Bollywood through a feminist lens

Review: Ki & Ka (2016)

Kia did not want to make a political statement. But to exist and be female is a political act. Any choice will be scrutinized. No choice can be made in a vacuum. And unfortunately, a decision can feel forced, and the decision not to choose can still be a choice.

And as is so often the case, a piece of media that explores these decisions, the main character is male, despite all of the fascinating women.

Ki & Ka chronicles the marriage of Kia (Kareena Kapoor) and Kabir (Arjun Kapoor). Kia is an ambitious career woman; Kabir comes from a wealthy family but instead of taking over the family business, he wants to be a housewife.

The opening scenes are refreshing, fun, delightful. Kabir doesn’t want to be a housewife because he’s lazy or think it’s easy; he thinks it’s an art, and admires the way his mother kept house. Kia is already a manager and has clear career goals. She’s not opposed to love or marriage, she just worries about how her life could be derailed. As an additional twist, Kia is actually a few years older than Kabir, though they happen to share the same birthday (which also becomes their wedding day).

Kia’s concerns are clearly articulated. She has the most to lose. A single man can be understanding and supportive, but the system is stacked against women: culture tells her she should stay home, have children, and stay home to care for them. Kabir understands, but many people in the movie do not.

Likewise, though Kabir appears to idolize his mother and romanticize her life, he understands that housework is not easy. It should be celebrated as an acceptable choice for any person, not something that should be foisted upon one gender by default.

Kia lives with her mother and brings Kabir to meet her, both to get a sort of traditional blessing and to simply announcement the engagement. Kia’s mother asks the couple point blank if they’ve had sex, that it’s important to know if they are compatible before they marry. I would like a sequel that focuses on Kia’s mother: widowed at a young age (and when Kia herself was also still a very small child), she raised her daughter as a single mother and now runs several NGOs. Kabir was inspired by his mother, and Kia by hers. I want to know more about these women!

And isn’t it fitting that a narrative that explores imposed gender roles gives us some interesting peripheral female characters and leaves them at the edges? Motherhood is to be the end goal for any woman, yet how often are mothers ignored?

Kabir also has Kia meet his father, but that proceeds in a more expected fashion. His father is angry at him, and Kabir leaves, essentially cutting off ties with his family. Like many young women, Kabir is now wholly dependent on his new family. They marry in a small courthouse ceremony, just the couple and Kia’s mother. I think this is the first time I’ve seen a courthouse wedding in a Bollywood movie. It’s not sad or a consolation, just a reality.

After the wedding, Kia returns to work, as does her mother. Kabir starts cooking and cleaning. He makes friends with the housewives in the apartment building. Kia and Kabir settle into their new lives.

However, shame and jealousy drive the conflict between them. Kia tells her coworkers Kabir is home writing a book; he thinks she is ashamed of him. However, after explaining his feelings, she tells her coworkers the truth about their arrangement. On a business trip, Kabir becomes jealous of the attention Kia pays to her male coworkers. She angrily strikes back, but they resolve their differences through the movie stand-by of sex.

Sex is a fascinating topic in the film. When Kia and Kabir first meet, they behave in fairly stereotypical Bollywood fashion: a love song with almost kisses. Despite, say, “Western” appearances, they seem to want to wait until marriage. Which is also kind of refreshing, since there’s nothing wrong with waiting, and clearly it seems to be their choice versus pressure from parents or something like that. Once married, they are shown having a physical relationship. Kia has a pregnancy scare, telling Kabir he should have been more careful. Kabir suggests an abortion, though other than “being careful” no mention of birth control or family planning is made. Overall, the movie has a healthy attitude towards sex: it is important to a relationship; it’s important the couple be compatible; it’s important to think about the consequences.

At first, Kia enjoys great success: promotions, magazine covers. But as she rises, so does Kabir. She is candid about their arrangement, and so Kabir starts getting interview requests. Kia’s boss asks him to be in a commercial. Kabir runs a popular cooking Facebook page.

Here is where the movie loses me a bit. Instead of focusing on Kia and her feelings, the movie is squarely on Kabir and his journey. He is invited to a Women’s Day event and talks about how “history” is a problem word — it should be “herstory!” As so many women are used to dealing with, the best feminist in the room is a man. I don’t care about men. Give me a woman’s story about a woman.

However, this scene leads into my favorite part of the movie. Jaya Bachchan watches Kabir’s interview on television while Amitabh Bachchan putters around the living room. She is very interested in Kabir’s message but Amitabh doesn’t get it. “When have I kept you from anything?” he asks her. “It was your choice to stay home.” She responds, not angrily or sadly but matter of factly, “It was my choice because I had no other choice.” Amitabh replies that if they did it over again, he’d stay home. Jaya points out that is easy for him to say as they cannot go back in time to test that.

To hear Bollywood royalty have such a discussion, even in scripted form, made my heart leap. I have little doubt that Amitabh would have said no if he disliked or strongly disagreed with the message. And meta-textually, many in the audience know the difficulties the Bachchans have faced. They still appear to have an affectionate relationship (or at least are willing to be depicted that way) and can reflect honestly on their relationship and how the expected roles are changing.

“It was my choice because I had no other choice.” How many countless women can identify with this statement? How often do we sigh and say, “Well, someone’s got to do it, so I guess I will.” How often do we smile as we labor because, well, why not? And to flip that, think of Kia’s mother. Widowed, a single mother. She went to work because she had no other choice. She has made an amazing life for herself, yet it is not necessarily the one she would have chosen.

Jaya invites Kabir to their home. Kia is out of town and angry that Kabir once again has such an amazing opportunity. While Kabir is visiting the Bachchans, Kia’s mother becomes ill. Kia angrily tells Kabir he should have been there for her.

Kia and Kabir fight in a hospital stairwell, and it seems like their marriage might be over. Later, as Kia sits by her mother’s bedside, she finds a small box addressed to her from Jaya Bachchan. Inside is a lovely letter complimenting Kia about what an inspiration she is. Once her mother wakes up, Kia discusses the situation with her. Her mother explains the problem exists because they are human, and conflict will arise when one person depends on the other. Kia rushes to apologize to Kabir.

One person must depend on the other. Dependency isn’t a bad thing. That’s why we foster relationships: we need love, companionship, physical intimacy, emotional support, financial assistance. No matter our politics, we cannot escape that cycle.

The movie’s ending is a happy one: Kia’s mother has recovered, Kabir’s father has accepted him, and Kabir’s father offers the family business to Kia.

Ultimately, then, the movie’s focus is on how hard any dependent relationship is, as Kia’s mother suggests. That relationship is further strained when typical gender roles are reversed: not only must the people in the relationship navigate their requirements to one another, but navigate the messages and expectations from society as well. They fight, and often over “small” misunderstandings, but they talk about their problems and work to understand one another.

That dependency speaks to another issue woven into the story: class. While not directly stated, the reason Kabir can be a housewife is because Kia has a good job. When Kia was a girl, and her father died, he didn’t leave enough money for Kia’s mother to stay home, so she worked. Kia and her mother employ a female housekeeper (although Kabir has to manage her into actually doing her job). Kia doesn’t want to marry Kabir for his money; she genuinely wants to work hard and rise. The movie doesn’t come out and say “staying at home is based on a specific income bracket,” and does represent a variety of women who work outside of the home or don’t for a variety of reasons.

The movie works to normalize what shouldn’t be a strange relationship and shows the work necessary for any partnership. While the movie still spends (what seems like, at least) more time on its male character, it’s central plot and theme is a refreshing take on modern relationships.

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