by Suniti Sampat and Anushka Sachdev
With Cheeni Kum, it was ageism. With Paa, sensitization about degenerative diseases. With Ki and Ka, R Balki attempts to take on gender stereotypes. However, along the way, he seems to forget how multi-faceted the problem really is. While attempting to highlight stereotypes, there is always the risk that one ends up propagating them. Sadly, such is the case with Ki and Ka.
Kiya (Kareena Kapoor), a marketing executive with a promising career ahead of her is married to Kabir (Arjun Kapoor), who seeks to emulate his mother by becoming a home-maker. While the movie is based on the unconventional relationship the couple shares, Kiya’s mother plays an important role in the film.
The movie certainly begins on a good note, with the heroine stating how conventional Indian marriages are unfair to women, who are expected to be extremely sacrificial when in the relationship. So here we have a woman who thinks that marriage is an inconvenience for a career woman and hence steers clear of it. On the other hand, we have a man who is willing to stay at home to manage her home. Seems like a perfect fit, no? So Ki and Ka decide to tie the knot and the awkwardness begins.
Kiya’s mother is portrayed as an uber cool mom, the kind who asks her daughter if she’s had sex with the guy before she takes the plunge. Yet she asks Kabir if he’s in it for the free meals, devaluing household work in a nonchalant manner. She also seems to believe that most women’s love for their husbands is dependent on the financial security they receive from the relationship. If things weren’t going bad already, Kiya gleefully announces that Kabir will be her wife- perhaps it was meant as a joke, but it reinforces the stereotype that household duties are those of a wife.It’s ironic that Kabir has to clarify that he is not gay and likes whisky, after he bravely admits his desire of being a house-husband. Disappointing, yes.
The film focuses on and struggles with the question of who is an ‘Asli Mard’? In a rather uncomfortable discussion that Kiya and Kabir have with the latter’s father, Kabir’s father attempts to humiliate Kabir for his inability to perform his (socially-determined) gender role. A nuanced discussion about masculinities and gender stereotypes could have followed. Sadly, this did not happen. According to the film-maker, the proof of manhood lies in one’s chaddi (underwear). A classic example of phallic-centrism, the film simply ignores gender identities and deals with masculinity in the most stereotypical way imaginable: with a penis.
The film is guilty of a grave injustice to women : misrepresentation of the women who work at home. The film would have you believe that all housewives need fitness classes, go for kitty parties and hang out with a homogenous pool consisting of other housewives. Now that Kabir has donned this role, all his new friends are middle-aged women deeply concerned about losing weight and are dependent on Kabir for ‘fitness’ classes.
While mocking stereotypical roles, it reinforces certain ideas. For instance, the notion that the home-maker must always be at the beck and call of the bread-earner, waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare the beverage of their choice without expecting the same from them. God forbid, if they falter in their ‘kartavya ka palan’ (duties), the home-maker would be sent to their ‘maika’ (mother’s home) !
Credit must be given to the filmmaker for the portrayal of Kiya and her mother as independent working women who know their mind. Their comfort with Kabir living with them without contributing (at least, at the outset) to the household income is telling of their comfort to do away with generic notions of gender roles. However, there is a lot of stereotyping that the movie is guilty of, while portraying modern career women. Apparently, such women live in extremely untidy homes, skip breakfast and are unable to take care of their health.
As for the bechdel test, the movie does not pass muster. The female lead has a few conversations with friends and colleagues, but these are either really brief or about Kabir. The long conversations that take place between females are those between Kiya and her mother, which again, are centred on Kiya and Kabir’s relationship. However, It may be noted that the film successfully passes the makomori test. The character of Kiya is well-written. She is shown as having an independent personality, independent of the male lead’s character.
Separating Gender and Roles
The film has highlighted the idea of dominance of one gender over another by showing that even after the so-called reversal of gender roles; one dominates the other in a marital relationship. Despite flipping stereotypical gender roles, they maintain the power equation of the bread-earner over the home-maker. This is reflected when Kiya becomes insecure on Kabir becoming successful, and tries to dictate his professional choices, or when he gets shouted at for leaving her mother alone. While it is fun to see the woman lord it over the man for a change, it’s troubling because it devalues the work done by a housewife. The film completely ignores the struggle undergone by housemakers for a standing at par with the primary earner’s and continues to demean housework and trivialise the person who does it. This continues to be problematic because housework is usually done by a woman, so by constantly demeaning it, the film furthers gender stereotypes.
The movie concludes on a strange note. The filmmaker would have the audience believe that the problem does not lie with gender, but with the hierarchical relationship that exists between the earner and the home-maker.The film-maker does not acknowledge the fact that housework is perhaps not given its due because it is women who are traditionally performing it. Perhaps if men were traditionally performing the same, they may have been given more credit and importance for the same. Even in the film, Kabir’s role as a home-maker is celebrated, with him receiving so much adulation for the same. While this may be due to the novelty of the situation, it’s difficult to miss the irony of the situation, as women have been performing this thankless role for centuries! While credit goes to the film for highlighting the fact that the home-maker never gets her due, the film ignores this gendered aspect of division and valuation of labour. Perhaps, the filmmaker could have acknowledged the fact that Kabir was only receiving so much praise because it is rare to see a man in such a self-sacrificing role. This begets the question – can we really separate gender from these hierarchical roles? Does the systemic subjugation of women to roles that have been undervalued by society since time immemorial mean nothing? Dear filmmakers, please wake up and smell the sexism.