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The problem with Kabir Singh is not that he is a violent alcoholic jerk –it’s that these characteristics are made to look attractive. Here’s how some other TV shows and movies handled similar ‘problematic but genius doctors’ and why they are better portrayed than Kabir.
When Padmaavat had released, I had numerous discussions with many people about why the jauhar scene was problematic. The problem wasn’t showing the act of jauhar itself –that it occurred is part of the legend of the Queen. The problem is the use of background music and other cinematic tools, to make it look like a triumph, when it fact was a tragedy. The scene should have evoked sadness and grief. Instead, it elicited cheering and admiration.
That is the problem with Kabir Singh as well. He is violent, alcoholic, and a typical example of toxic masculinity –and that’s not a good thing. But the movie celebrates these traits, framing them as “intense love.” He’s given this identity as a ‘brilliant doctor’ , and the audience, who should be made to experience disgust at the abusive behaviour, instead looks upon him as a hero and an example to be followed.
There are other pop-culture doctors who are better written though. Characters whose faults are portrayed as the reasons for their downfall and not as qualities that should be aspired to. Characters who learn and grow.
Munnabhai from Munnabhai MBBS is a flawed character. For one, he is a gangster who kidnaps people, and indulges in violence. Two, he lies to his parents. Three, he cheats. Four, he offers needless advice to “Chinky” who he believes is a promiscuous party girl.
And yet, it is not these traits that people remember Munnabhai for. They remember him for his “jadoo ki jhappis” (only thing that would make them better is consent), his use of his “gangster skills” to help a mother and her suicidal son, his compassionate treatment of Anand Bhai and his sensitivity.
The makers of the movie were careful to show that Munnabhai’s flaws cause him to lose what matters him to the most –his relationship with his parents. However, instead of this loss turning him into a worse person, it motivates him to do better. It is not his “gangster life” and “macho” behaviour that make him so loved. It is his humanity –his respect and empathy for all, irrespective of their age or social status, and his eagerness to make things better for those around him.
(Doctor Strange; Avengers: Infinity War; Avengers: Endgame)
Part of the hugely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, already popular among comic book enthusiasts, came to screen in the 2016 movie Doctor Strange. Doctor Strange is one of my favourite Avengers, and not just because he is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
He is shown to be a genius doctor who is extremely arrogant and egotistic. After losing his hands in an accident because of his own recklessness, his mental health deteriorates. Going into a very dark space, he pushes away those who love him, including his lover Dr Christine Palmer. Even at the monastery in Nepal, under the guidance of The Ancient One, he is shown to be recalcitrant.
Only when he gives up his pride and selfishness does he grow into greatness.
Later in the movie he also apologizes to Dr Christine Palmer, and shows how much he trusts her by revealing his magical abilities to her. His arrogance becomes confidence. He becomes less self-absorbed as he fights for a bigger purpose. Doctor Strange is a hero, not for the qualities that made him a jerk, but because he shoulders great responsibilities with grace.
Grey’s Anatomyis a popular American medical drama series set in a hospital in Seattle. The series follows the lives of the doctors in the hospital, showing not only how they deal with medical cases, but also the ins and outs of their personal lives. Though the title character is Dr Meredith Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo, the other characters are given equal importance.
Alex Karev is perhaps one of the most underestimated characters of Grey’s Anatomy. The character, who was called “evil spawn” by the other characters, was initially shown to be a selfish, callous playboy, who spread STDs around. A lot of this bad behaviour is traced to his difficult relationship with his mother, who has schizophrenia.
As the show progressed he was shown to have multiple disastrous relationships. In one season he even punches another character who he thinks is flirting with his girlfriend, Jo Wilson.
However, the moments that audiences love Alex for are the moments when he reveals himself to be capable of great sensitivity and compassion –such as the moment when he uses the “kangaroo method” to save a newborn who everyone believes is a lost cause. He becomes a solid and dependable friend to Dr Meredith Grey, a skilled surgeon who is not afraid to break the rules for his patients and a loving, supportive husband to Jo. He has a brilliant redemptive arc, and is one of the most skillfully and sensitively written characters on TV.
An an army veteran, Doctor Owen Hunt is the quintessential macho man. A brilliant trauma surgeon who can hold his own under pressure at work, he is disciplined and skilled. However, when it comes to his personal life, he crumbles under the slightest sign of conflict.
He is controlling of his mother and sister, and gaslights many of his romantic partners. No surprise that he isn’t able to sustain a relationship.
While a lot of his problems can be traced to his PTSD, the latest season revealed that some of it was caused by trust issues seeded in him because of his father’s sudden death. Following this he sincerely apologizes to Dr Amelia Shephard, who he called being incapable of being loved, and openly expressed his love for Dr Teddy Altman.
Grey’s Anatomy has always presented Owen as being shortsighted in his emotional life, and has refused to glamourize his PTSD. His character is a raw and sensitive portrayal of a very “masculine” man who is not perfect, and who needs help.
House M.D. is another American medical drama series, featuring Hugh Laurie playing the titular character Dr Gregory House. House and his team of diagonsticians solve “medical mysteries,” diagnosing and treating diseases that other doctors have given up on. The series also explores relationships and personal lives of the characters.
On the face of it, Gregory House is an insensitive, politically incorrect jerk. He is disrespectful, cynical and often frank to the point of being unkind.
This behaviour stems from his loss of his leg and the addition to Vicodin that followed. However, the show however refuses to let him use this as a convenient excuse for his bad behaviour and uses various situations and characteristics to show how these qualities cause more damage to House. As his friend and colleague Dr Wilson points out to him, “You hate yourself, but admire yourself. Misery doesn’t make you better than others.”
Ultimately, what is admirable about House is his skill as a diagnostician, and only that. The show makes that very clear, even as it allows viewers to bear witness to House’s pain and empathize with him.
(Ayalum Njanun Thammil)
Ayalaum Njanum Thammil (Between Her and Me) is a 2012 Malayalam movie. It features Prithviraj in the lead role of Doctor Ravi.
Doctor Ravi is shown to be highly irresponsible and lax in his duties. Working at a rural hospital in Munnar with a committed and responsible senior doctor, he starts to mend his ways. His attempt to elope with his lover is foiled by a police inspector with a personal grudge against Ravi. When that inspector’s daughter is then admitted to the hospital, he refuses to treat her. Luckily, the girl is saved by the senior doctor, and Ravi is severely admonished for his actions.
Further events in the movie show how Ravi realizes his mistake and becomes a new man with a strong ethical code. At no point does the movie justify Ravi’s irresponsibility and bad decision-making. Instead the focus is on how he learns and grows.
TV and Movies must show reality on screen. But what matters is how that reality is shown. In a society where women are regularly harassed and assaulted, glamorizing those very acts and making them “heroic” is a problem. Instead, writing the character in such a way that his flaws are acknowledged as flaws, showing the impact of his actions on those he claims to love etc are better ways of portraying the character. We need to criticize Kabir Singh for his shortcomings and encourage him to change for the better, not idolize him and cheer him for being a rowdy.
Image source: YouTube
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