It is a familiar sight in many households. The men clutching the newspaper or scrolling through their phones; the women in the kitchen, making tea and snacks for them. In fact, it is so common that it is used as a representative image for a happy household everywhere, from advertisements to school textbooks.
The Great Indian Kitchen, directed by Jeo Baby (who also makes a cameo in the film) wants to shatter this idea. The film begins with 'Thanks Science', a departure from most Malayalam movies that thank god in the credits. And there's a good reason for it.
If Jeo Baby’s earlier film Kunju Daivam shredded the hypocrisy of religion through the eyes of a child in a devout Christian household, The Great Indian Kitchen looks at it from the point of view of a young woman in a new marriage. The film begins with the soon-to-be bride (Nimisha Sajayan) practising dance even as her family prepares for the arrival of the groom (Suraj Venjaramoodu). The halwa is cut, the banana fritters are fried, the appams are made — and the camera focuses on the hands that perform this labour.
That's a recurring shot in the film; the hands of women as they cook, grind, clean, wipe, sweep. It may seem repetitive but it's as if Jeo Baby wants the viewer to feel the exhaustion of that endless cycle. The characters have no names, perhaps because there's nothing unique about this story. It is so ordinary that the style of filmmaking is like that of a documentary. There is no background score either; what we hear is the sound of women's work that punctuates the air as the men go about their self-important routine.
Nimisha's character is all blushes and smiles as she sets foot in her marital home. When she asks her mother-in-law about the side dishes for dosa, the latter says that in their home, they need to make sambhar and chamandhi and that the chamandhi needs to be hand ground because the patriarch of the house, the father-in-law, only likes it that way. The daughter-in-law says that in her parental house, they would only make one side dish, either this or that.
There's nothing that stands out in that conversation; it's the sort of small talk that's common in the kitchen. The mother-in-law is not the stereotypical, harassing kind (she is, in fact, something of an ally). The comments are not made with any undertone. But it is merely the foothill of the mountain of housework that the young woman soon finds herself at.
Suraj and Nimisha have previously played husband and wife in the critically acclaimed Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. There too, they were newlyweds, but a couple that fell in love and went against the norms to get married. In The Great Indian Kitchen, they play a couple in an arranged marriage, with her having to settle into his upper caste, old fashioned but prominent family.
It goes without saying that the two actors are brilliant. The wife's suppressed anger, the hurt she registers at her husband's callousness, her outbursts — Nimisha does it all, living the part. Suraj as the husband is oblivious to her feelings, irritating to the point when you feel like reaching through the screen and giving him a good shake.
He's a near mirror image of his father, a man who expects his wife to apply toothpaste on his brush and give it in the morning as he rests on an easy chair. The father abhors modern, labour saving machines — and why not, when there are women to function like machines for him? Interestingly, neither man is physically violent; even when they disagree and put down the women, they do it with sweet smiles. That is what makes The Great Indian Kitchen different from the average film on unhappy marriages. There is no overt domestic violence, the issues are not a matter of life and death. Yet, they are, ultimately, issues that drain the life out of women, inch by inch.
There are many moments in the film that show what a good observer Jeo Baby is. The mother-in-law adopting salwars when she visits her daughter, away from the gaze of her husband; the little girl who is made to eat with her mom while the men dine with the guests; the annoying request for two types of tea to be made; the call to the plumber that never gets done; the photographs of seemingly happy couples on the wall, generation after generation...nothing is overstated, nothing is spelled out. But you sense how fundamentally patriarchal the institution of the family is; how women's voices are relegated to the background even if they're screaming.
The Great Indian Kitchen would have worked even if Jeo Baby had stopped with this little story, but he takes a brave step forward by revealing how all of this intrinsic misogyny is sanctioned by religion and tradition. While the women bear the weight of it, the men get to bend the rules as it suits them (too difficult to eat cowdung to be 'purified'? It's enough if you take a dip in a river). It would be too much of a spoiler to discuss this plot point in a review, but let's just say that the film wades into a contentious issue that rocked the state not so far back. Without pulling punches or striking any compromises, Jeo Baby has his protagonist break free from the shackles and stand tall.
The husband and wife of The Great Indian Kitchen get their respective happy endings, but it's not what we're used to seeing on the big screen. And what a relief that is.
The film is now playing on Neestream.
Watch: Trailer of The Great Indian Kitchen
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.