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Malayalam Film The Great Indian Kitchen Is All About Homegrown Sexism With A Twist

Posted: January 17, 2021

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The Great Indian Kitchen. A movie that can only be made by a Malayali director, who takes on patriarchy and religion, with such gumption.

The loudest, most hard-hitting moments of The Great Indian Kitchen (TIGK) are found in the long silences that interstice the sparse dialogues.

The moment after the young wife (Nimisha Sajayan, outstanding) asks her husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu, also outstanding) for some foreplay because she finds sex painful, he shames her, of course, and then asks her to switch off the light. The moment when the mother-in-law rushes to hand the father-in-law his toothbrush with the paste smeared in it, when she rushes to place his shoes near his feet so he can slide into them with the least inconvenience.

The movements of the women are always rushed, stressed, the movements of the men calm and measured.

Generation after generation, the same servitude?

You aren’t too surprised by the older woman’s servitude, we’ve all seen our mothers and grandmothers with their head constantly bent over the stove, the sink, the housework. We’ve so normalised that deferential posture; there’s even a saying in Tamil, that women should be restrained and covered, bent over.

And so the grimace of disgust on the young bride’s face at the men’s lack of table manners, at the overflowing sink, at the smell that lingers in her fingers even after she has scrubbed them with dishwashing liquid, is a novel experience. That expression is the one clue that what you are about to see is far from ordinary, the clue that keeps you glued to the screen and lends a certain edge-of-the-seat thrill to the otherwise unhurried pace of the film.

Jeo baby, the director, has your pulse

The director, Jeo Baby has you by the throat from time you see two strangers, who have set eyes on each other for the first time.

“Why don’t you talk to each other, get to know each other”, the father of the girl genially suggests. “How do they expect strangers to talk to each other?”, the groom-to-be comments wryly.

And yet shortly thereafter they are married.

The whole film is filled with unsurprising everyday situations like this, that the director forces us bear witness to, almost like it’s the first time we are really seeing them. The exceedingly delicious food porn of kappa and saambar, the puttu-kadala, the chutneys ground on the stone mortar, the rice slow-cooked on a smoky wood burning stove, the sizzle of the dosa on the skillet followed by the disgusting mess and drudgery of cleaning up, the dripping drain pipe the choked sink, the husband who won’t call the plumber no matter how many times the wife requests.

Not until it affects them

I read long ago of a village in Rajasthan, where the men refused to lay the pipelines to bring the water closer home. This was because the men never felt the lack of water. From their morning ablutions, to bathing to drinking water, the men always found enough of it at home. Then one day the women refused to go fetch water from the source many kilometres away, balancing half a dozen pots on their heads. Soon after, the pipes were laid.

But in TGIK, the plumber never comes. Everything unsightly and impure for the men, the leftover food, the mess on the dining table after they finish eating, the broken sink, the menstruating woman are all banished from sight to parts of the house that they don’t have to enter. And so those things do not even exist. The end is both hopeful and hopeless.

Jeo Baby is extremely certain of the ground he stands on. Such self-assured filmmaking one hasn’t seen in a while, where every scene is both art and satire. And to take on the cornerstone of patriarchy, religion, I cannot think of anyone but a Malayali film director who would possess that level of gumption. Bravo.

The Great Indian Kitchen is streaming on Neestream (with English subtitles).

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