By Rohini Banerjee:
When a film that’s supposed to be about gender equality begins with a Honey Singh song, you know that it’s not a good sign.
In the first 10 minutes of ‘Ki And Ka’, we are met with a bored Kareena Kapoor at a wedding, where the bride and groom are dancing to the aforementioned Honey Singh song. I get her irritation at the song, at the general enthusiasm of people present at the wedding, and I actually agree with her when she loudly disrupts the festivities by proclaiming how marriage will ultimately prove repressive to the bride-to-be. What I don’t get, and find difficult to swallow, is when, to rebuff a potential suitor she (again, loudly) declares that she’s on her period, on her ‘menstrual cycle’ to which the guy reacts as if he’s seen a ghost.
This sequence is pretty much symbolic of how the rest of the film unfolds—at a very basic level, it has some good ideas, some important points to make, but completely loses sight of it all in its desperation to loudly proclaim and scream them at us.
The film’s basic premise is this: Kia (Kareena Kapoor) is a full-on career girl who’s at a top corporate post and despises all things domestic, and Kabir (Arjun Kapoor) is an (unemployed) guy who’s so in awe of his late housewife mother that he aspires to be like her someday (i.e, a ‘housewife’). They meet in what is initially an interesting scene but ultimately turns into the clunkiest meet-cute in all existence, start hanging out together (totally out of the blue), fall in love (even more out of the blue), and ultimately decide to get married in a situation where he’s the stay-at-home husband (except, in the film he is continuously called a ‘housewife’), and she’s the breadwinner. This kind of a flipping of gender roles could have been potentially revolutionary, especially for mainstream Indian cinema, but ultimately, it gets riddled with the very same stereotypes it seeks to dismantle.
Really, this film is a series of could-have-beens. Arjun Kapoor’s character could have been potentially so subversive, because here was a man whose very introductory scene sees him crying in public (something so, so taboo not just in films, but also in our daily lives), who unconditionally supports the professional ambitions of his wife, who willingly wants to stay at home and engage in domestic activities. But then, all of this comes crashing down as the film continuously seeks to assert and assure us that this in no way takes away from his ‘masculinity’ (cringe level: max).
Kabir tells Kia that wanting to be a house-husband doesn’t make him ‘gay’; and that he likes women, and doesn’t like ‘pink’. I’m sorry, but what? Not only is that harping on homophobic stereotypes, but falling prey to concepts of toxic masculinity, which dictate that staying home, or being gay, or liking pink is in some way emasculating. Further, to remind us that Kabir is still a ‘man’, there is a random scene thrown in where he beats up a bunch of men on the street who were teasing Kia—to which, Kia dreamily says that she’s turned on by this, by him beating up guys and being ‘masculine’. I can’t even begin to explain how inherently messed up this is; that his desirability to Kia increases when he’s being aggressive and beating up baddies, things traditionally considered ‘masculine’. And really, this continues throughout the film. It’s as if this film can’t wrap it’s head around there being a man who can actually be free from professional ambition, treat his partner as an equal and not be what society terms ‘masculine’.
Another thing which consistently bothered me, throughout the film, is how it continues to use the word ‘housewife’ when it comes to Kabir. The film poses as if this is something revolutionary, with Kabir even going on a detailed tirade on how being a housewife is an art and is as important as going out as earning money. I get what he’s saying, that women in the domestic sphere work as tirelessly as men in the professional sphere, and often don’t get rewarded or even acknowledged for it. But the way he says it, the way he insists that he wants to be a housewife, not a househusband, just goes on to reinforce that housework is ultimately the wife’s job; and that a man doing it, makes him the ‘wife’ (further highlighted when Kia introduces him to her mother as her would-be ‘wife’).
Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but feel like the film was taking sides—Kabir’s side. Much like Kabir’s characterisation, Kia too could have been something brilliant and path-breaking. But no, she’s slotted into the ‘angry feminist’ trope. She’s often sceptical, irritable, and prone to paranoia. Yes, she shuts down sexism (and there are some such moments that I actually approved of), but she often becomes prey to sexism, and that really disappoints me.
When Kabir starts being celebrated for being a successful house husband/wife, she starts getting jealous that the attention is on him instead of what she’s accomplishing in her workplace. This again, could have been a commentary on ‘male’ feminists (debates about this term, in another piece), but the film, again, takes it so far that it ceases to be that and instead turns into petty jealousy.
In one utterly baffling scene, Kabir accuses Kia of sleeping her way to the top (an accusation that’s utterly unexpected, coming from a character who seems so gender-sensitive as him), and Kia, understandably furious, starts yelling at him and calling him out for what he has said; but he shuts her up by kissing her. The classic ‘silence her with a kiss’ trope which is painfully patriarchal, disrespecting of a woman’s opinions, and has been around the block since medieval times—that’s what this film resorts to. Surprisingly, Kia doesn’t even struggle against it, and this is followed by a lovemaking scene. Kabir is let off completely scot-free both for his ridiculous accusation, as well as for silencing Kia’s opinions.
In fact, in the majority of the second half, Kia’s character comes across as unsympathetic and self-centered, while the film continues to focus on how lovely and amazing Kabir is and how much he’s supporting Kia and keeping the household together. For a film that’s supposedly feminist, making the woman look bad kinda defeats the whole purpose, no?!
The only saving grace, and a moment of great subtle poignancy in the film is a cameo by Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, playing themselves. They discuss gender roles, and Jaya asks Amitabh whether he could have ever sacrificed his career for taking care of the family like she had done, and while he readily says yes, that he would have, the not-so-subtle implication is that he could never have. That one moment is so small, and so telling—about societal expectations, about gender roles and about internalised misogyny. If the rest of the film was more like that, and less like a misplaced ad campaign, loudly shouting concepts without understanding them or really exploring them, this could have actually been a great film. But it falls prey to crowd-pleasing measures, and to same old stereotypes.
While the film’s concept deserves an applause, I wish, I really wish, Mr Balki had delved deeper, had actually understood the issues surrounding gender and gender roles and tried to actually be subversive, rather than yet another reiteration of the status quo. ‘Ki And Ka’ wants to and pretends to be revolutionary, to be a statement for gender equality, but it isn’t even mature enough to realise how vast the concept it has taken on is. This is a film very much like its misguided hero—a sham.