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Oru Kudum, Chemrantham, Neeye Bhuvin… the 3 songs beautifully showcase the woman protagonist’s character arc in The Great Indian Kitchen.
The Great Indian Kitchen is a 2021 Malyalam-language film written and directed by Jeo Baby. It stars Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Venjeramood who play a newly wed couple. It shows the story of a new bride managing a household in the absence of her mother-in-law.
The film has no background music. It isn’t even missed amidst the emphasised sounds of the invisible labour of a woman in the kitchen. In such a setup then, the presence of three songs became a curious case for me!
The beginning credits show up on the screen as Oru Kudum plays in the background. I do not understand Malayalam, neither did I bother to read the translated lyrics at the bottom. It was pleasant to my ears. I assumed it to be a love song. There was a sense of a dialogue between lovers.
I let the song pass without much attention because I was eager for the movie to start.
Untill I heard the song play again as the unnamed newly married wife was menstruating, and chose to work along with the domestic help who was called to take care of the household. I wondered then, why is it playing now?
So I paid attention to the lyrics through the subtitles, and I was right in assuming that it was a dialogue between lovers. At least partially. It described the woman from the male gaze, of her beauty, of the ways in which she steals someone’s heart. With the mention of rain, song, and dance! I realised then that the following lines were foretelling the story that’s about to unfold.
What did you steal? I stole beauty.
Whose beauty? The song’s beauty.
Which song? Your song.
Which you? My you.
By the time these lines show up in the film, we are already aware of the drudgery of the housewife. The very first scene of a young woman with sweaty armpits dancing happily, replays in my head. It juxtaposes with the tied up hair and sweaty arms of the now married woman who’s managing the entire household of a well-known respectable upper-caste family in Kerala. It is evident that the essence of the young woman is lost now as she plays the role of a traditional daughter-in-law and housewife. A role that she hasn’t yet begun to question. Moreover, the song also showcases that the woman belongs to another individual when it says, ‘My you.’
As and when the domestic help meets the housewife, we see an interesting conversation bubbling. A conversation about menstruation: the taboo and traditions. It is then that the helper Usha, the only named character in the film, confesses that she doesn’t inform anyone about periods when she goes to work in different houses. She further adds that no one can figure it out anyway. If she begins to stop working for 3-4 days every month, then her own household will suffer. Traditions are then for convenience, not an option for her.
This scene yet again sets the tone for the upcoming subject of the much debated Supreme Court judgment on menstruating women entering the Sabrimala Temple. More than that, politics of Usha establishes the politics of the film. She is everything the film is trying to convey. The following scenes showcase Usha doing the chores alone, with Chemrantham playing in the background.
The song yet again describes a woman’s body but it doesn’t talk of attraction or secrecy. She is beautiful and she knows how to cook. She dances too but in her beats, she defies the customs. The following lines are quite telling:
On her period defying custom
She’ll be red with betel
taken with a dab of lime
As the sun goes down
her radiance grows
It also becomes evident that the traditions that are broadly followed aren’t homogenous. In this song, the ‘Paraya’ community is mentioned, which is classified as scheduled caste. This yet again makes the caste difference evident.
The beats get louder
the dusk approaches.
The last two lines when juxtaposed with the ending lines of Oru Kudum (She dances with open hair, with her tricks she steals heart) showcase the tone that the film has already taken.
The last song appears towards the end. By then, we have already witnessed the silent revolt of the housewife and her violent retaliation. She has the consciousness of being a woman in the society, more so of a housewife and daughter-in-law. She is annoyed when she is told that this is her new life, she has to ‘adjust’ and compromise. Fuelled by the anger from the injustice, she claims her freedom.
We see her walking towards a school, her head held high, and eyes burning with valour. She overlooks the dance rehearsal of her students. The music is fitting, yet quite different from the earlier songs. It’s powerful and the visual adds to it. It is an ode to women, describing them as the power that they are and the power they carry within them to claim their space in the society. The lost essence of in Oru Kudum reappears in Neeye Bhuvin in all its fierceness.
You are Earth’s music, its form
when you personify valour
A flame that refuses to be put out
You light up this world.
This song answers all the questions a viewer might have, be it introspective or socially relevant.
Right before the song begins, we see that husband remarries, and the camera zooms in to showcase the new wife washing a tea cup. An image that recurs throughout the film. The camera focuses only on the pair of hands working making one feel that it’s no different from that of the protagonist. It showcases the state of women reduced to their hands to serve the household. One wonders then, what about all the other women who cannot break free or do not find their agency to do so for whatsoever reason? The song follows:
Still many great stories
left to narrate but
time will not suffice
Oh woman, march on!
This answers the guilt that we feel, thinking about the many generations of women who came and suffered and paved way for us. Sticking to the guilt will only lead one to a loop of inaction. The only way to deal with the past is to understand that we cannot help it, but we can build a much better future. March on! It leaves the screen with encouragement, calling women to recognise the power they behold.
Enough of your grief!
With your wisdom, if you awaken
Your inner self, you are a relentless stream
spread on across this world.
As the end credits roll, Chemrantham plays again. I like to believe that it bridges the gap between the fragility in Oru Kudum and fierceness in Neeye Bhuvin. These are the two extremes, and even reaching to the stage of Chemrantham, defying customs, is a win today even if we cannot entirely break down patriarchy and the caste system in a day.
The music of the film is composed by Suraj S. Kurup and Matthews Pullickan. The translation from the Malayalam is taken from the subtitles provided in the film. The Great Indian Kitchen is available on the online streaming platform Neestream.
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