The recently released Ki & Ka has received mixed reviews for its ability to speak to a more equal gender dynamics inside the household by showcasing a couple where the man looks after the home while the woman goes out and earns. What has gone uncommented is the film's specious tendency to situate its cool egalitarianism in opposing approaches to corporate life.
While Kia, played by Kareena Kapoor, sees herself as a consummate corporate animal, Kabir (Arjun Kapoor) cannot bear the thought of being an "MBA robot". Those choices are justified argumentatively, but the arguments are never thrashed out.
Kabir, we are told, cannot work an MBA job, and we sympathise to the extent that we imagine an MBA to be the sort of person who spends his days poring over spreadsheets to make the slightest of dents to his company's bottomline. We understand the lack of ingenuity built into the task and we look upon a desire to get away from it as something akin to the triumph of the human spirit.
Kia, on the other hand, works in advertising, and that word conjures up images that are unequivocally more sanguine. We imagine smart, young things working together to come upon ideas that will connect intimately to the target audience, and if we are being generous, we might espy in such efforts an unshackled human spirit that is far more encompassing than the ultimate goal of such an enterprise: to make pots of money.
Ki & Ka tries to bolster these impressions so that its narrative may cohere. Kia's success at her job comes across as unambiguously frippery. She jumps from one presentation to the next, winning applause and moolah on the way. Not for her the grim realities of that banal project called keeping a job. Not once do we see an idea of hers get rejected by her team. Not once does she encounter the sort of politics that all jobs, and particularly creative ones, are prone to.
If Kia's work life is a dream, its imagined horrors are the driving force of her husband's days. Kabir, conveniently, has a billionaire father whose lifestyle he wants to avoid. This choice, which the movie purports to sell as egalitarian, instead comes across as cute, something that Kabir can get away with since he does not really need to work. The film presents Kabir's dilemma as unaffected, but his protestations do not, and cannot, have the aching angst of the Young Artist As Corporate Zombie, which he would have us believe he is.
What Ki & Ka tries doing, if unsuccessfully, is introduce a new template for the corporate drone in Bollywood, one that goes beyond traditional Bollywood tropes to get him or her to look within. Even as Bollywood has not shied away from showcasing the soul-killing effects of being a cog in the corporate machine, those films have nearly always been political, the better to have a sinister ring to them.
In pre-liberalisation India, the film industry - both the art circuit and Bollywood - routinely portrayed industrialists as villainous and all-powerful agents stacked against the common man. Directors as diverse as Ketan Mehta (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro) and Yash Chopra (Deewar) built grand canvases in exploring themes of corporate corruption and the nexus between politics and business. This was an India where not only did the common man live simply, he was often arraigned against the big shots for reasons beyond his control. A comparison with the yuppie leading charges of today's Bollywood yields little of value.
As the profile of the Hindi film hero changed in the 1990s and 2000s, so did films set in the corporate world. Madhur Bhandarkar, in films from Page 3 to Corporate, showcased the grim side of the gleam that passes for the boardroom, but his uniquely negative and salacious vision often prevented his films from making more than a sensationalist splash.
The real triumph of the corporate genre after 2000 can be seen in the small-man-raring-to-make-big genre. A slew of movies tackle this theme, with the look and context much changed from the trade union-filled movies of yore. In Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year or Badmaash Company, both Yashraj productions, the protagonists yearn to make quick money in order that they may buy for themselves the luxurious lifestyle that remains tantalisingly out of reach.
What has not changed over the years is Bollywood's tendency to churn out films that essentially remain morality plays. Even in the new Bollywood, everyone, including the covetous protagonist, gets their just desserts and returns to the path of the straight and narrow. For this reason, nearly all such films focus on themes - greed, comeuppance, and every emotive arc in between - that pit the lure of lucre as ultimately damaging and worth protecting one's virtue from.
There is a space, therefore, for a more nuanced take that looks beyond the rapacious effects of Mammon. Unfortunately, Ki & Ka fails to explore that space. As a statement on the changed gender dynamics in urban India, it is, at best, half-hearted. But its real failure lies in its inability to present a more thorough picture of corporate life. Saddled with patchy assumptions, the film never reaches beyond the slick pleas for equality it plumps for.
Every week, Eye Culture features writers with an entertaining critical take on art, music, dance, film and sport