3 April 2016

A Very Jagged Little Pill

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A choppily-directed, gimmicky film about gender roles, Ki and Ka shows how far we have to travel. 

The smoothest radical statement in the otherwise bumpy Ki & Ka comes right at the beginning. The single, successful corporate career-wali Kia (Kareena Kapoor) is attending a wedding. Having looked wistfully at the groom and bride (some desire for coupledom is acknowledged in that lingering glance), swigged some whiskey at an uncleji's urging and refused an enthusiastic dance companion with a too-loud reference to having her period, she gets on the phone to someone. "I'm at my friend's shaadi. The last day of her life as an independent human being," she declares in mock-mourning. "Because after this she is going to become a khamba." 

After decades of Hindi film romance in which (after the requisite paeans to kaajal and zulfein) a man's search for True Love ends in finding a female pillar of support, Balki's new film has an undeniably fun premise. In Kia, we finally have a heroine who balks at being the wind beneath anyone's wings - she's clear she's going to do the flying herself. 

Unfortunately, that's where the newness ends. The film decides that to enable Kia to "achieve her dreams", she needs a partner who can be that wonderful, invisible, supportive presence in the life of every successful high-flier - a wife. And Balki thinks he's serving up something terribly revolutionary by making Kia's 'wife' - read 'non-ambitious support structure' - a man. 

But Ki & Ka is so intent on the assumption that a non-careerist man is an unbelievable oddity that Kabir (Arjun Kapoor) must have his present-day choices explained by past trauma. So we learn that his housewife mother died young, unappreciated by his brash and enormously rich father. 

What the film tells us is that Kabir thinks his mother was an artist, and he wants to be like her, creating a home -- rather than climbing a stressful corporate ladder whose final rung is inevitable early death in an expensive nursing home. 

What it doesn't tell us -- but makes screechingly apparent -- is that his wanting to be a house-husband is as much about emulating his mother as the standard-issue son's desire to undercut the father. Which might be read as a very masculine rite of passage. 

Balki's other target, it seems at first, is the whole mainstream definition of success: Kabir's wooing of Kia involves mocking her corporate ambitions and suggesting that these external criteria of 'Vice-President' and 'CEO' and lots of money may not necessarily make one a contented, happy person. But his bracing critique apparently doesn't mean he's looking for someone who shares his world view. Nor that he's going to try and help his partner shed such constricting ambitions. Nope, it just means he's going to be the backroom boy egging her on! And oh, before you cast any doubts on Kabir's own capabilities in the corporate direction, Balki makes sure we know he's an "IIM-B" graduate: because you know, we can only respect someone for non-competitiveness if they've won the competition. 

If the film's supposed critique of the corporate rat race is rather muddled, so is its challenge to gender stereotypes. First of all, Balki's script is so jittery about his hero's nurturing of his 'feminine' side that he provides ceaseless markers of 'manliness' to counteract it -- Kabir loves whiskey, Kabir loves women, Kabir can fight like Dharmendra. Then, Kia and her mother (the sweet but quite wooden Swaroop Sampat) going to work while Kabir keeps home, is meant to be the film's central provocation to the existing gendered division of labour.
But in fact, the film is so embedded in a received gender dynamic that its 'role-reversal' actually reinforces the idea of a complete separation of spheres. According to Ki and Ka's vision of the world, a successful career means no time to look after one's own diet, let alone one's ageing parents. And conversely, taking care of a home must be a full-time job, where all that's allowed to stimulate your brain is diet plans and books about bread. 

But why assume -- as Swaroop Sampat's tiresome climactic monologue does - that the only way to resolve our living arrangements is a total division between the home and the world? Why is it necessary that only person's work is in the public domain, while the other remains singlehandedly responsible for the private domain? Why can't men and women both contribute to the home, both from within and without? Someone who has never had to clean their bathrooms or cook their own meals can never appreciate the work that goes into keeping a home running. And conversely, someone who has never had to deal with an impossible deadline or a tiring daily commute is unlikely to understand those stresses. 

The film dimly recognises that the crux of the problem is the visibility and invisibility of different kinds of labour. But it fails to acknowledge the main reason for that difference: money. Only work outside the home gets economic recognition and confers social status. And those who do not earn it must deal, in one way or another, with the insidious accusation of freeloading. The solution to this does not lie in switching who does what, but in encouraging both genders to do their share of both. And in the meanwhile, giving domestic unpaid labour a little of the respect it is due -- without needing it to be done by a man giving a Ted-X talk.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 3 March 2016.

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