These are two very different films but there is a connecting factor — how the women characters suffocate with the patriarchal home.

Collage of Nimisha Sajayan with a towel around her head and Unnimaya Prasad in a blue kurta
Flix Film Commentary Friday, April 09, 2021 - 12:31

Joji, directed by Dileesh Pothan, premiered on Amazon Prime Video on April 7. Just a few days before this, Jeo Baby's highly acclaimed film The Great Indian Kitchen, also released on the same OTT platform, months after it originally came out on Neestream. (This article has spoilers ahead)

The two films are very different from each other. The Great Indian Kitchen, starring Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Venjaramoodu, is about a newlywed couple and how the woman starts feeling oppressed day by day within the institution of marriage. The film also looks at how patriarchy and misogyny are sanctioned by religion. Joji, an adaptation of the Shakespearean play Macbeth, has Fahadh Faasil playing the youngest son in a Syrian Christian family who exhibits murderous tendencies and ends up committing violent crimes against his own family members.

But, there is one thing which connects both these films — the deromanticisation of housework, and its women characters taking a vocal stance against the drudgery. They come to realise their place in their respective patriarchal homes and rebel, in their own way.

While KG George's classic Adaminte Variyellu (1983) had Vasanthy (Suhasini), who struggles between her job and the demands of her family and eventually has to escape to an institution for the mentally ill, the nameless woman (Nimisha Sajayan) of The Great Indian Kitchen and Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad) of Joji, take control of their lives.

Watch: Trailer of Joji

Bincy's character is based on Lady Macbeth. In the play, Lady Macbeth is driven by greed and it is she who poisons Macbeth's mind against King Duncan. She later suffers from guilt, seeing blood on her hands even though it is Macbeth who stabs the king.

In Joji (written by Syam Pushkaran), however, Lady Macbeth gets a much more empathetic depiction. Bincy is married to the second son of an oppressive household ruled by the patriarch, rubber estate owner Kuttappan. None of the sons are financially independent and they are expected to live in the same house, under their father's control. While the eldest, Jomon (Baburaj), does not mind this, the two younger sons — Jaison (Joji Mundakayam) and Joji (Fahadh Faasil) — are unhappy.

As the daughter-in-law of the house, Bincy has the least power. She is always shown doing housework whenever she is on screen. Changing the gas cylinder, running the washing machine, serving food to the men of the family, cleaning the fish... even when she passes casual remarks that plant the idea of murdering his father in Joji's mind, she is in the middle of housework.

While the men of the family incessantly take permission from their father for everything, a quiet rebellion is brewing in Bincy's mind. This Lady Macbeth is not given to speaking much, she thrives on the power of suggestion. She wants to leave the oppressive household and the reason for this is revealed in just two scenes.

Also read: 'Joji' review: Fahadh and Dileesh Pothan deliver a briliant adaptation of 'Macbeth'

The first is of Jaison almost begging his rigid father to release some money so that they can move to a house near the clinic where they are taking treatment. The patriarch cruelly refuses the request. The second scene is that of the son berating his wife for asking him to speak to his father. The usually composed Bincy breaks down — although it is not spelt out, it is implied that the couple is trying for a baby and it is an IVF clinic that they are visiting.

It is this, the indisputable fact that she commands no respect in the household and that her needs will never be prioritised, that triggers the outburst in the next scene. Bincy and Joji share a friendship, and they often chat in the kitchen space where he eats off a slab (as a college dropout and the youngest, Joji has the least power among the three sons). But in this scene, when Joji asks Bincy for a glass of water, she shouts at him, pointing to the fridge that's right next to him and telling him that he can just put out his hand and take it himself.

Watch: Trailer of The Great Indian Kitchen

It is a moment that mirrors a scene in The Great Indian Kitchen. After Nimisha's character has staged a dramatic walkout from her marital home in what has to be one of the most powerful scenes in Malayalam cinema, she goes to her parents' house. When her younger brother asks the women of the house to get him a glass of water, Nimisha shouts at him, asking why he cannot get it himself.

In both scenes, it is the sense of male entitlement that the women characters rebel against. Although the father-in-law in The Great Indian Kitchen is not the brutal man that Kuttappan is in Joji, he is just as oppressive and his son too does not take a stance against it. As a newlywed woman, Nimisha's character tries to please the men of the family by giving in to their unreasonable demands. Just like Bincy, she is always engaged in housework, and slowly realises that her own needs have no value in the family. When she wants to take up a job, for instance, the idea is casually shot down.

Interestingly, both films also reveal the lack of respect that a misogynistic society displays towards a woman's body. Bincy is trying to get pregnant and is under treatment for the same, but there is no empathy shown towards her. Her husband, too, ends up blaming her for the fiasco with his father. The nameless woman in The Great Indian Kitchen is treated as "dirty" when she is on her period even though it is her labour which keeps the house running.

While they outwardly subscribe to religious norms, the women seem to realise that their liberation has to come from within and no god can help them. Bincy, for instance, is holding the Bible when she firmly tells a frightened Joji that the dead will not return (possibly a subtle reference to the resurrection of Christ and her lack of faith though she continues to pray like the rest of the family). In The Great Indian Kitchen, the heroine serves dirty water as tea to the father-in-law and husband who are keeping their religious vows to go to Sabarimala. It is an act of desecration but one that she believes is entirely justified.

If Bincy chose to be a silent ally in the patriarch's murder, the heroine of The Great Indian Kitchen flings a bucketful of the dirty water on the men of the house before leaving. It is a release they had waited for, for so long.

Several films have not only normalised the unequal division of labour at home, they have also romanticised it, equating a mother or wife's love to how well she serves a meal to her husband and family. Films like Joji and The Great Indian Kitchen present a female perspective on housework (though both films were written by men) and patriarchy, and it's no wonder that the women in the audience feel validated by these representations. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then maybe what he deserves is not your love but your contempt.

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