By Devapriya Sanyal and Melissa Webb.
The Indian film critics have done it again! As Glover and Kaplan state in their book Genders, the term “gender” itself is rather slippery. Such complicated issues regarding gender and performance are explored by Indian film director R. Balki, who attempts a gender role-reversal of sorts in his film Ki & Ka (2016), while also questioning the very foundations of how gender is constructed. Not surprisingly, Indian film critics have missed the mark with this film, many unfairly dismissing it or failing to take notice of its complex take on gender-relations. While it is true that Bollywood rarely produces a film worth engaging with critically, the year 2012 proved to be a golden year for discerning audiences of Hindi films. We had a proliferation of good – even great – films, some of which were not only critically-sound but also proved to be box office hits. 2016’s Ki & Ka is the first film from Bollywood since 2012 that has actually forced me to sit up, take notice, and pen an article about it!
Before delving into Ki & Ka, I want to write a few words about R. Balki’s previous projects. One of his earlier films, Paa (2009), is also an examination of gender-roles and familial relationships, with a special focus on that between a father and a son. Here, Vidya Balan plays a single mother (in a swerve from gender-norms, she is a doctor), taking care of her twelve-year-old child, who is afflicted with a rare genetic disorder that makes him appear to be a grown man. The child’s role is played by none other than the superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who is infamously known as the original “angry young man” of Bollywood. Her estranged husband and father of her son, played by Abhishek Bachchan, is an ambitious Member of Parliament. He abandoned her long ago when she refused to abort their child and remains blissfully unaware that the special child Auro, with whom he connects in his constituency as a Member of Parliament, is none other than his own love child. Even though Amol Arte does come to find out the truth at the end of the film, as Auro lies dying in the hospital, Vidya is very reluctant to share Auro with him. The film ends with Auro’s death but allows for the possibility that Vidya and Amol will finally come together after their child’s death.
Going back even further, his first cinematic venture was Cheeni Kum (2007), which had a rather unusual premise for a Hindi film. The plot concerns a thirty-something year old woman named Nina Verma (Tabu) who falls in love with much older London restaurateur, Buddhadev Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan). While Nina’s father, played by Paresh Rawal, is reluctant at first to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to a man who is four years older than himself, he finally gives in, sensing that the two are very much in love and that Buddhadev Gupta will take care of his beloved Nina. The film was reviewed favourably by the critics and did reasonably well at the box office.
Ki & Ka (2016), Balki’s fourth film, opened to mixed reviews, with most critics panning it as an indulgence on Balki’s part. For one, the film begins with a popular rap song by Honey Singh, causing them to abruptly dismiss the film from this fact alone. More substantially, though, they complained about the idea that Ajrun Kapoor’s “Kabir,” an IIM-B (Indian Institute of Management Bangalore) topper, chooses the “easy way out” by dropping out of the world of business to stay home and be a “house-husband,” while his wife Kia (Kareena Kapoor) plays the career-driven partner. Both the character of Kabir and the film itself are so much more nuanced. Though it may seem at first that Ki & Ka explores notions of gender equality and gender role-reversals to simply paint an increasingly-cliched picture of contemporary society, I feel that Balki displays gender role-reversals to show how gender constructs repress individuals, constricting free-will and personal autonomy. Furthermore, while we often think of women as being the only sex forced into constrictive life-paths, stifled in the domestic sphere, unable to explore alternate routes to self-fulfilment, by focusing on Kabir, the film places great emphasis on the man and his choice. The film deals uniquely with empowering men through its deconstruction of gender norms. Gender norms often force men into leadership positions – into positions of power in the business-world – that they may find as suffocating, exhausting, and unfilling as a woman might find housework. Women leaving the home to enter the public sphere is ever-increasingly presented in cinema and is slowing becoming more accepted; a man choosing the reverse is something inadequately examined. The film taps into this and, while advocating for choice for women, it also does so for men.
Balki shows varying degrees of conformity and new modes of thinking within the characters that populate the film To start, there is Kia who comes across as the quintessential career-driven woman of the 21st century, modern to the core (in appearance, body language etc.). She is sexually-confident and promptly invites her unusual co-passenger on the flight, Kabir, for drinks when their flight lands in Delhi. Early on we learn that Kia’s life-philosophy does not entail getting married to become somebody’s khamba (a pillar), while the man climbs to success in his career. She is a free-thinking woman who is the marketing manager at a multinational company, and she has no plans to give this up for a husband. She lives with her widowed mother, also an independent and free-thinking woman, who has taken care of her daughter single-handedly since her husband passed away at a young age. Kia’s mother readily accepts the unusual Kabir and his non-business-oriented ways and is happy to have her daughter marry him.
Kabir’s father, on the other hand, an industrialist, finds it difficult to accept a son uninterested in his business, money, or corporate-work. He is dismayed when he finds out that Kabir wants to get married to Kia and become a house-husband. To his son, he scoffs, “Do check what you have inside your pyjamas,” implying that it is not “manly” to survive off his wife’s money while he is a stay-at-home husband. His father is firmly conventional in his thinking: the husband should work and financially support his wife, while she takes care of domestic duties.
Here we get to Kabir himself. What makes this character – and his decisions – especially worth discussing? My answer: He is not a man who simply falls into the domestic sphere because he is unambitious or because he is uneducated and has few career-options. Rather, he is someone who studied diligently and graduated top of his class from a prestigious MBA school in India. He could have unthinkingly entered the corporate world and become the Vice President or CEO of a multinational company, these being common choices for graduates from good business schools, but instead he thoughtfully mulls over his future and, after careful consideration, realizes being a house-husband more closely aligns with his philosophy on life. In contrast, his wife swiftly makes the choice to go into business, because this has always been what felt instinctively right to her. Kabir, on the other hand, has always been torn between societal expectations and personal desires. So while at first I thought that Balki could have made Kabir simply an ordinary graduate – not especially talented – to prove his point, it struck me later that giving Kabir so much potential to excel in the world of business, but having him give it up, highlights the fact that the specific choice was made consciously and not because he had no other viable options. While he could have had a successful career as a manager at a variety of companies, perhaps even holding a better job than his wife, he prefers to stay away from the cut-throat world of corporatism and save himself the trouble of expensive hospital stays and high blood pressure. He doesn’t view the consequences that come with traditional male roles as “worth it.” Balki empowers his protagonist by providing him with choices and allowing him to make the unconventional one.
Kabir’s views on gender-roles (and living in general) are progressive and thought-provoking. At one point, he tells Kia that he wants to be like his mother, a housewife. He convinces Kia to consider and accept his worldview by raising these types of relevant questions: Why are we humans always running, never taking the time to contemplate what it is that makes us happy? What are we trying to reach? With whom are we competing? At the end of a hard and stressful life in business, many are admitted to expensive medical facilities, all the while congratulating themselves that they have the money to be treated there. But why choose a life-path that leads to suffering from such diseases and problems in the first place? Kabir tells audiences that there are other options, ones that fulfilling, freeing, and completely valid.
So in Balki’s film the empowerment of the man becomes the key issue. As Kabir argues, if a man wants to be like his father it is acceptable to society but, on the flipside, a man wanting to be like his mother is thought to be a deep character-flaw. The analysis of Kabir leads to this striking idea: Balki seems to imply that even a man is not free to make his own choices, showing that the patriarchy fails men as much as it does women. Patriarchal society determines his choices, his gender, even his sexuality. These are all vitally important thought-pieces that Balki raises in the film.
Furthermore, Balki shows a positive representation of what a house-husband might look like. Kabir is a richly drawn character with a variety of talents; he does not twiddle his thumbs all day but, rather, contributes greatly to the household. He is both a wonderful cook and a devoted husband: he wakes up early to make coffee for his wife and mother-in-law, women who work outside the home. He even provides his share of the money to be paid as EMI when they buy the apartment building. While he doesn’t go to office to earn the large amount of money that Kia does, he is never short on ideas for gaining some revenue. He works as a gym trainer and earns his pay assisting the wives of the rich neighbours living in his apartment building.
Despite Balki’s generally progressive philosophy and the film’s solid deconstruction of gender norms, I do find it questionable that he seems to play into the conventional views of his critics and his audiences in scenes dealing with Kabir’s masculinity. To me, a moment of weakness comes when Kabir gets into a violent fight as he accompanies his wife for a late evening walk. My problem is this: why did Balki, who was presenting his audience with such unique concepts to consider regarding gender roles and performance, have Kabir prove his masculinity by rescuing Kia from a bunch of thugs in a stationary bus by beating them up? What surprised me most about the sequence was Kia’s response to the brute masculine display of aggression: she seemed to savour the moments of the fight, enjoying playing the feminine role of defenseless and weak maiden needing to be saved by a strong man. She even congratulated him on this unseen side of him. Furthermore, Kia does feel ashamed at times about the fact that her husband does not engage in all those conventional markers of masculinity, seen especially when she invites her office colleagues home for dinner after her sudden marriage to Kabir. This notion of making sure Kabir proves his conventional “manhood” at least once throughout the film – and the fact that Kia is pleased by it while being occasionally being ashamed of his deviations from masculine-norms – is a bit troubling.
And again, when Kabir begins giving public interviews because journalists are interested in his unconventional life as a house-husband and his wife’s role as breadwinner, Kia shows this sort of regressive-tendency to want to keep them both boxes, in a way that mirrors patriarchal necessity for order and categories: while the film is largely about the crossing of boundaries between masculine and feminine traits and about not being forced to play one type of role, here Kia seems to want order and identity labels. Her philosophy comes across as follows: if Kabir is going to be a house-husband, he should stay out of the public sphere all-together and play his role completely. She does not like his increasing fame and the fact that the interviews force him to be away from the home. In a jealous rage, she accuses Kabir of gaining notoriety without working; she believes that work in the corporate world is the only marker of success. She feels that she should be the one in the spotlight, because she has chosen the path of business; the public-sphere is her domain. Kia’s vehement reactions to Kabir’s crossing out of his designated station threaten to undermine the film’s usual advocating of choice and its belief in the fluidity of identity.
But Balki, the intelligent director that he is, concludes the film with Kia forgiving Kabir and recognizing that her reaction was inappropriate. She finds a letter from film actress Jaya Bachchan congratulating the couple on their choices; the letter notes that while Kabir is brave for choosing the role of house-husband, it is even braver to be the wife of such a man. Kia gains some perspective into the complexity of their roles and decisions. Balki gives a beautiful solution to the question of what roles a man and a woman should play: the answer is none. There is no prescribed-role we must play. “Ki” and “Ka” stands as much for Kia and Kabir as it does for ladki (feminine) and ladka (masculine) in India, as it does for women and men all across the world. We all consist of some ki and some ka. Who we are – how we choose to spend our time on the planet – is entirely up to each of us.
Chakravarti, Uma (2003), Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, Calcutta: Stree.
Clover, David and Cora Kaplan (2009), Genders, London: Routledge.
hooks, bell (1992), “The Oppositional Gaze,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 115-133.
Reddy, Gayatri (2010), “The Production of Gender” in With Respect to Sex. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press.
Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).
Melissa Webb is an editorial assistant for Film International and received her MA in English from Rutgers University-Camden in January 2017. She helps program the Reel East Film Festival.