It's hard to say what about Kareena Kapoor-Arjun Kapoor starrer Ki And Ka is more disappointing: the song at the end, which is frustratingly typical of Bollywood’s dehumanizing treatment of women, or how it reinforces age-old arguments that have been deployed to deny women the chance to pursue and develop an identity of their own.
Though it attempts to appear revolutionary the film falls so far short of success that it can only be described as a thought experiment in how the world may have been different had evolution assigned men the roles that women have in the home and vice versa.
In fact, the “lesson” that the audience is expected to learn by watching the two-hour film didn’t even need the supposedly radical idea of casting a man to play an ambition-wary househusband and a woman an overachieving, career-driven person. It could just as easily have been communicated had Arjun Kapoor played the breadwinner and Kareena the caregiver.
The film begins with Kabir (Arjun Kapoor) and Kia (Kareena Kapoor) sitting next to each other in a plane; Kabir silently sobs thinking about his mother and Kia furiously types on her laptop. Stereotype number one. They end up chatting about their lives at the end of the flight, with Kabir revealing that his father is a Delhi real estate magnate but that he has no interest in his father’s money and instead wants to be like his mother who he describes as an artist. If a son can aspire to be like his father, why can’t he want to be like his mother, he asks. This could get interesting, right?
Over the course of a brief courtship, we learn that Kabir's mother was in fact a housewife and Kabir delivers a lecture about how society should respect housewives even though they have no careers or bank balance to be recognized by. For good measure, he throws in a line of tired dialogue about how his father couldn’t have been the successful, wealthy man he is if his mother hadn’t stayed home and cared for them while he worked his days away.
Within the first half an hour of the film, Ki And Ka has lost the opportunity to fight the good fight for women’s equality by deploying exactly the argument used by traditionalists to confine women to the home: glorifying the denial of their right to things like a career and a top-notch education as some sort of a sacrifice for the greater good of society and then assigning this behavior a polite description like “she was an artist, because building a home is nothing short of an art”.
In other words, spending their life being content playing second-fiddle to the men in their lives who go on to pursue their professional dreams and aspirations.
There are a few more clichéd dialogues about how wanting to stay at home and not having a career does not mean one is lazy but are in fact a refusal to run in the rat race of success. At one point, Kabir asks Kia if there is any “softness of heart” in her as she is so career-focused, because obviously you cannot be both a good and a driven person. Oof. Stereotype number… I've even lost count by now.
Unsurprisingly, as both Kia and her mother are working women, their home is unkempt and the bai (elderly maid) is duplicitous as there is no one to supervise her work – because when have domestic staff (also female) ever been conscientious professionals that working women can rely on?
Eventually, Kia takes Kabir to meet her mother and tell her that he has proposed marriage and “wants to be my wife”, evidently because of his desire to be the stay-at-home spouse. They both chuckle, in a jarring reminder of how feminine symbols and roles are usually the butt of jokes – comments like “go wear your bangles” if someone isn’t seen as tough enough.
Unsurprisingly, as both Kia and her mother are working women, their home is unkempt and the bai (elderly maid) is duplicitous as there is no one to supervise her work – because when have domestic staff ever been conscientious professionals that working women can rely on? This is just more stereotyping packaged as an entertaining encounter between Kabir and the bai.
The film also fails to address many of the key issues that have become a part of the discourse on increasing women’s participation in the workforce and treating their ambition as something to be encouraged, not nipped in the bud or as a sin to be punished.
For example, when Kia fights back with Kabir over his insinuation that she should sleep her way to the top because she has returned in the middle of the night from a business networking event, the argument abruptly ends when Kabir passionately kisses Kia mid-sentence. Or take the scene when a female colleague tells Kia, the newly-minted Vice President for Marketing, that she saw her trailblazing interview but the only compliment she can give is she loved what Kia was wearing.
At work, Kia argues for targeting an ad towards men so that women can see their lifelong dream of men helping out in the home come true. Yet, she herself (as the “male” of the spouses) is never shown as helping out at home.
Here is what the film completely misses: simply showing a man cleaning the house and cooking for the family is not making the case for equality in the home.
Marriage needs to be treated as a partnership where running the home is a collaborative effort, not a relationship where the man or the woman assumes one rigid role or the other.
Yet the opposite takes place in Ki and Ka.
While pitching a marketing campaign for discounts on cooking oil, Kia argues for targeting it towards men so that women can see their lifelong dream of men helping out in the home come true. Yet, she herself (as the “male” of the spouses) is never shown as helping out at home. In fact, one morning she stomps off to work angrily as breakfast isn’t ready because Kabir is busy and has become something of a local celebrity.
It would have been more instructive if Kia was shown to be an ambitious breadwinner with a genuine desire to appreciate her partner's efforts at homemaking (and his limitations).
If you are looking to watch a Bollywood film with a nuanced and fresh understanding of why the assignment of gender roles is problematic, Ki And Ka will only frustrate you further.
Otherwise, Kareena is great as always and it’s nice to see an older woman and a younger man romance each other without age ever being a problem.