By Nalini Nair Jan. 24, 2021
Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen does not minimise women’s hard work in the kitchen to “mamta aur pyaar”. Instead, it follows the “show don’t tell” route to narrate the story of women whose entire day revolves around the four meals demanded by the men who feel entitled to their labour.
The kitchen montage is a beloved motif in the world of both food and films. Be it the opening scene of Eat Drink Man Woman, or Ila cooking up paneer kofta in The Lunchbox; the audience is expected to get a taste of the protagonist’s love for both the act of cooking and the person/people they are feeding. The Malayalam movie, The Great Indian Kitchen aka Mahattaya Bharatiya Adukkala turns that trope on its head.
In an early scene, the new bride and her mother-in-law (the characters have no names, they are everyman/everywoman) are seen in the kitchen, making breakfast for their husbands. The father-in-law doesn’t like chutney made in a mixer, so his wife labours over an ammikallu (a grindstone). The daughter-in-law hurries over a sambar, chopping the ingredients, frying the vegetables, boiling the lentils, squeezing out the tamarind pulp; the two women in constant and concentrated motion. This is cut with the morning routine of the men – the father-in-law perennially attached to his recliner and mobile phone and the husband lingering over his yoga poses. And just like that the film trashes any assumptions that this is perhaps another food flick that minimises women’s hard labour to “mamta aur pyaar”.
Taking on the good men of the patriarchy
The men here are not violent, or abusive. The husband gingerly kisses the wife’s forehead after she wipes off the scraps he carelessly dropped on the dining table. The father-in-law compliments her food. They are seemingly, the good ones. Herein lies the beauty of Jeo Baby’s storytelling; he shows the audience the car that the bride brought along as dowry, the husband coercing the wife into painful sex, the obedience expected of the women by the men, and the quick backlash which follows when the bride decides to apply for a job.
The kitchen sink then becomes a metaphor of the patriarchal universe that our young heroine is restricted to, its stink rising and suffocating her until she cannot bear it anymore. Things come to a head when she gets her period, while the two men are preparing for their Sabarimala pilgrimage. The movie then pans out of the kitchen to capture a rising tide of open and violent misogyny in Kerala, all in the name of a God who supposedly doesn’t want women in his temple.
The Great Indian Kitchen unmasks the exploitative gender roles that women are squeezed into – domestic slavery under the romanticised guise of being a “good wife’”. Mankind Cinemas
The Great Indian Kitchen unmasks the exploitative gender roles that women are squeezed into – domestic slavery under the romanticised guise of being a “good wife’”.
As a Malayali woman, this milieu of misogyny couched in “tharvaadi” traditions is a recognisable one. Kerala as a state claims the progressive card, because we have not historically held back education or the right to property from women. But when a woman with multiple degrees is coerced into spending her life cooking and cleaning for the family she marries into, we need to question our definition of an empowered woman, and the good men who make sure that she stays shackled in unpaid domestic servitude.
The cinematography and sound are pioneering
This everyday repression of women hits hard when the camera spends long minutes (it often feels too long but that is the point) with the heroine cleaning up the kitchen after the day is over, capturing the tedium that is the life of so many women, many we know. (Sound designer Tony Babu and DoP Salu K Thomas deserve a special mention). The montages are repeated multiple times throughout the film, to depict the routine of a woman whose entire day revolves around the four meals demanded by the men who feel entitled to her labour.
The film’s background score consists almost entirely of sloshing mops, slurping mouths, and other ambient sounds of a household in motion. That is until the domestic help sings joyously about women with long hair and pert breasts. She is the sole character who seems to have learned how to trump patriarchy in her own way, so she sings as she kneels to wipe the floors.
The kitchen sink then becomes a metaphor of the patriarchal universe that our young heroine is restricted to, its stink rising and suffocating her until she cannot bear it anymore.
With such great nuance, The Great Indian Kitchen unmasks the exploitative gender roles that women are squeezed into – domestic slavery under the romanticised guise of being a “good wife’”.
The conversation about paying homemakers for domestic labour is long overdue and it is also unsurprising that the loudest opposition to it came from a woman, Kangana Ranaut. When Shashi Tharoor backed Kamal Haasan’s proposal to provide a monthly salary to all homemakers for the work they do, Kangana tweeted: “Don’t put a price tag on sex we have with our love, don’t pay us for mothering our own, we don’t need salary for being the Queens of our own little kingdom our home, stop seeing everything as business (sic).” The Great Indian Kitchen deftly undoes this bullshit with a single scene. Our heroine’s father-in-law dissuades her from getting a job, telling her that the work she does in the house is as esteemed as that of a district collector, and then the scene cuts to her despondently washing his underwear by hand.
Sometimes just being a woman can be exhausting. The Great Indian Kitchen doesn’t sugarcoat this harsh reality. And for that we are thankful.