The Great Indian Kitchen (Mahathaaya Bharathiya Adukala), driven by the powerful performance of Nimisha Bindu Sajayan and Suraj Venjaramoodu, received wide critical acclaim. Directed by Jeo Baby, this Malayalam film was released on January 15, 2021 on a littler-known streaming platform called Nee-Stream because the more popular streaming giants did not acquire it. Can’t blame them: The Great Indian Kitchen is not telling you anything you don’t know already. The premise is the kitchen of an upper-caste ‘respectable’ household of Kerala where women–one generation after the next–toil day in and out. That’s about it, honestly.
But if one were to situate the film within the feminist discourse, you realise that the nuances are what make the film stand out. Once we spot the binary-codified bodies of men and women and the autonomy accorded to each gender, it is difficult to unsee it. That is precisely why The Great Indian Kitchen is a study of the gendered bodies and accorded autonomy.
Leisure As A Gendered Activity
The opening shot is that of Nimisha’s character (none of the characters in the film is named) joyfully dancing along with her peers. A large patch of sweat is evident on the underarm of her kurta as she performs a mudra, unlike the many Santoor mommy commercials where we see women with impeccably perfect bodies. The sweat, in The Great Indian Kitchen, comes to signify the gendered, binary spaces the bodies move within. This is probably the only time Nimisha’s sweat is a product of her dancing: an activity of passion or leisure.
Even as her husband (played by the brilliant Suraj) practices yoga, she is bent over the kitchen sink filled to the brim with dishes to be washed. Both bodies sweat: the man because of his routine recreational activity and the woman because of kitchen cardio. The closest she gets to an anulom vilom is by breathing through a pipe to regulate the fire on the wooden stove on which the rice for the men in the family is being cooked, because the father-in-law disapproves of appliances like the pressure cooker than can make life easier for women.
The women do interact. They pass a quick smile and check on each other but these are not acts of leisure, but only something they manage to quickly slip into a day teeming with kitchen chores. They cannot pause or catch a breath because there is either something cooking or dishes piling up in the kitchen. Even the little girl excited to befriend Nimisha, can only get to see her when she comes to deliver milk at the household. After she washes the dishes and cleans up the dusty kitchen floor, the mother-in-law splashes some water onto her face and around her neck, before she retires for the night. This is an important comparison, when drawn with Nimisha, who on the second day of her marriage, is allowed two refreshing baths.
On Nimisha’s behalf, you crave so much for a time-out, that you almost heave a sigh of relief when she gets her period. Set in the context of the much-debated Supreme Court judgement to allow women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, the film shows how Nimisha is relegated to a space where she is not even entitled to a mattress to lie on because her bleeding body is impure and deserves only the cold floor of a tiny room to rest upon: the cost of respite from kitchen Olympics for women.
Women’s Mobility & The Kitchen
Nimisha first arrives at her husband’s house in the car that her family gives his as dowry: a practice that has long been made illegal in India, like child marriage. She is given the traditional welcome by the mother-in-law with a lamp in her hand wherein she enters the household by stepping in with her right foot first. That is probably the only time we see Nimisha use the main entrance of the household. A door few metres to the right of the main entrance leads into the kitchen and is the only one used by the women thereafter: the mother-in-law, Nimisha, Usha, the domestic help who comes in to work occasionally, and even Usha’s little daughter.
The close-up shots of the hands in the kitchen is an important tool Jeo uses to set the narrative. It starts slowly. The first set of close-up shots of a woman’s hands prepping dishes are elaborate, almost making you hungry as you see and hear the sizzle of the sweet banana fritters. There’s a progression in this depiction however: the shots keep coming in swiftly and with time, get less elaborate than before: so much that when the scene shifts from one pair of hands hovering over a kitchen sink to the next, if you blink even for a second, you might think it is the same sink and set of hands: a commentary on how, after all, it is the same scene in every kitchen.
Disgust on Nimisha’s face grows over time too. As she wipes down the leftovers strewn carelessly (but intentionally) by the men on the dining table, as she empties the days-old dust-bin full of kitchen waste into the compost bin, as she unclogs and drains out the murky waste-water from the wash basin, as she, during sex, reimagines the rotting food, the dirty drain-water and the leftovers strewn on the table: the disgust on Nimisha’s face has a character arc of its own.
Nimisha’s patience with the archaic demands of the patriarch of the household keeps straining, just like the drain water that drips to eventually fill the bucket underneath. Yet, the only impurity that is acknowledged is that of her menstruating body touching the mattress.
Bodily Autonomy, Sex And Menstruation
When it is time for the annual Sabarimala darshan, men undergo a stringent 41-day fast, an essential part of which is to not have sexual relations and have complete control over one’s mind and body. In the film, we see a devout Suraj not even excusing himself a glance of his wife as the fasting period begins. However, right before the fast is about to start, he demands his wife to get into bed with him, like he does every night. Every night Suraj asserts his entitlement over her body that he won (along with a red Maruti Swift) when they got married. It is safe to assume that Nimisha is never asked what she wants or if she wants it at all, especially after he nicely ignores her lack of enthusiasm (read consent) to have sex the day after their wedding.
Every night Nimisha is shown lying on the bed in a top-down shot of her face: grimacing over the smell of leftovers on her hands. So when one night she finally makes an attempt to reclaim her autonomy by suggesting they engage in foreplay, the husband is aghast that she even happens to know of it. In what was maybe his attempt to get back at her, he quips: Ennikum koode thonannde (I should also feel something for you) suggesting that he is, after all, just not attracted to her enough.
Clearly, the body of the woman in The Great Indian Kitchen is merely reduced to a pair of hands alternating between the piled-up kitchen sink and the stoves when not a vagina that should dutifully be available for the husband’s pleasure when not bleeding.
These instances are only a few of which makes The Great Indian Kitchen a pertinent watch. Up until her final act of assertion and retaliation, the film barely preaches as much as hold a mirror to our face. It makes us uncomfortable as much as relate, especially to what the female body is subjected to. From being denied leisure, pleasure, consensual sex and autonomy, to being abhorred for undergoing the natural monthly process of the uterus shedding its lining, the woman’s personhood is invisibilised.
Featured image source: Times Of India