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The Great Indian Kitchen is a blatant exposure of the Indian family; a scathing attack on that most sacred institution of marriage that no one was supposed to question, particularly in a mainstream movie.
Three generations of women from my family sat down to watch the Great Indian Kitchen, my grandmother, my mother, my aunt and me. All of us had different opinions about the film but all of us are glad that the movie was made.
Social media handles are overflowing with posts on the movie. They range from serious discussions on the complex economics of a gendered division of labour, to the significance of a dishwasher in maintaining family harmony.
If not for anything else, the movie makers can be applauded for initiating the discussion and for addressing the unsung and underrepresented and most importantly monotonous work that women do every day at home.
Some frames are quite harrowing and all too realistic; half way through the movie my aunt teared up and left, as it triggered flashbacks for her.
Towards the end of the movie, my mother asked, “What if she had a job? She would have to do all the household work and go for office work too!” There were memories simmering in her tone as I recalled all my complaints of ‘having to eat idli everyday as my mother was a working woman’ to anyone who would lend an ear for years.
My 87 year old grandmother, mother of five and a retired govt official, wondered why the protagonist left her husband. “Isn’t this what is expected of a woman in the first place?” “Would she have been able to leave if she had a child?”
What The Great Indian Kitchen really opens our eyes to – is the female gaze. A gaze that is quite unlike the deafening dominant patriarchal male gaze, a gaze that is real, fresh and haunting at the same time. A gaze that exposes one to the dirt, filth and unsavouriness of the daily embodied routine of domesticity, of being shrunk to the identity of a duty-bound home-maker.
It is also a mirror to the callousness and banality of structural oppression in the patriarchal family which not only trivializes the value of the labour of women but also identifies her only through it.
The film shows a set of stairs being mopped at least by three different women on four different occasions, the image is telling of the humdrum of the work and the regularity of its observance as a ritual enactment of a conventional gender role.
In the deluge of the over saturation of food porn which has inundated our visual senses, The Great Indian Kitchen serves as a poignant reminder of the labour and oppression involved in the process of food preparation.
The overflowing kitchen sink (trigger warning to those of us with OCD issues) in the movie which always gets clogged is quite emblematic of the stagnant chauvinist attitude of men who constantly expect women to do their dirty work for them. The drip in the sink’s plumbing which Nimisha’s character tries to fix by keeping a paint bucket to collect the dirty water is reminiscent of all the advice for and actual ‘adjustments’ that women are asked to perform in keeping the family together till a point where she breaks down.
There is also a nuanced nod to the question of the unequal share of leisure within the realm of the family.
Both – Suraaj’s character and the father in law’s character has time for activities such as yoga and social networking while both – Nimisha’s character and her mother in law’s character are shown as embroiled continually in a never ending cycle of domestic chores.
The gaze continues to be from the women’s perspective as it maps her internal struggle of mentally dealing with filth and stench even while she is having sex, which seems to be yet another chore that is to be performed by her.
The director Jeo Baby has to be lauded not only for the nuanced detailing — which included the brand new non-registered car in the wedding shot indicated a disguised dowry, the little girl who brings milk every day, and the choice of chewed up drumstick as a symbol evoking disgust — but also for his bold and direct stand on the politics of menstruation.
Most of the taboos that women are still made to go through including menstrual seclusion and ritual discrimination are very clearly depicted; a clear pointer towards female biological processes as being understood as ‘polluting’ by most religions. By extension, one can even read the exclusion of women and the creation of a highly hierarchialised gender binary as the premise of most kinds of religiosity.
The additional burden that has to be borne by females of the family when men engage in devotional activities such as pilgrimage and bhajan is also very cleverly depicted against the backdrop of the Sabarimala pilgrimage.
What is also rather interesting in the movie is the use of strictly measured out dialogues, the punchlines are understated, but powerful.
There is no or very little background music though the sound recording is brilliant. I am yet to find another movie in the recent past where the sound of the coconut scrapper is used, a sound which is an all too familiar sound in a Kerala household; one which a lot of us woke up to in our childhood held so much meaning and poignancy.
There is a scene in the movie where Nimisha’s character is using a laptop on the kitchen table with a wood stove burning in the background with a rice pot on it.
Earlier in the movie, the father in law insists in the ‘politest of tones’ that rice be made on the wood stove and not in the pressure cooker. The scene is quite telling of the reconciliation of technology with gender roles. One might have access to the instruments of modernity, but patriarchy finds a hundred different ways to push you back to the stone age.
The female gaze is also one which is open to the structural violence couched in the sweetest of requests and statements – of allowing you to use the blender to make chutney instead of the grinding stone, of teaching you to make tea in a particular way, of requesting you not to apply for a job.
It is also sensitive to the fact that no dissent would be tolerated, and that any expression of discomfort with the status quo whether it is the request for foreplay during sex or a small remark about table manners would go unpunished.
Nimisha’s character’s precarious position in her husband’s house as a newlywed wife is fleshed out with great skill, and her long walk out of the house and into the clear skies leaves one with a ray of hope.
Another highlight of the movie is the inclusion of two songs in the Paaluva language written by prominent Dalit activist Mridula devi, who has been waging a one woman battle to preserve the language spoken by Parayas, a formerly untouchable caste from Kerala. It is also equally significant that the song is mouthed by the household help in the movie who also makes a remark that ‘some years ago, she was not allowed into the house’ indicating her caste status.
The entry of Paaluva vocabulary into the terrain of Malayalam film song lyrics is indeed a significant moment in the history of film music even as it will go a long way in helping to conserve the rich legacy of the dalit language.
Is the movie without flaws? No, it isn’t. It is predictable and does use some age-old tropes, but does it diminish the impact it leaves on the viewer? Not at all!
The Great Indian Kitchen is a blatant exposure of the Indian family, warts and all; a scathing attack on that most sacred institution of marriage that no one was supposed to question, particularly in a mainstream movie – and for that alone, the actors, the script and the director deserves a standing ovation!
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