The director of the critically acclaimed film ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ narrates the story that led him to make this most transparent film on the lives of women.

Nimisha in a salwar and Suraj in a check shirt sit on a bed smiling at each otherStill from 'The Great Indian Kitchen'
Flix Interview Sunday, January 17, 2021 - 17:14

Between the echo of a distant horn and the vague sounds of the road, Jeo Baby’s voice emerges with a question. Two in the afternoon is not his preferred time for an interview. He’d have chosen a time before 7 in the morning or after 10 in the evening, when the kids at home were asleep. But he agrees pleasantly to a more convenient time. His new film, the fourth he has directed, has just been uploaded on a relatively new OTT platform: Neestream.

The film has since received love in the form of messages, calls from emotional strangers, and long Facebook posts. Most of them from women. The Great Indian Kitchen had at last managed to tell their tale in the most transparent manner – by simply putting on screen the hours a woman spends in her kitchen, scene after scene, till the image can’t be shaken away anymore.

“I realised that many among my male friends are completely oblivious of what the women around them did all day in the kitchen. Their role in the business of cooked food ended with pronouncing it good or bad at the end of a meal, after everything from the dishes to the glass of water was laid out before them,” Jeo Baby tells TNM in an interview.

In the film, a character playing the father-in-law of a newly married woman takes it a notch further. He wants his toothbrush, complete with paste, brought to the chair he reads the morning newspaper from. It is not that the old man is lazy. He is simply unaccustomed to another way of life – which involves him taking his own toothbrush, getting his own pair of shoes before going out, washing the plate he has just licked clean.

You watch him entirely oblivious of the young daughter-in-law (Nimisha Sajayan) sweeping the large front yard in front of him, or wiping the floors of the big house, storey after storey. Forget the endless chores she has in the kitchen, a room the old man appears never to have entered. You see Suraj Venjaramoodu, playing the young woman’s husband, enter it the first day after their marriage. But that’s just the once and he doesn’t show up anymore, or even have a conversation with her until it’s night time and the tired woman comes to bed.

“Before marriage, I used to enjoy cooking. And that’s because it was something I did only when it suited me, not something I had to do every day. It was only after marriage when my wife and I began toiling in the kitchen day in and day out that I thought of the women who do this all their lives. It’s then that I thought of making a film,” Jeo says.

The year was 2017, two years after his marriage to Beena. Jeo believed in gender equality much earlier in life, when as a child he could not understand why only the women in the family did so much work at home. That Jeo can clearly place himself in another’s shoe was clear from the way he made Kunjudaivam in 2018, with a child protagonist whose prayers appear to come true.

“I want to ask many men who speak profusely on gender equality in public spaces, why do you not enter your own kitchen? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Jeo says.

When he wrote the script, he exchanged ideas with his wife Beena. His team spoke to several women who shared their experiences. Jeo kept discussing with his directorial team, his editor Francis and his cinematographer Salu.

Beena and Jeo Baby

Many themes were formed and discarded. The first idea was to portray a Muslim family. When the film finally got made, there were no names. Neither for the place it’s set in nor for the characters. The dialect suggests a North Kerala town, possibly in Kannur.

You wouldn’t notice the absence of names though, that’s how common the inside scenes are. It could be any middleclass home in Kerala.

Several scenes focus on the state of the dining table left behind by the men, remains of the chewed food scattered all over the mat. Nimisha’s character shows the disgust she feels on seeing it the first time and hides it when she realises that was the norm in the family she has married into. The mother-in-law seems unaffected by all of this. The simplest of chores were expected to be done for the men of the house. It’s almost as if they never progressed from the toddler age, when parents did everything from feed to potty-train the child.

Watch: Teaser of the film

The elderly father-in-law also uses the familiar (and icky) glorifying terms to describe ‘a woman’s role in the house’. She is the aishwaryam (prosperity) of the home, he says. The work she does is so much bigger than what men do in offices, he tells his young daughter-in-law when she applies for a job.

The Great Indian Kitchen doesn’t show the men physically hurting the women or even raising their voice too much. Many stories about domestic troubles tend to add these flaws to the husband to justify the woman’s decision to call it quits. “It’s made out to be a big deal if a husband doesn’t drink or raise his voice against his wife. But it’s only when you work every day in the kitchen that you understand the injustice of that space, the lack of freedom. Cooking was something I enjoyed before, but I hate it now. So imagine how it’d be like for the women who do it all their lives?” Jeo asks.

In fact, you see how Nimisha’s character is unable to really enjoy a peaceful meal by herself amid all the work. Even in her silence, she conveys the amount of frustration she holds – her family back home being the least supportive. You wait for that breaking point as she wakes up to newer restrictions on freedom every morning. And then there’s a trigger.

While the script of The Great Indian Kitchen was being developed, the Supreme Court in late 2018 issued the controversial verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple. Earlier the temple was limited to men and to women who were not of menstruating age. Jeo’s film, centred on a kitchen and the never-ending and unacknowledged chores of a young woman, made space to include the reactions to the verdict. On the streets were protests by a few who opposed the verdict and thereby the entry of all women. On a Facebook page, a woman posts a video questioning patriarchy and women’s place in society. Nimisha’s character, at her wit’s end after a few weeks of marriage, shares the video, and gets told off by her husband, who is soon to go to the shrine himself. But the rules of the pilgrimage prevent him from even coming face to face with her, much less picking a fight with her.

Jeo is not sure if it was the inclusion of the Sabarimala verdict that discouraged major OTT platforms from accepting his film. A new player in the field, Neestream, readily agreed and Jeo was eager to give it to them so that the film and its all-important message reached the people.

“I’m most grateful to the producers – my friends – who agreed to invest money on this. The actors too were game because they’re socially quite aware. Nimisha agreed after she heard the order of scenes. I was happy that Suraj also agreed. He did because of his social awareness,” Jeo says.

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