I’ll begin with the end. It’s an echo of the Boy-Girl meet-cute, in a plane, and it made me smile for a couple of reasons. One, I am a sucker for rom-com tropes. And two, R Balki, after three tries, finally gets his ending right. Cheeni Kum, Paa and Shamitabh turned hideously overwrought after coasting along gimmicky, lightweight (and it must be said, charming) premises – or maybe we should say that the premises themselves aren’t lightweight, it’s more that Balki’s handling of them is. (Not a judgement. Not everyone has to dive into the deep end.) It was exasperating to see Balki mistrust his gifts for light comedy (as most light-comic filmmakers do), and make a desperate reach for drama, as if to prove he was a “serious” filmmaker. But Ki & Ka is the work of someone comfortable in his own skin. Again, the (gimmicky) premise isn’t lightweight – it’s about gender roles, both prescribed and subverted. But Balki isn’t out to get all Mars-Venus on us. Neither is he getting all Betty Friedan on us. The premise isn’t a placard, a slogan, a message. The premise, to him, is simply the obstacle that every rom-com couple has to surmount. I can imagine a lot of people despising Balki’s sitcom-glibness being trained on an issue so sensitive, but what Ki & Ka lacks in depth, it makes up for in entertainment value. The gender-polarity-reversal gimmick spices up the rom-com predictability. The film is basically an old bottle with new whine.
Speaking of which, we get the scene where Kabir (Arjun Kapoor) sees a glass of wine on a table and quickly slides a coaster under it. This is Balki’s ka, a hunk who’s happy being a househusband while wife Kia (aka ki) goes to work. Meanwhile, she takes her cues from the Newly Married Hindi Film Hero handbook. As Kabir sets down a morning cup of tea, Kia pulls him into bed. A little bit of this goes a long way, and Balki, thankfully, doesn’t stretch it. My favourite touch: Kabir wearing the mangalsutra, its gold gleaming a few inches above his chest hair. Also, the dowry crack at the end. The equality of the sexes extends to their birthdays, which fall on the same day, and to the fact that each of them has a surviving parent of the same gender. Very little of this is as new as Balki seems to think it is. When Kia catches Kabir weeping, he says, rather dramatically, that it’s “ek ladki ko ek ladke ko rote hue dekhne ka sunehra mauka.” He must have never seen a Shah Rukh Khan movie. And there’s a lot of editorialising for a film this fluffy. Kia’s mother (Swaroop Sampat) plays the Wise One, saying things like the person who brings home the money gets more respect. But I didn’t mind it. I was reminded of the Wise One roles Sanjeev Kumar played in the 1970s and 80s – say, Shriman Shrimati – where family crises were solved with little homilies that would look great on greeting cards. (They’d be Facebook memes today.)
And in any case, Ki & Ka is a world removed from that of Shriman Shrimati. I cannot remember another Hindi film in which the heroine is so comfortable with wanting sex. There’s a little action sequence where Kabir beats up some thugs who tease Kia, and I dismissed it as a moment intended to remind us of Kabir’s virility in a film where he’s otherwise cooking or reading cookbooks – but the scene takes a surprising turn when Kia is turned on by this display of machismo. Balki’s is a very urban, upper-class perspective, and he’s unapologetic about it. I recalled the Vidya Balan character in Paa, so in the moment that she cannot wait for her boyfriend to find a condom. Another unique moment arrives when Kia is overjoyed that she is not pregnant. Balki does go for the cutes a lot of the time, but he endows his characters with surprising slivers of agency. I was surprised about the way Kia’s mother concluded that Kia was indeed in love with Kabir, and not his money. (His father is a wealthy builder. Let me put that differently. This man who’s renounced what society deems the masculine role, his family business is erections.) Kia’s mother says that women go for the whole package – not just looks, but money too. An acknowledgement of this sort isn’t something you’re likely to find in someone else’s movie, and it makes us think: Would Kia have gone on a second date with Kabir had he not mentioned the money? I’m not saying she’s a gold-digger. I’m just saying that it’s hard to dismiss money, and it’s easy to do things if it’s not an issue.
Would Kabir, for that matter, be able to fulfil his dream of emulating his mother’s role in the household had he not grown up with money, had he not needed to pursue it as his goal? He can afford to be a rebel. “I want to be like my mom,” he says, but it’s his dad who’s (largely) made it possible. Kabir claims he doesn’t want to end up in the rat race, as a robot, but there are many housewives who endure day after robotic day, doing the same things over and over, without even a promotion or a salary hike in sight. But then, Kabir (or maybe even Balki) doesn’t seem capable of thinking through all this, never mind his being the batch topper at IIM(B). He’s a man-child, happy with his trains. In the film’s most startling scene, Kabir throws a jealous fit after seeing Kia spending a lot of time with a male colleague, but his mood changes after Kia yells at him. He (or maybe Balki) is no longer interested in pursuing that thought-train. Now, he just wants to make love. Recall, also, the very bizarre scene where he catches the domestic help – another working woman – slacking off. The scene just hangs there, with no apparent reason for being, but the way Kabir gets over what’s happened, again, suggests a certain kind of man. In a different movie, I’d have called Kabir a saint who lives up to his name. He’s genuinely happy for Kia when she succeeds at work. (And note her name, practically a verb: she’s a doer.) Kabir doesn’t seem rattled that he has no male friends, that he only hangs out with the housewives in the building. He seems to have not a single dark moment where he questions his choice. But that’s just who he is, full of boyish positivity and cheer. Arjun Kapoor still mistakes making faces for acting, but he does put across this not especially bright man-child.
Kia, inevitably, is the more interesting half of the title. She’s older, age-wise but also infinitely more mature. She loves Kabir, but she also has that deep-rooted suspicion of men you find in many working women (and justifiably so). At first, she even lies to her co-workers that Kabir is working on a book. At some level, she still doesn’t get it – because she is, herself, dismissive of what being a “housewife” means, what it entails. And every time she fights with Kabir, she says horrible things that show how, underneath it all, she’s still trying to process this arrangement. However evolved a man is, a woman’s career is always compromised… You’re just another cheap man who’s pretending to be evolved… You can’t wipe off centuries of oppression by being a househusband… You’re a brilliant con man who’s using me to prove you can succeed by doing nothing… But what really galls her is that he becomes famous for being a househusband, a much sought-after figure in talk shows and on magazine covers. How many women who do the things he’s doing end up as famous? How unfair that when a man deigns to undertake what’s traditionally labelled a woman’s job, he still comes out on top. Or to put it a little differently, when a woman takes on what’s traditionally labelled a man’s job, she still has to share the spotlight. There’s a good scene where Kia comes home and finds there’s nothing to eat because the newly famous Kabir doesn’t have the time to enter the kitchen anymore. Logically speaking, she could have picked up the phone and ordered in. But she waits for him. She wants him to see her hungry. She wants him to see her sulk. She wants him to feel guilty about not fulfilling his half of the bargain. Kareeena Kapoor plays Kia beautifully. There’s a fantastic scene where she comes home and tells Kabir that her boss wants him for an ad. She makes a show of laughing off the idea (which she hates), but her face shows that she’s waiting to see what he will say, what he will do.
Perhaps you have to be tuned into the hyper-awareness in Balki’s filmmaking to really enjoy his films. He’s a bit of a man-child himself, incapable of letting a moment go by without seizing it, winking at it, and looking at us to make sure that we winked at it too. Take the opening scene where we meet Kia (Kareena Kapoor). It’s a wedding. The bride drags her to the dance floor. She protests, then joins in reluctantly, mimicking the bride’s steps. You have to laugh at the way the off-screen image jostles with the on-screen part. Here’s one of Bollywood’s most celebrated executer of jhatkas, acting like she’s above it all. Or take Kia’s job, as a marketing manager at Marico. How cleverly it allows for numerous product placements. Balki doesn’t even have to pretend to disguise the blatant shill for something like Saffola.
Then, of course, we have Balki’s undying interest in Bollywood’s biggest brand: Amitabh Bachchan. For the first time in the Balki-verse, the actor isn’t the main draw, and yet, he hovers over Ki & Ka like a guiding spirit. At least, one of his films does: Abhimaan. What if Bachchan fell for a much-younger woman? What if Bachchan played his real-life son’s on-screen son? What if Bachchan’s famous baritone belonged to someone else? Ki & Ka continues Balki’s investigation into (and deconstruction of) his favourite star: What if Abhimaan became a slightly subversive rom-com? And Balki being Balki, he won’t let things rest there. What if Abhimaan-like dynamics spilled into the lives of the real-life Bachchans, whom we meet at what seems to be their real home? What if Amitabh had chosen to give up his career, so Jaya could wave to her fans gathered outside their home every Sunday? Balki doesn’t go so far as to show (or even suggest) Jaya’s resentment, but you can’t help wondering how she feels about her abbreviated career, about being a bigger star than Amitabh at one point and then having to phase herself out of the industry because… it’s easier for a ki to do this than a ka. I wouldn’t be surprised if Balki dreamt up Ki & Ka as Jaya’s revenge-fantasy on Amitabh Bachchan.
- Cheeni Kum = see here
- Paa = see here
- Shamitabh = see here
- Ki & Ka = his and hers
- mangalsutra = see here
- “ek ladki ko ek ladke ko rote hue dekhne ka sunehra mauka” = a golden opportunity for a girl to see the guy cry
- Shriman Shrimati = see here
- jhatkas = see here
- Abhimaan = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.