Between 1993 to 1996, Annie has acted in 16 films, which were all largely middling comic entertainers. She soon got married to director Shaji Kailas and rechristened herself as Chithra Shaji Kailas, bidding adieu to the film world. In 2015, Annie made her TV debut as the host of a cookery show Annie’s Kitchen, which has her dishing out a recipe twice a week, and also includes a section where she interviews a celebrity from the field of cinema, TV, art and politics.
For someone who has worked in an industry where men call the shots, one would think a female actor would be less tolerant to the patriarchy prevalent in society. If one were to analyse Annie’s celluloid roles, they have always played obeisance to the hero. Even in her lone noteworthy outing, Mazhayethum Munpe, where she played the rich spoilt brat who falls madly in love with her college professor, her character’s arc begins and ends with the hero. So, is it just an unhappy coincidence that Annie, when she emerged two decades later to host a cookery show, has turned out to be a flagbearer of patriarchy?
If John Brittas resorted to voyeuristic probing to extract intimate details about his guests, Annie prefers to sit down and pass judgment on her female celebs. Considering that her perfect happy space is at “home, being a mother and wife and piling their plates with food and being called Mrs Shaji Kailas”, her deplorably chauvinist attitude towards her own gender shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Every woman who comes on her show has to first confront her million-dollar question, “Can you cook”? And the rest of the interview depends on their answers. When Dr Vasuki IAS and her husband Dr Karthikeyan came on her show, Annie instantly disapproved when the guest acknowledged her reluctance to cook. When the husband told her that Vasuki made good coffee, Annie made a joke out of it, “I cook more than just coffee.” When Vasuki spoke about her mother’s culinary skills, Annie smiled with effort and wondered why it wasn’t passed on to the guest.
Actor Kaniha, who is a BITS Pilani graduate, has worked in a multinational company, runs a restaurant, and is a singer and actor. But, she could win Annie’s approval only after Kaniha said, “Being a mother was what she enjoyed the most.” “I am giving you 100/100 for that answer,” she beamed.
Her theories about women’s role in society and family would warm the cockles of our great grandmother’s heart:
1) A woman's marriageable age cannot go beyond 25
2) A good homemaker should be a good cook
3) Feminism is pointless
4) A woman’s primary duty is towards her family
5) If she can’t be a good mother, she deserves no better.
What's ironical is the fact that Annie is sitting out there in the capacity of an employed woman, and yet the pressures on an employed woman who is often forced to balance work and home, seem completely lost on her. True, today she comes with all the privileges of someone who may not be working for money and yet, it is also true that at one point, she has worked without such privileges.
When actor Navya Nair came on her show, there were undercurrents of dissent between them. It began when Annie declaring that "a good homemaker should also be a good cook” and Navya differed wondering how one can come into such generalisations and that there is no correlation between the two. The two women seemed to belong to different eras as the younger actor sensibly put forward her opinions about the difficulties of employed mothers and the impracticality of laborious meals. “Why do we need to slave in the kitchen when we can use the time for more creative pursuits?” shrugged Navya, and Annie took immediate offence to it and mocked the younger actor for her disinterest in cooking.
When television actor Gayathri Arun spoke about having entered the field after marriage, Annie was quick to remind her to be grateful to her husband and in-laws' support. And to Gayathri’s 8-year-old daughter, Annie wondered how she will cope when her mother is out on a 30-day work schedule, thereby conveniently overlooking the father’s responsibility as a parent.
Interestingly, men are spared this editing and judging, nor are they reminded about their duties as a father or husband. If by some luck the man helps in cooking, he is looked on with awe and gratitude by the host.
When a television couple visited the show, the wife, who is also a TV actor, told Annie that she makes all her decisions only after consulting the husband who is a TV serial director. This pleased the host immensely. “That’s how an ideal wife should be," she said.
During an episode when television actor Sarayu suggests that it’s peaceful to let the man take the lead in a relationship as conflicts will be less, Annie shakes her head in approval and recommends— “Not be a feminist, right?” And Sarayu agrees— “What is the need for feminism? Let equality come.” They seem to have missed the point that they have dismissed the very “feminist ideology” which gave them a voice to make such an opinion.
At other times, she behaves like an overbearing neighbour who makes nosy body-shaming remarks. Actor Gauthami Nair was constantly reminded to “put on some weight.” There are accusations against her for being classist and patronising, often putting on a fake Kottayam accent (which was missing while talking to Santosh Pandit). That she chose to serve a rudimentary bread upma and aval milk to Vava Suresh and Santosh Pandit, didn’t go down well with the audience who felt she picked her recipes according to the guest’s superiority. Not just that, her interaction with Pandit was uncomfortable to watch as it was clear that she had little opinion about her guest.
Though one cannot deny the show’s popularity among the family audience, Annie consistently endorsing patriarchy and censoring female guests about the choices they have made in their life, and offering them her own patronising stereotypes about the role of women in a family, is bad news. At a time when women are speaking for their rights, advocating feminism and trying hard to sanitise their own households from the clutches of patriarchy and sexism, a popular actor casually consigning her own gender back into the traditional order of patriarchy, needs to be called out.
Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.