Jazeela Sherif

This is not a review of the highly topical Malayalam movie – The Great Indian Kitchen, but certainly is an effort to make its message reach a global audience. The kitchen in the film is a permanent stage that we are so familiar with, yet indifferent to, and where the same play is enacted interminably day in and day out in our households. As in the film, the actors change, but the role of cooking, cleaning and the submissive bedtime ritual continues in the same pattern.  

This film has already pierced many a heart. But will it spur a paradigm social change? Can’t say, if we go by how the much hyped social-media has made the world more inward looking, polarized and perverted. Yet, we need to keep hope in the bold mission undertaken by Jeo Baby, the director of the film, and his team. They seem to be wanting to make films in a socially responsible manner, the reason why we want to retell their story here.

There isn’t any spice in this kitchen story, but the bland reality of the pungent dark humour permeates deep beneath your tastebuds. With the unending clinks, clanks and gurgles from the kitchen, this audaciously crafted film could do even without a background score. Capturing the minute details of the archetypal moments of the daily lives of millions of women stuck in the kitchens, and more importantly the systemic denial of this misery, the depiction can’t be more vivid than this.

Kitchen, usually set in the farthest corner of the Indian houses, connects immediately to the not so pleasant backyard, where clothes are washed, wastes are dumped, and where crows and cats roam free. Reckoned to be a domain where the males of the family have no responsibility, this is, however, the critical shop-floor of the family. A shut down here will paralyse the household.

The film has already caught widespread attention, in spite of having released in a relatively unknown OTT platform called Neestream. Its story is oddly predictable at every point to any woman who has lived or is currently living through the post nuptial ordeal of perennial food production for the family, with very little help from men. The boring and tiresome series of tasks associated with this process are shown repetitively, from all possible angles, to open the eyes of the patriarchy that conveniently refused to see it. It needed a camera and a film crew to show them the tedium of all the things they have been taking for granted.

The young husband starts the day with a peaceful yoga session and ends with the inevitable bedtime ritual. The father-in-law, the head of the family, can’t brush his teeth if somebody won’t hand over the brush and paste.  Reclining on the ‘easy chair’, he brushes up his knowledge on current affairs and often rapidly scratching through a smartphone. He politely commands on anything from beliefs to employment and easily gets everyone to align with his thinking. All the knowledge that he is fed with, every day, hardly seem to change his views.

While her husband addresses her ‘Dee’ (meaning ‘hey lady’ in a rather disrespectful tone) the sweet sounding, but all-powerful father-in-law endearingly calls her ‘Moley ‘(daughter) and rejects her request to attend a job interview. For him, the sacrifices women should undertake for the sake of family’s future was nobler than a career for her daughter-in-law. However, he is   magnanimous enough to compromise with her, in using certain modern gadgets with selective concessions. Technology is not off limits for tradition bound men regardless of age as long as they want to enjoy the benefits and luxuries of convenience. But women still need sanctions to use them, their discretions within the limited domain of kitchen are subjected to review and approval thereof.

It is suffocating to watch for about hundred minutes the highly monotonous scenes of preparing three fresh meals according to individual taste preferences, performing all accompanying tasks – including taking orders for tea, packing lunch box, cleaning, washing, sweeping, removing waste and helping with the routine of others, all done by the lady in solitude, silence and in a hurry. In the oddest hours of the day when her body is at its energy nadir, she is faced with an emergency situation of a leaking drain pipe. This has to be managed in ingenuous ways and the kitchen machine has to go on with no apparent difference to its efficiency the next day.

Neither the additional frustrating effort or the unhygienic methods of handling it interferes with relishing the food produced. It remains oblivious as long as the routine is unaffected.  The deluge of à la ‘me too’ experience-sharing by women and apologetic men in the social media shows the impact the movie has created to the collective psyche. Surprisingly, the characters have no names. In fact, we don’t have to name them; we have known them for ages.

There is no villainizing of men or physical violence meted out to the heroine and not even skirmishes between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to spice up the plot.  The home maker mother-in-law leaves the family house to step into her pregnant daughter’s kitchen to fill the temporary void of a cook, which the man of the house is not at all expected to take up. She deeply regrets leaving the young bride with the humongous task of managing a traditional kitchen and a big house all to herself, for she knows what it means to be so.

All women appearing in the movie are shown doing mundane jobs like chopping vegetables or washing dishes even as they talk to each other over phone, and as carrying the perpetual ‘mental load’ of things to do, without even the faintest resentment.

Three different women appear in the movie. The protagonist who enters her home-to-be with a beaming smile, all decked up in gold (which is kept by its new rightful owner, the father-in-law, safely in family locker immediately after the marriage) keeps a supposedly secret ambition to pursue a career in dance but happily plays her home maker role until it gets to her nerves. A poor woman forced to follow the traditions at her workplace to please her master and defies it at home for her own benefit, and a middle-aged lady groomed perfectly to perpetuate the patriarchal traditions as per orders from men and remain a role model for the black sheep in the family. All three do the same tasks day in and day out regardless of their views about life and degree of content, apparently suggesting the gender divide that’s most often felt but not deciphered by the sufferer, thanks to the way patriarchy operates.

In umpteen movies we have seen kitchen as places where women spend most time doing more gossip or engage in silly scuffles than what happens in reality. In contrast, the dining table shown as a place where family harmony, happiness and often gratitude to god is expressed for providing the meal, is reinforced and reassured. In this film, we see the unseen part of it – the littered table (what the heroine hates the most and her husband thinks odd to be bothered about), the soiled plates, the messy kitchen slab, dusty floors, the greasy gas stove, the clogged sink into which she has to dip her arm multiple times a day, the annoying need for sanitizing her hands until the stink goes away, the filthy dirt pit, and old sacks drenched in stinky drain water are part of the underbelly of the iceberg.

Her complaints are often ridiculed. The husband refuses to correct his table manners. Ironically, makes her apologise for her seemingly innocent nudge at his behavior in the hope of reducing her workload. The man never feels guilty for having neglected her request to fix the leak. A closer watch would yield frames of many invisible tasks that women perform to keep the kitchen machine and the household running.

Is there a gross generalization of all men in this movie? Now, this is the question the movie leaves with us.

As the movie goes on to address the politics of patriarchy, the silent violence within the system becomes more palpable. It would be a disservice to the society if we fail to appreciate the observations of movie’s creators and their resolve to send a message sans clamorous sermons or strident exhortation. The next meal served on a platter would certainly make you introspect and quiz your conscience, recall what your mothers had endured, feel the luxury of privileges bestowed on you just for being in a different gender and the cost women had to pay for it all. And that is the message of this movie. 

The dirt and filth, waste from animal carcass, or stagnant drain water stored in the most unhygienic environment – all a collective by product of food processing and consumption by all in the family never becomes a problematic impurity or a hygiene concern for anyone. But menstrual blood, a bodily effluent of women does become a pollutant even in inadvertent indirect or direct contact. If the clogged sink and the leaking drain pipe seem to have some semblance to the filth accumulated in our minds from so many decades of conditioning on how we treat our women, it’s not a coincidence. It’s heartening to note that someone is shouting it out now, loud and clear, from the roof top.

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