A few minutes into the Malayalam movie, “The Great Indian Kitchen”, it becomes apparent that this is not a foodie’s ode to Indian cuisine, nor is it a tribute to any chef (a la Julie & Julia). You realise that the title, The Great Indian Kitchen, is one that drips with sarcasm. The movie is a scathing indictment of the patriarchal institution that marriage is in India, even in the 21st century (or perhaps all over the world?).
With no background music at all and sparse dialogues, the majority of sounds and visuals in The Great Indian Kitchen are from the daily activities that permeate every household in the country. Cutting, chopping, frying, kneading, washing, sautéing, sweeping, mopping, and all done by the women of the household. Relentlessly, day in and day out, with no respite, honed with precision by years of practice and a silence pregnant with the unspoken exhaustion of these essential but monotonous tasks.
The women in The Great Indian Kitchen toil over the stove to prepare hot and delicious meals for the men in their lives but eat only after the men have finished, sitting amidst the leftovers of what the men ate and which they carelessly, but knowingly, tossed over on the dining table. Lack of table-manners, as Nimisha Sajayan’s character jokingly points out to her husband later played convincingly by Suraj Venjaramoodu, who takes it on his ego.
By the end of the day’s cooking and cleaning, the women are too tired to even relish the toil of their own hands. The men have the audacity to make major life choices for grown women while at the same time being infantile and dependent on them for basic activities of daily living – from brushing their teeth to wearing their slippers and packing their lunch.
Without a word, The Great Indian Kitchen makes you see how the patriarchy is structured to give men all the time in the world to pursue their hobbies, develop their minds, and nourish their bodies, whether they are young or old, working or retired. But the women? Do they get time to read a newspaper, follow an exercise routine, watch TV, or talk to their friends? The only time they do get to themselves is when they menstruate, but this is more of a forced isolation that is more of a humiliation than a gesture of love and care for their needs.
Do the needs of women even get heard? Whenever a woman makes her needs known, whether it is to apply for a job, or a tidier dining table, more foreplay, or just sharing a video she believes in on her Facebook page, she is either asked to forget about it or gaslighted into apologising for it.
No matter what your gender, The Great Indian Kitchen is a movie that will be painful to watch. If you are a woman, no matter what your background maybe, there will be one scene or another that you can relate to. If you are a man with a conscience, you will not fail to be pricked by this and see the women in your life in a new light (if you haven’t already).
The Great Indian Kitchen holds your attention to the very end, in spite of showing nothing but the routine day-to-day life of almost every woman who is a homemaker in India. The misogyny and patriarchal attitudes that are on stark display will be an uncomfortable mirror to many. Hopefully, it will make quite a few people squirm in their seats and later, think about their lives and relationships.
It made me think about the inherent sexism and gendered expectations of cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. Who should do these tasks? Shouldn’t it be shouldered by everyone in the family? Is it too much to expect that every child, irrespective of sex, should be raised to know basic life skills and not be pigeonholed into certain roles just because of the body they are born into?
The director of The Great Indian Kitchen, Jeo Baby, does all this without any sanctimonious preaching. Here, filmmaking returns to its most basic and yet most sophisticated form – letting a story deftly unfold before your eyes, bringing the audience into the life of the characters, while also maintaining their vantage position as an observer. He could have limited himself to patriarchy in families but goes a bold step further, sweeping his net out to focus on the Sabarimala issue that straddles religion, politics, and patriarchy, which rocked the state of Kerala a few years ago. Very timely indeed.
WhileThe Great Indian Kitchen is in the able hands of accomplished actors in all the character roles, the stars are undoubtedly the lead pair, Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Venjaramoodu (both winners of the Kerala State Film Awards for best actress and actor respectively for separate movies in previous years).
On a side note, I can’t help but wonder if it was a deliberate choice or purely a coincidence that Nimisha Sajayan was roped in to play this role in the The Great Indian Kitchen. Last year, an interview of hers, in a cooking show called Annie’s Kitchen, had gone viral. Hosted by a small-time, veteran actress of the Malayalam movie industry, Annie, who is well known to be sexist with the guests on her cooking show, she judges the female guests for not knowing cooking (even if they have other accomplishments to their name). She routinely dishes out patriarchal and outdated advice like “women are happier if they are always one step below the man.” In The Great Indian Kitchen, just as in Annie’s Kitchen, Nimisha goes against the grain and comes as herself, comfortable in her own skin.
The Great Indian Kitchen was released on 15 January 2021 on an OTT platform called Neestream. You can buy the movie for a nominal fee without subscribing to the platform (valid for 5 days from purchase). I think this is well worth the effort. If left to me, I would make every single person in India watch this movie for sure!
Karishma VP is a Bangalore-based writer with a fin-tech company. She enjoys writing poetry, movie and book reviews, political commentary, and reflections on life through a feminist lens. She is also a foodie with a food blog. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
Featured Image Source: TheHindu