The underrated pleasure of Kareena Kapoor Khan in Shakun Batra’s Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu
Kareena Kapoor’s filmography is rife with characters who waste no opportunity to scream out every detail of note about themselves. Riana from Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu on the other hand feels like course-correction for both Hindi cinema and for the actress.
Kareena Kapoor is arguably one of the most talented actresses of her generation. At the same time, Kareena Kapoor is also one of the most frustrating actresses of her generation. The actress, a third-generational Kapoor from the most illustrious Bollywood family, is made up of contradictions – someone who is inherently gifted and somehow disinterested in always doing justice to her fullest potential. This is her 20th year in the Hindi film industry and through the decades, a pattern has long emerged in Kapoor’s filmography: her performances are either inimitable or instantly forgettable.
From the very beginning, Kapoor, who debuted with JP Dutta’s Refugee after having famously walked out of Rakesh Roshan’s Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai, displayed the wits of a mainstream heroine. Her initial roles were iterations of the familiar girl-next-door in big-budget romantic outings that had an A-list hero to boot (Yaadein, Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, Mujhse Dosti Karoge). Her later filmography is scattered with instances of the actress playing second fiddle to male stars in factory-produced, and at times, unsubstantial roles (Aitraz, Ra.One, 3 Idiots, Singham Returns, Bajrangi Bhaijaan).
Kapoor liked being the arm-candy in studio-led productions as much as she liked being a part of an ensemble (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Tashan, Ajnabee, We Are Family, Yuva, Golmaal, Good Newwz). In fact there is perhaps no other mainstream heroine working right now who can boast of starring in the number of forgettable movies that Kapoor did back in the noughties (Khushi, Bewafaa, Jeena Sirf Mere Liye, Asoka, Kyon Ki, Kambakkht Ishq) and still warrant the kind of wide-eyed devotion. This also meant that the few times that the actress resisted from playing safe in her 20-year-long career can actually be counted on your fingers (Omkara, Kurbaan, Udta Punjab, Talaash, Jab We Met, Veere Di Wedding).
In a way, a majority of the films that Kapoor chose to act in depended on what she could bring to the characters and weren’t necessarily roles that demanded something vital out of her capabilities as an actor. As a result, the effect of a satisfying Kareena Kapoor performance – boisterous and effortless in equal measure – is inextricable from the persona of Kareena Kapoor.
Two of Kapoor’s most enduring and career-defining turns – Poo in K3G and Geet in Jab We Met – are cut from this exact cloth. These two characters who look easy to play but are actually demanding to sell, have unquestionably benefitted from the fact that Kareena Kapoor played them. As several filmmakers have found out in the past few years, trying to replicate the essence of Poo or Geet is an altogether redundant exercise. The versions come across as second-rate caricatures simply because Kareena Kapoor didn’t just essay Poo or Geet; she inhabited them to an extent where they fed off her real-life persona so much that it became perplexing to distinguish the line separating Kareena Kapoor and Poo or Geet.
The animated naiveté veering between braggado and recklessness isn’t unbearable when Kapoor hits those notes only because they aren’t curated or put-on; rather they’re an extension of her own personality. On the other hand, her more weighty performances like Dolly Mishra in Omkara or Rosie in Talaash stand on the other end, having had instantly recognisable traces of Kareena Kapoor meticulously cleansed off them. There’s no denying that they are elevated predominately by the fact that Kareena is unrecognisable as these women, consciously straying away from being herself on screen.
I suspect that’s why my personal favourite Kareena Kapoor performance is one that delicately straddles both these parts – a less flashier character doing justice to the fact that the actor completely forgot herself while playing it. In Shakun Batra’s underseen Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, Kapoor is Riana Braganza, a spirited 27-year-old hairstylist who is integral to the metamorphosis of the film’s male lead from manchild to man. At first glance, it could feel like she was modelled on Geet, Kapoor’s most iconic character. But anchored by clever writing and an emotionally alert performance, Riana became an antithesis to the “manic-pixie dream girl” trope popularised by Jab We Met instead of being another copy of it.
When it released in 2012, Ek Main aur Ekk Tu was that rare Hindi romantic comedy that captured the kind of millennial authenticity that felt lived-in, comprising none of the pomp that accompanies a mainstream Hindi film even though it was produced by Karan Johar and featured two star kids in leading roles. Co-written by Batra and his frequent collaborator Ayesha Divitre, the genius of Ek Main aur Ekk Tu was that it was essentially a buddy film masquerading as candy floss romance.
Until then, the lexicon of Hindi film romance hinged on a certain vein of dishonesty. On the big screen, happily-ever-afters weren’t earned as much as they were freely distributed like candy. Falling in love became an inevitable event, larger than life itself, which is to say that the Hindi movie definition of romance was not only aspirational but also impossible to recreate in real life. So even as decades, plots, and leads changed, the eventual destination of almost every other Hindi love story remained indistinguishable. With Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, Batra set out to do the opposite: tell a story about love that wasn’t burdened by the expectations of a happy ending. In that sense, Ek Main aur Ekk Tu is also a sly meta-commentary on the romantic drama itself, employing a degree of deceit to outsmart a genre reputed for peddling chiffon-adorned trickery.
The route that the film adopted to achieve this subversion was through Riana Bragazana. Most filmmakers, including Imtiaz Ali who brought the manic pixie dream girl to life on the big screen, treat her like an enigma: her inherent vivaciousness is just a device for the hero to develop an appetite for life. So naturally, her nonchalance is seen as nothing but a phase that she is meant to overgrow the moment it has fulfilled its purpose – that is ensuring that the hero comes-of-age. It’s as if these films thrive on blowing out all life from its female protagonists just to afford their male lead an even ground, injecting their veins with borrowed personality.
Batra eschewed convention and refused to employ Riana’s carefree abandon as a stepping stone for Rahul Kapoor (Imran Khan), the film’s 25-year-old hero who is a prisoner to both routine and his inability to stand up for himself.
So even as Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu initially stuck to the enjoyable beats of watching two different personalities grow closer as they find their way to each other, Batra used the film’s second half to overwrite the possibilities of that first half. In any other film, it would have led to romance: one person developing feelings for the other would have been a cue for realisations and ultimately, reciprocation to dawn on the other. But in Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, it just looked a lot like love. That was possible only because Batra took his time to see Riana, a character who displays a certain degree of manic pixie qualities via her zest for life, uninhibited independence, and steadfast denial to subscribe to societal expectations, as a person in their own right.
That is sublimely spelt out in the film’s most defining moment that comes toward the end and ends up as a masterstroke of subverting assumptions. In the scene, Riana is taking Rahul around her school after having convinced him to tag along with her on her New Year’s trip back to Mumbai, the city where both their parents live. Rahul, like the rest of us, sees this harmless offer as one that is loaded with romantic meaning. His expectations come to a head when she takes him to a secluded part of the campus, to show him the spot where she had her first kiss. Rahul takes it as a hint and responds to the information by leaning forward to kiss her. Taken by surprise, Riana leans away from him, confusion writ large on her face. Yet, she suggests moving on – misunderstandings like these happen between friends, she tells him.
On his part, Rahul is livid at the rejection, storming off and accusing Riana of leading him on. If one were to take every other romantic Hindi film as reference, you’d be inclined to agree that he was right. In fact, watching the film’s breezy first half, it’s hard not to catch yourself predicting that they would probably end up with each other, only because that’s how it’s always been in the movies. But that’s precisely the reason Ek Main aur Ekk Tu ends up being the movie that it is.
In imagining a female lead who didn’t exist to just be an object of affection, Batra gave us a coming-of-age tale in the truest sense of the word. The kind of film where the hero comes around to accepting that the women they love aren’t mandated to reciprocate their feelings, that rejection isn’t an attack on their self-worth, and that infatuation can sometimes look like love.
Kapoor brings a vulnerability to this scene that is telling of how often women – even the ones in Hindi cinema – are forced to bear the brunt of men misreading standard niceness. What I especially like about the emotionally intelligent screenplay is that it understands the two sexes: The narrative could have easily taken an aggrieved turn but that it leaned toward reconciliation was proof that it intended to place the onus of succumbing to mixed signals on its hero.
That in turn, informs Ek Main aur Ekk Tu’s final sequence when Riana tells Rahul that she’d like them to be friends, nothing less and nothing more. Throughout the film, Kapoor played Riana on a somewhat sombre note, between being her vivacious self and adeptly muting it down on request, but the beauty of her performance is the things left unsaid. By now, a manic pixie dream girl is an open book, someone you know by heart sometimes reading her better than you might see through your partner or best friend. But there’s an air of mystery about Riana in the sense that even when she divulges information about herself, it still doesn’t give us the full picture; just a trail of breadcrumbs.
It falls in line with Batra’s vision of not creating a female lead for the sake of solving her but I suspect that the ripple effect of tension that this creates is much to do with the quiet maturity that the actress brings to Riana.
Kapoor’s filmography is rife with characters who waste no opportunity to scream out every detail of note about themselves. Riana on the other hand feels like course-correction for both Hindi cinema and for the actress; someone who demands that men earn her trust instead of revealing herself for the sake of being liked. The actress does so much with so little here, conveying independence, asserting her point of view, and asking for her own space with mere glances, without as much as raising her voice or getting into an argument. That the film ends without Riana being the proverbial arm candy then, felt as good as a sign that maybe both Kareena Kapoor and Hindi cinema was perhaps ready to grow up.
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