'The Great Indian Kitchen': Reality of every Indian household

No film in recent times has captured patriarchy at work in Indian households like this one. Men will squirm and women will agree that it’s a daily reality in their lives

'The Great Indian Kitchen': Reality of every Indian household

Smita Singh

‘The Kitchen’, don’t we Indian women have a serious relationship with this corner of the house? Well, this relation has been so well portrayed in the Malayalam film 'The Great Indian Kitchen' which has been streaming on Amazon Prime Video. I don’t think when Virginia Woolf wrote in her thesis ‘A Room of One’s Own’ that “a woman must have money and a room of her own” she meant this room. But stuck we are. I don’t know when and why the kitchen and cooking food became the woman’s burden in Indian households. No film in recent times has captured patriarchy at work in Indian households like this film. Men will squirm and women will agree that it’s a daily reality in their lives, though at different levels according to social status - that’s a guarantee.

The film starts with the protagonist (played by actor Nimisha Sajayan) meeting her prospective groom (played by actor Suraj Venjaramoodu). It's an arranged marriage scenario. We get to know that the bride is an educated and progressive dancer and was raised in Bahrain. She is married off to a school teacher from a reputed family. Everything seems hunky-dory till now. But soon she enters the kitchen to help her mother-in-law (played by actor Ajitha V.M) and learns that her father-in-law (played by actor T. Suresh Babu) does not like grinder ground chutney and that rice should be cooked in the hearth rather than a cooker for him. We get to see how varied and labour intensive Kerala cuisine is (I know other cuisines are too) and women of the household must carry on doing this till end of days. Till now things are manageable because her mother-in-law takes on the maximum load of work.

But then her sister-in-law who is in the last stages of her pregnancy calls her mother to come and help, once the mother-in-law leaves the protagonist is left to fend for her father-in-law, husband and herself. So, you can see her chopping, slicing, dicing and grinding. She is seen cooking, washing, wiping, sweeping and swabbing. And the scenes keep repeating. The director (Jeo Baby) has done well to keep showing the woman doing the same things day in and day out. She’s the first one to get up in the morning and last to go to bed, where the husband is waiting for her to fulfil her marital duty in bed. In between she is shown trying to manage a choked and leaking sink, regarding which she asks her husband to get a plumber, but he conveniently forgets each time, this symbolism is so much like her stuck life. The drudgery that women carry out on a routine basis gets conveyed loud and clear.

The rest of the film is about how the protagonist reaches a breaking point and how she decides to break free from patriarchal set boundaries.

The invisible boundaries

The film deftly indicates at the invisible boundaries that patriarchy has set-up which women and even men must adhere.

The protagonist or any other character is not given a name in the film, I think that’s because the director wants to convey that it’s a story of every woman, every Indian household.

So, we see the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law labouring away in the kitchen and elsewhere while the men – father-in-law waiting for his wife to put toothpaste on his brush while reading the newspaper so that he can brush his teeth each morning. While the protagonist is cooking the husband is doing yoga. Then when an elaborate breakfast is served they don’t think twice about leaving behind their dirty plates and food remains for the women to pick up after them. The women are supposed to eat after them on the soiled table. When the father-in-law decides to go out his wife carries his slippers and puts it near his feet.

When the mother-in-law is about to leave she takes off all her heavy jewellery and keeps in the safe, the keys to which her husband keeps. This seems to portray that however much a woman toils in the house she is not worthy enough to safeguard her own belongings. Also the fact that the purse-strings and valuables are managed by the men in the family.

The protagonist wants to teach dance but again the father-in-law says it doesn’t suit the family. Her husband says he’s not saying ‘no’ to her working but this is not the right time to bring it up and that his father will come around sooner than later. Most of the times this ‘waiting for the right time’ doesn’t happen because soon kids arrive on the scene and the women are further tied down with responsibilities. You also get to see her husband teaching Sociology to girls in school and the irony – he is teaching the basic building block of the society –the family. What is important to note is that husbands/men like him are not overtly repulsive but they operate with a nice-guy demeanour and dictate their regressive attitudes which stress on the fact that villains are usually the regular people next door.

Another example of his regressive attitude is shown when the couple goes out to dine for the first time. At the table the wife says he is so well behaved at the restaurant because he is not throwing anything on the table. To this he says this is a restaurant and when he is home he can do anything he wants. And instead, makes her apologise for pointing out his ‘bad manners’!

Another familiar scene that will resonate with women is when a couple who are relatives come visiting; the man says he will cook for the everyone. Later when they are playing chess they ask the protagonist to join them to which she says she has to complete some work – the man in question says ‘what work I have done all the work’ and then we are shown what a mess he has left behind in the kitchen for her to clean up. Don’t we see this often when men try to help out in the kitchen they make such a merry mess that the women have to work harder to bring back some semblance!

One important fact that is true for married women is portrayed thus – when the protagonist calls her mother to tell her about her condition, the mother asks her to adjust in the ‘well-known’ family. Women have always faced this abandonment by her own family in India while in her marital home, she will forever remain an outsider.

The impurity of menstruating women

One important real time event that was interwoven so well into the narrative was the Sabarimala Temple’s refusal to allow menstruating women near the deity. This family and society at large in the film do not accept the judgement of the Supreme Court that women should be allowed inside the temple. We come to know how deep this psyche is ingrained when the protagonist is seen as impure when she is menstruating, and so she has to adhere to enforced segregation. When her husband has a small mishap on his scooter she comes running to help lift him and so touches him. The husband is then seen asking a priest about ways to cleanse himself. The priest suggests eating cow dung, which he reluctant to do, so an alternative way is drawn out - that he should take a dip in a river instead. So, yes rules can be bent for a man but not for a woman.

The unfinished end

Why was the kitchen the centre stage one might ask? Well, in India, a woman of marriageable age is still judged on the basis of their cooking skills, no matter if she’s a rocket scientist.

The film tries to say women do have the choice to leave such a toxic relationship and home environment and follow their dreams; they just have to find the courage from within. It also conveys that for a woman her husband and the family are not her only world or that she exists just to make them happy is not true and she is definitely not a superwoman. By showing the husband marrying a second time, the film seems to denote that society will not let go of patriarchal norms so easily. The fight must go on. The film holds a mirror to the misogyny and patriarchy that seem to be passing on from generation to generation – father to son and pretty much everyone else.

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Published: 18 May 2021, 7:30 PM