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Anyone who thinks that domestic abuse is only when a man hits or shouts, please watch a brilliant movie that portrays reality, The Great Indian Kitchen, on Neestream.
Like all my movie reviews go, this is both a review and a reflection of my life sparked from the movie. In this case, the Malayalam movie The Great Indian Kitchen, from a POV of a Malayali woman born into a Hindu family who has lived in Kerala.
I saw a tweet by the page ‘’Breaking Movies’’ that the director submitted this movie to Netflix for streaming and didn’t even get a response. He then sent it to Amazon Prime, which replied that it didn’t fit their ‘criteria’, obviously set by privileged men? Shame on both these platforms. Netflix will pass a series like Indian Matchmaking but pass up on this? I wish this movie becomes viral (I guess it already has). I wish that the men at the helm of Netflix and Amazon Prime who deemed this movie unworthy will live to regret their decision. I wish that Neestream, the new OTT platform that picked this for streaming, will laugh all the way to the bank as people subscribe to it or just pay the Rs.140 to watch this movie for 5 days. Good call, Neestream. Thank you!
*Some spoilers ahead.
When compared to Thappad, a movie on a similar note, I will say that both the story and the heroine in The Great Indian Kitchen have much more chutzpah and gumption to say a clear and unequivocal FU to patriarchy.
This is a movie directed by Jeo Baby and helmed by the talented duo of Nimisha Sajayan (who won the Kerala state award for best actress in 2018) and Suraj Venjaramoodu. She’s also the actress who was interviewed by Annie in the cookery show Annie’s Kitchen. A clip of it went viral in which she was bombarded with advice on wearing makeup to look like a more ‘’conventional’’ heroine. Is it a coincidence that she was roped in for a movie called The Great Indian Kitchen? One that roasts the patriarchy while Annie’s Kitchen serves it on a platter? Only the director can answer this question!
This movie is infused with reality in every scene. Not one note of background music. Sparse dialogues. The only other sounds being that of the everyday tasks done by women and the sounds of nature. Both of these are familiar to all of us.
The movie is replete with scenes of food being prepared, from chopping to frying, boiling and pressure-cooking, to sauteing and cleaning up. It is relentless. One day finishes and the next day begins and the director just continues, as the women do, bombarding you with scene after scene of domestic life.
All this food makes you drool at first, makes you shout out in delight when you recognize the dish that is being prepared on screen, step by authentic step, but that’s just the director tricking you into thinking this is going to be a food paradise, only to shake you out of your food coma to realize with a sinking feeling that this is a monotonous horror that is not going to end anytime soon.
Of course, the movie will end in 1.5 hours, but women will have to go through this routine every day for the rest of their life, with no respite. A life of domesticity that has been imposed on half of the human race just because they happen to be born into the body of a woman. How on earth is that fair?
Of course, there is no problem in this if you truly enjoy cooking or cleaning, and you choose to do it, but what if you don’t? Do you, as a woman, have a choice?
Let me start with the most damning scene for me, out of many – when the husband asks his guru what to do after accidentally touching his menstruating wife in the middle of his Sabarimala fast. The guru quotes from the scriptures and says that the only solution to making yourself pure after being touched by a menstruating woman is to eat a ball of cowdung or drink cow urine.
Cow shit and cow piss are pure but a menstruating woman’s blood is not.
Thank you for showing me my place as a woman in the larger scheme of things (not!).
Are the needs of women even heard, in the movie, as in life? She asks for more foreplay because sex is painful for her, but what does she get in return? Gaslighting. She asks for a tidier table that will make cleaning easier for her, but what does she get in return? Gaslighting. She asks for a plumber to fix the kitchen pipes, but what does she get in return? More gaslighting.
It also made me also think of the proposal to pay homemakers a salary (an election campaign promise by Kamal Hassan, endorsed by Shashi Tharoor), and how it was shot down by many privileged women (notably, Kangana Ranaut).
I was wondering how many people would think that women shouldn’t be paid for the work that they do at home after watching this movie.
Anyone who thinks that domestic abuse is only when a man hits or shouts, please note the father and son here. Both are soft-spoken gentlemen who are also first-class manipulators and abusers. Many a time, I felt like reaching into the screen to give a much-needed lecture to both of them. Amazing writing, directing, and acting, I must say!
This movie is also a stark reminder that even though we all have 24 hours in a day, the odds are stacked up against women if they want to actualize their potential or make a mark in the world.
Men get time to read the newspaper, watch the news, browse the internet, do yoga, socialize with friends, be gainfully employed, enjoy their hobbies, with not a care in the world. They wake up to a hot breakfast, get packed lunches, and go to sleep with a hot dinner. They are able to pursue whatever they want with single-minded devotion only because they have a woman back home who makes sure that the wheels of their life are well oiled and running smoothly. Men can retire and put their feet up, scroll through their phones all day, write a book, or sleep for hours but are women afforded this freedom and privilege even when they are 60? Can they ever retire?
I am not sure if this narrative will really apply to women in privileged households who can afford domestic helpers. This movie shows a middle-class family which can afford a domestic helper and yet chooses to employ her only on those days of the week when the lady of the house is menstruating and isn’t allowed to enter the kitchen.
This movie made me think of all the time that would be freed up for women if they didn’t have to do all the cleaning and cooking and washing and sweeping and mopping from dawn to dusk. What all would they have achieved if they just had the time, energy, and mental space for it? Yet, we all know that tummies have to be fed and houses have to be cleaned. So, who will do that?
Traditionally it has always been women who have taken up this responsibility because it has been imposed by a deeply patriarchal culture. Men were responsible for work done outside the home and women for work done inside the home. But in this day and age, even when women go out and work, they are still responsible for work done at home.
In India, if you can afford domestic help, as a woman, you may not have this issue. But what about those who cannot afford it?
Is the answer to this age-old question employing domestic helpers? Even there, it is mostly women who are employed. Why should anyone be subjected to this drudgery even if it is a job they get paid for? Or should it be treated as any another job and be given better wages and the same benefits as workers in other fields?
The only logical answer that came to my mind is that every single member of a household, irrespective of their gender or employment status, should pull their weight and do their share of the household activities, whether it is cleaning or cooking. Whether this is done on a rotation basis, or by designating fixed tasks, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the overall burden of this domestic drudgery on women should be reduced.
In my life, I have seen that both my grandmothers had cooks and maids for help at home. One had 6 kids and the other had 7 kids, so an extra pair of hands could only be helpful. My mother had only two children and she still always had a helper who used to cook and clean. She, like my father, used to go to work in the morning and come back in the evening. Because she worked as an obstetrician, she would be called to undertake normal or caesarean deliveries at any time of the day or night. So yes, an extra pair of hands would have been helpful. Even though my father was hands-on with us kids, the realm of the kitchen was still my mother’s.
But me? Right now, I am divorced and have only one child, so at the max I have just the two of us to cook and clean for. I got into the kitchen to cook only when I was in my 20s, out of my own interest. Nobody asked me to learn cooking. I used to collect recipes and cook all the fancy foods I wanted, but only when I felt like it, so it was a pleasure.
Then I got married, leaving my job in an IT firm in Technopark, Trivandrum, to move to Hyderabad where my husband was working. I became a housewife, choosing to freelance as an editor from home much later, but the first few months of the marriage, I did not have a job. My husband refused to employ a maid. His argument was that I was anyway a housewife, we had no kids, and we had only a 2-bedroom house, so there was very little cooking or cleaning to do. It was only when his family came visiting and they convinced him to employ a maid for the cleaning tasks that he agreed.
Later, I took up a job in Bangkok, alone but with my 4-year-old child in tow, and all the cooking and cleaning was on me.
Separation & divorce
Then in 2014, when I left my marriage for good and moved into a rented flat in Bangalore, I had no money, on top of paying rent, to afford domestic help, so for the last 6 years I have been cooking and cleaning on my own.
I soon realized that I enjoyed cooking much more than I did cleaning, so I enlisted the maid who cleaned the apartment building to sweep and mop my flat once a week. The rest of the days I did what I could. Then after the lockdown and my father’s death in July last year, with the company I work for announcing work from home till March this year, I have been staying with my mother in Kerala. She still goes to her clinic in the morning and returns in the evening and she employs a very efficient cook.
So, since July, I have not had to do a single household chore. I am beginning to understand how it must feel like to be a man in a typical household in India. To just bother about my job and not have to do anything else. I wake up in the morning, do my yoga and meditation, and just sit at the dining table when breakfast/lunch/dinner is ready. I start my workday at 9:45 with the daily office meeting and finish by evening. At the most, the cook just asks me what to make and most of the time, I just tell her to do whatever she likes. She cooks dinner too and leaves by 3:30. If I ever cook, it is because I want to and not because I have to.
I find that life is so much easier. I am not rushed or stressed. I feel so much more relaxed. I have more than enough time now to talk with my son, to read, to write, to binge watch, to think, to study for the courses I have signed up for. I have re-started watercolor painting (something I used to enjoy as a child), take part in online meetings for my courses and book clubs (Women Who Run with The Wolves!), talk with my mom, or simply just sleep!
I actually dread going back to Bangalore now, back to cooking 3 meals a day, day in and day out. I doubt I will ever truly enjoy cooking again. This, from a person who started a food blog 10 years ago and maintains a FB page for her recipes! I was telling my mother this and she told me I am too young to lose interest in cooking! But is there such an age?
My mother has always cooked for us whenever she got time and it is from her that I got my love of cooking and baking. She still checks for new recipes and shares it with me. But I wonder if she would be so enthused about cooking if she had had to do it every single day of her life, 3 meals a day, nonstop, for so many people?
Ironically, the last few months here have made me appreciate myself all the more for all the housework that I have single-handedly done since I got married and became a mother, but it has also made me wish that I didn’t have to do it anymore. I just want to read and write and paint and sing and watch movies and have fun with my son!
There is another reason I loved the movie and that is the director’s audacity to reel in the Sabarimala issue in the middle of all this. I call it an audacity because he seems to be a Christian, by his name, and he’s throwing his hat into the ring of what is undoubtedly the issue of a religion that is not his own. It is also an audacity because this is an issue that is still a sensitive matter in Kerala.
I feel that more than the Sabarimala issue (women of menstruating age not being allowed into the temple) what he was focusing on more was the issue of how menstruation is considered an impurity even in the intimacy of our own homes, to this day, in the 21st century.
Forget about temples. This is a stark portrayal of how a woman in a normal Hindu household is considered to be impure during her periods. This is why her husband is not supposed to even see her, touch her, or eat food cooked by her if she is menstruating when he’s taking the 40-day fast to go to Sabarimala.
My father had taken me to Sabarimala two times, before I turned 10. I got my first period 2 days after returning from my second pilgrimage to Sabarimala (narrow escape!). The next year or so, when my father had put on the ‘’maala’ and began his 40-day fast, and I got my period somewhere in the midst of that, I had to move to my grandparents’ house (which was in the same compound) for the duration of my period. I still remember carrying my clothes and books and going over to their house and returning to our house only when my periods got over.
Every evening, we light the ‘sandhya deepam’ or lamp in the altar/prayer room. I was taught not to come to the pooja room when I was on my periods and also to never to go to a temple when on my period. I am 100% sure all my Hindu female friends would have had the same experience growing up.
When the Sabarimala verdict came out, I knew that no matter what the Supreme Court says, very few women would go to Sabarimala. If they are ardent devotees of Lord Ayyappa, then they wouldn’t even want to go. Even if they wanted to go, the social pushback from the family and a community would just not be worth all the trouble. In the movie, a man says, “do women from good families do such things?’’ This has always been an effective way to silence and control women. Shame their families and upbringing. Because we are relational and social creatures, women fall for this and fall back in line. We have a deep need to belong to the family and the culture at large. Very few have the courage to buck this, and even then, we all seek to find a tribe that understands us, even if our family or community rejects us. The culture surrounding the Sabarimala pilgrimage is just too strong to uproot from the state. We all saw what happened to the women who did venture to go to the temple after the verdict.
I don’t consider myself impure when I am menstruating. Ever since I switched over to a menstrual cup, I touch and see my own blood in a way I never did when using sanitary pads. I respect my body that much more.
But would I light the lamp in my parents’ pooja room or go to a temple when on my period or go to Sabarimala even when not on my period?
No, I wouldn’t.
The remnants of this patriarchal training are the reason why I felt shocked and uncomfortable with what the heroine does at the end of this movie to her husband and father-in-law. While I understood all the frustration and sadness that led to her actions, I couldn’t help but think that she could have expressed all of that some other way. But I guess the director wanted to show that it is what they deserve, since religion is tied up with patriarchy in all of this.
In my own house, I light the lamp even when I am on my period. Because I cherish that time of connection to a power that I call God or Goddess, but which is entirely divorced from religion in my heart and mind. Does that make sense? No, but I am at peace with this dichotomy and it works for me.
My mother, when she came to visit me in Bangalore, was shocked to know that I light the lamp when on my period, but I told her it’s my house, my beliefs, and so my rules. “You know I wouldn’t do it in your house, I respect your beliefs there, so here, please just respect mine.’’ She understood and has accepted it gracefully. Just like she has accepted so many of my other life choices, which I know are difficult for her to even fathom, while still loving me unconditionally.
I watched this movie with my mother and she told me that in olden days, the practice of isolating women during their periods was with the intention of giving them full rest from the housework. She grew up in Mysore, away from Kerala, in a house with 5 brothers and sisters, and they never practiced this. But she is aware that it was practiced in her ancestral tharawads in Kerala.
I asked her if the practice started to give women respite from housework, then why were they forced to sleep in separate rooms, served food only in those rooms? Why were they kept away from other family spaces and people? Why weren’t they allowed to step into the kitchen to get even a glass of water?
If the practice evolved to give women rest, it should have been a time of freedom and joy. They could just have been told not to cook or clean, but given the choice to do so if they wished. They would have been given the freedom to inhabit any space they wished to in the house and mingle with other members of the family just like on other days.
But that was not the case. That is proof enough that the intention of the isolation was not to give them rest, but because they were considered impure because they were menstruating.
This is highly ironic in a culture where a girl’s first period is celebrated in a grand way, almost like a wedding, with gifts showered on her, and a feast where everyone in the family and village are invited. Just last month, our cook went to attend her sister’s daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony, and she was recounting how there were videographers to record the event, there was a feast of chicken biryani and various sweets, and gifts for the young girl such as new clothes and gold jewellery.
I thought what a wonderful way it is to normalize menstruation for everyone, even the young boys in the family who are watching all this. How pampered the girl would be feeling.
And yet, this is the same state where the same girl will not be allowed into a temple when she menstruates. I think there may be very few households in Kerala which still isolate women in a separate room during their periods, like in the movie, so we are making progress. Still, I can’t help but think that this was ‘progress’ was more due to practical considerations than anything else. With the joint family morphing into the nuclear family, who will cook if there’s only one woman in the family and she is not allowed into the kitchen for 5 days in a month? Also, the coming-of age ceremony may be nothing but a clever way to announce to all and sundry that the girl is now of ‘’marriageable’’ and get the proposals coming!
I don’t think there has been a movie in recent times that has sparked so many reflections and introspections in me. The director, Jeo Baby, seems to be a man who has his eyes and mind open and who now wants to wake up others too. I hope this movie succeeds in doing just that.
Just watch it.
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Karishma has been writing short stories since she was 8 and poetry since she was
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