for how they see it.
At the same time, holding filmmakers to account for the possible societal implications of their content would be assigning undue social influence to movies, and insulting the prudence of their viewers. “Life mirrors art” is a flimsy excuse for the minor fraction of viewers who feel the actions of a movie character vindicate their own delinquent activities; if not from the movies, they are likely to find their vindication somewhere else anyway. If movies are to be limited to characters who do not cross the limits of acceptable moral behavior, the implications on storytelling, and free speech in general, would be severe.
"...while filmmakers may well be rebuked for problems with their storytelling, the mistakes of psychopaths who choose to be ‘inspired’ by their content cannot be attributed to them."
It must be noted here, though, that both Joker and Kabir Singh falter in their handling of the issues with their protagonists. Kabir Singh might be disconcerting and misogynistic, but is also unabashedly so. Joker is sympathetic to the actions of its protagonist through and through, without any real attempt at qualification. Significantly, both protagonists are gloriously successful at the end of their respective stories. It is this lack of nuance and moderation that introduces in viewers the worry of ominous societal decline. However, while filmmakers may well be rebuked for problems with their storytelling, the mistakes of psychopaths who choose to be ‘inspired’ by their content cannot be attributed to them.
So, does life imitate art, or vice-versa? The answer, going by the two cases considered, is, neither. Fiction can never be realistic enough to be conflated with reality, and movies must be, and generally are, viewed in the context they are made.