Are men, of whichever political hue, prepared for women who are not ready to wait — not just for temple entry, but for gender justice in all spheres?

Nimisha Sajayan with laptop in The Great Indian Kitchen
Flix Opinion Tuesday, January 19, 2021 - 14:28

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

The state of the dining table in The Great Indian Kitchen was a familiar sight during my childhood. Chewed up drumsticks and bones strewn outside the plate for the women of the household to clean after the men had eaten. And this was in a communist home where we had Karl Marx and Lenin gracing the walls instead of gods and goddesses. When I became old enough to participate in housework, I too was expected to clean up the mess. I refused to do so, and perhaps because it was harder to ignore a child’s forthright expression of disgust than my mother’s guarded suggestions on the same lines previously, the practice changed.

Jeo Baby’s film on women’s unpaid labour and the all pervasive misogyny that forms the bedrock of our society has led to many conversations, discussions and debates on social media and in drawing rooms. In the film, a nameless woman character (Nimisha Sajayan) marries into a prominent Nair family and is confronted with the drudgery of housework and the callousness of the men at home. The camera follows the new bride as she bustles around the house, following her mother-in-law and trying to fit in with the customs of her marital home. The men, meanwhile, read the newspaper, scroll through their phones, practise yoga and take ample rest.

The young woman, we’re told, is not well-versed with traditional practices because her father worked in the Gulf. But she isn’t painted as a feminist or rebel; she tries to adjust, she tries to compromise, she tries to control her emotions. When she goes for a meal to another house, she finds that the woman of the house and her young daughter eat only after the men and the guests have eaten. In a silent shot, we also see that the grandmother of the house is in her room, not dining with the guests either. Coming home, the young woman too decides to eat with the mother-in-law instead of dining with the men.

Also read: 'Why don't you men enter kitchens?' : Director Jeo Baby interview

But when the mother-in-law, a postgraduate who spends all her time catering to her overbearing husband, leaves to her pregnant daughter’s home, the patriarchal practices that had been normalised in the house become more and more apparent to the new bride. Things come to a head when the men make preparations to undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage, and she turns into an object of vice and disgust for them. Her husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu), who till the night before he was to wear the rudrakasha beads and black clothes, wanted to have sexual intercourse with her, flinches at her very touch once he becomes a ‘saamy’.

The young woman stages a dramatic walk-out, flinging the filthy water that had collected below the sink that never gets repaired, on the two pilgrims at home. As she strides out of the oppressive house, we see other women on the road, some performing their never-ending chores and others holding placards that say ‘Ready to wait’, a campaign led by women who opposed the Supreme Court’s judgment allowing women in the menstruating age-group to enter the Sabarimala temple.

Watch: Teaser of The Great Indian Kitchen

Interestingly, the young woman has no plans whatsoever to visit Sabarimala, and yet, the misogyny intrinsic to the rituals and practices of the temple have a hold on her life. For, these traditions do not exist in a vacuum; they thrive in a society where the hatred for women’s bodies is validated and even glorified in various ways — through social norms, customs, and religious practices. She is expected to be all right with hand-washing her father-in-law’s underwear, she is expected to think it’s her duty to plunge her hand into the dirty sink and clear the clog, she is expected to believe the grungy kitchen in an otherwise neat home is her place.

Also read: 'The Great Indian Kitchen' review: Brilliant take on family, religion & patriarchy

The filth also resides within her body; even as motherhood is valourised in the society she lives in, she is not expected to know anything about sex [when she asks her husband if they could indulge in some foreplay, he passes a comment shaming her for her knowledge of the word]; her uterus, which will nourish a new life if she decides to become pregnant, is until then an object of revulsion, turning her ‘impure’ for four days a month; her undergarments cannot be dried in the open because the fact that she has such body parts or a body at all is unspeakable.

This is why the argument that women who want to go to Sabarimala are not ‘real’ devotees rings hollow. The fight for women’s entry to the temple is but one facet of the battle against normalised misogyny. It is a fight against casteist practices of ‘purity’ that upper castes embrace, to keep the caste hierarchy intact. For instance, in the film, a lower caste domestic worker tells the woman that she enters kitchens even when she has her period because she has children to feed; later, we observe that when the men wear the maala, it is a relative who comes over to help when the woman is on her period because the domestic worker cannot be permitted to do so.

The Great Indian Kitchen has been welcomed by scores of women who see in the protagonist themselves, their mothers and grandmothers. It has also been hailed by Left-liberal men who are enthralled with the film’s political stance on Sabarimala — but I wonder if they would have been as appreciative if Jeo Baby’s heroine had flung the filthy water on the two men without Sabarimala in the picture. Or would they have seen too much of themselves in the men onscreen, just like their orthodox brothers on the other side of the political spectrum, to praise the film whole-heartedly?

Are men, of whichever political hue, prepared for women who are not ready to wait — not just for temple entry, but for gender justice at home, reproductive freedom, assertion of sexuality, pursuit of professional ambitions, freedom of expression, right to leisure, right to exist as a human being, warts and all? Because, make no mistake, that’s what The Great Indian Kitchen is about. Not one thing or the other, but everything. Vive la revolution!

Views expressed are author's own.

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