‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ movie is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
With every round of jhadu-bartan-pocha and every meal cooked by ourselves during the lockdown in 2020, we understood how little we value domestic labour. Those chores weren’t a one-time thing; they had to be performed diligently, every single day, lest we end up sitting amidst our own filth. Time and effort aside, what irked many of us was the unending nature of these tasks. It brought on collective frustration and annoyance.
This frustration has been a part and parcel of every married Indian woman’s life since time immemorial.
Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen depicts this frustration, following the life of a young woman married off in a ‘respectable’ (read: orthodox) family.
Unpaid Labour Is Overlooked, Undervalued, And Expected From Married Women
Staying true to its title, the Malayalam film begins with exquisite shots of food. From sweets and snacks to the everyday dosa, puttu, idiyappam, sambar, and fish curry, the sounds and sights of food preparation, sans any background score, transport you into the kitchen. The diligence in cooking makes you believe that the film is trying to pay homage to Indian cooking, but that’s exactly where it tricks you.
As the film progresses, the shots go from aesthetically pleasing to tired, rushed, and messy, implying that what looks aesthetic and worthy of glorification to us is actually Mundane and back-breaking for those who have to do it every day. And those people are usually women.
Nimisha Sajayan, an unnamed young woman, is married to Sooraj Venjaramoodu, an unnamed man. The happy couple, cosy in marital bliss, lives with the groom’s parents.
The bride gradually catches on to the system in place: the men of the household prefer hand-ground chutneys, clothes beaten and washed over a rock, fresh chapatis at night, and everything served to them.
They are not demanding, but rigid – a chutney ground in a mixer is immediately identified; so is a reheated dish from the night before. While the bride’s mother-in-law has submitted to these rules, things start to fall apart when she leaves to attend to her heavily pregnant daughter, with the bride struggling to handle it all alone.
The bride’s frustration increases along with her disgust towards the mess she has to clean up. The men leave chewed up drumsticks on the dining table, leftover bones in their plates, and unwashed cups in the sink.
Day after day, she finds herself growing averse; images of garbage, flies, and rotting food fill her mind. She’s confused about these rules: Why can’t the men just clean up after themselves?
The gruelling labour depicted in this film hurts to watch, because we’ve seen this happen in our own homes. Women involuntarily find themselves in the kitchen, serving men, regardless of how tired they might be. While the men take their time to do yoga, relax on the porch, or read the newspaper, the women hurry and rush to put food on the table.
The film shows the hefty value of unpaid labour, and how the patriarchy tries to diminish it.
(Continue reading below.)
Pure When I Feed You; Impure Otherwise?
The film scathingly depicts the hypocrisy of men by drawing attention to the qualities they consider ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ – both of which, incidentally, co-exist in women’s bodies.
The Sabarimala temple issue, which gained momentum in 2018, highlighted the fractures in religious practices and customs. When women of ‘menstruating age’ are not allowed to enter the temple, it indicates that men view women as inherently impure. This issue also forms the background of the second half of the film, where one can see the bride’s resentment turn into full-blown rage.
The bride’s ill-treatment – especially when menstruating – is juxtaposed with the groom’s preparation for the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. As he takes a vow of chastity, even the bride’s touch is enough to pollute him.
The same woman who is expected to pick up her husband’s half-eaten drumsticks and wash her father-in-law’s underwear without complaints is nothing but a vice when they decide to practice their religion.
Though the bride finds respite from her domestic duties on days that she is menstruating, she struggles to understand why she must be shunned into isolation. She is shamed for not following or knowing customs, and the blame is put on her ‘foreign’ upbringing. Of course, the groom is nowhere to be seen during this time, as the bride was now impure. The objectification of the wife itself is what truly fills the viewer with disdain.
What works in the film is the bride’s feminine rage reverberating through the screen. Exhausted from being asked to cook and clean without being given respect, she walks out, and how.
We find ourselves cheering for her because many of us have been in her place. We’ve felt the rage she feels. We’ve seen the ill-treatment, the unfair burden of work, and it makes us want to rage as well.
Regardless of the film’s flaws – especially with respect to the groom’s character development – ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ is a must-watch. It’s an indictment of the patriarchy and leaves the viewer feeling a sense of satisfaction.
You’re going to think twice before you leave your dirty mug in the sink again.
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