By Salini Vineeth
The Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen has created a wave in Kerala soon after its release a week ago. Directed by Jeo Baby, it stands out for its bold portrayal of patriarchy and social taboos in a traditional Kerala household. From the very first scene, the movie satirizes the ridiculous norms in Indian society, facilitated by the institution of marriage.
The movie opens with the proceedings of a typical ‘arranged marriage’. The man (played by Suraj Venjaramoodu) meets the woman (Nimisha Sajayan) in a ceremony called Pennu Kaanal in Malayalam (‘seeing the girl’). The short exchange between the would-be bride and groom flashes a small beam of light into what awaits the bride.
While they sit uncomfortably close to each other, the groom says, “We are strangers, so what’s there to talk about?” The woman smiles and nods – discomfort smeared across her face. She neither contradicts him nor demands to know him better. That’s what she is taught, to be the wife of a man she barely knows. The next scene that we see is an extravagant wedding and a brand-new car parked in front of the groom’s house (undoubtfully, a part of the ‘dowry’).
The bride is anxious and confused in the new home. She has been uprooted from her family and planted in a new household. Yet she is expected to be at home as if it’s a natural process. Right from the day after the wedding, she is expected to be a part of the household activities and ‘adjust’ with her in-laws. Nobody seems to care about the emotional and physical transition she goes through in the new environment.
The movie then goes deep into the day-to-day activities of a traditional Kerala household. The camera zooms in on the relationship between the father (played by T. Suresh Babu) and mother-in-law (Ramadevi).
The wife literally does every chore for her husband, including handing over his toothbrush in the morning and placing his footwear at his feet as he steps out. It’s just a foreshadow of what’s coming for the new bride. While everyone seems amicable, the bride picks up troubling vibes in the new house.
The movie does justice to its name as it relentlessly follows the women in the kitchen. It picks up the drudgery of her daily chores – cooking, washing, mopping, dusting, cleaning, and cooking again. Unlike the movies that glorify the relationship between a woman and her kitchen, this movie focuses on their hostile relationship – the leaking pipes and reeking food waste – to the extent that it is nausea-inducing.
Some might feel that the film has exaggerated the amount of household work that a woman performs. But as an ILO study has pointed out, women in India spend up to 297 minutes per day on domestic work, compared with 31 minutes for men. In Indian society, taking care of the house and raising children are unpaid jobs almost always assigned to women.
These gender roles are so deep-rooted that women often consider themselves a failure if they don’t play these roles. Just like the girl’s mother in this movie, mothers all across India teach their daughters to cook and clean, forgetting to teach their sons the same. Instead of listening to her daughter’s problems, the girl’s mother advises her to ‘adjust’ because, according to her, that’s how things should be.
The movie is not just about household chores. It addresses a wide range of regressive social practices. One of them is the taboo around menstruation. The new bride in the movie goes through an excruciating experience during her periods. She is not allowed to enter the kitchen and is banished into a small room away from the public gaze. She is considered ‘impure’ during her periods and is not allowed to touch anything except for her bed, plate and glass.
The movie clearly portrays how women are shamed for a perfectly biological phenomenon. Unfortunately, it’s the older women who enforce these rules in the name of religion and instill a sense of shame in the younger ones.
The movie also explores the idea of a woman’s role in marital sex. The husband in this movie is quite unaware and uncaring of his wife’s sexual needs. Even when she tries to communicate her discomfort, he accuses her of ‘being well-aware of sex’. It’s almost as if her pleasure doesn’t matter. In this aspect, the movie is spot-on. It’s still taboo for women to talk about sex and their pleasure. Instead, a ‘respectable’ Indian woman is expected to submit herself to whatever the husband chooses to do. If she is outspoken about sex, people make assumptions about her sexual life and tarnish her character.
It’s not so often that a movie shakes a society from its siesta and makes people uncomfortable. It’s not often a movie initiates a dialogue that was long due. That’s precisely what the movie The Great Indian Kitchen has done to Kerala. And we women hope this dialogue will lead to change.
Salini Vineeth is a Bengaluru-based fiction and freelance writer. She has self-published four books. She loves writing short stories and has been published in various literary magazines.