Reviewer: Dr Asma Sayed
The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), starring Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Venjaramoodu and directed by Joe Baby, is a Malayalam film about a woman’s life after marriage in a middle-class family in southern India. With a focus on the tedious routine of unpaid daily household work that many women across India put up with, the film is a reminder about inherent inequities in the distribution of domestic labour and the burden – physical and psychological – that many women carry. The film raises several questions about inherent sexism and misogyny in Indian households, but by extension, persuades global audiences to think about the socio-economic contributions of women and unequal distribution of labour in contemporary society.
The film centres an unnamed protagonist, a newly wed woman who is a trained dancer, who soon after her arranged marriage realizes that her role in the household is secondary to the two men, her husband and her father-in-law, and that there are no prospects for her to pursue a career. The men in the house possess all the power and expect the women to serve them. The wife’s day is filled with domestic chores and much of her time is spent cooking three fresh meals each day. Indian cooking is time and labour intensive especially if one insists on preparing everything at home, from scratch: wash, cut, and chop the vegetables and other ingredients; grind the spices; cook and garnish. It is easy to spend hours in an Indian kitchen, and it can be fun, but not so much when one has to do it on a daily basis while fulfilling the demands of each family member. That is what the wife in the film is required to do. She gets up every morning to enter the kitchen to first make tea and breakfast, then lunch, and then dinner. In between all the cooking, she manages to clean the house, wash the dishes, launder everyone’s clothes, and looks after the overall functioning of the household. At night, she must be ready to warm the bed of her husband. While she runs around frantically throughout the day trying to take care of all her responsibilities, her husband starts his morning with yoga, goes to work, entertains himself by watching TV or meeting friends, and lives a comfortable life.
The woman’s father-in-law, the patriarch of the family, also commands absolute power on the women in his house. He refuses to eat chutney made in an electric mixer; his chutney must be ground by hand. His clothes must be hand washed and not in a machine. His rice must be cooked in a pot on a hearth and not in a pressure cooker on a gas stove. His tooth brush and paste should be brought to him when he wakes up in the morning and his shoes should be laid in front of him when he is ready to leave the house. The demands of the two men, the father and the son, are indicative of what a daughter-in-law must put up with and the strong grip of patriarchal traditions on women.
The film also raises other issues that many Indian women have to deal with. For instance, every month, when the wife is menstruating, she is considered dirty and untouchable and is not allowed in the kitchen. She has to spend her week in a dark room while an aunt, a family relative, takes over the kitchen for the week. The Sabrimala controversy which engulfed India some time back is skillfully embedded in the film. While the wife sits in her seclusion room, TV news channels showcase the debate about whether women should be allowed to enter the Sabrimala temple which has traditionally been open to men only because of fears of women entering the temple in an ‘impure’ state.
While watching the film, one is reminded of the Netflix reality show Indian Matchmaking in which Seema aunty, the Indian matchmaker, advises highly-educated, professional women to be less demanding if they want to find a life partner. The narrative in the reality show and The Great Indian Kitchen leads to similar questions: Why are girls in India raised to think that some compromise on their part is a given in a marriage? Why are they told that women must learn to adapt, to adjust? Why is it that a man can easily find another wife if the marriage were to end, but a woman becomes ‘used goods’? In the film, ultimately, the choices that the wife makes at the end of the film come with grave consequences for her but none for the husband.
The Great Indian Kitchen makes an attempt to disrupt heteropatriarchal family and social structures and to bring to light the pervasive toxic masculinity in our society. The plight of the wife in the film is that of many women in India whose domestic labour is not only not recognized, but it is expected as part of the institution of marriage. A married woman ought to put all her ambitions, aspirations, and desires aside for the sake of her husband’s family. Not only is this discourse fully normalized, but going against it is considered a sign of unsuccessful womanhood. While many more women in India are now working outside of their homes than before, sometimes in high profile positions, the expectations at home have not changed much. If anything, the woman now bears the double burden. The only way to fight this kind of toxic patriarchal culture is fighting against toxic masculinity and intimate partner abuse together as a community.
The film’s appeal is in its minimalism and the realistic setting. There is very little dialogue in the film as its message is conveyed through repetitive actions. At some point, one can get bored of watching the routine, mundane, exercise of cooking and cleaning, but that is how the film makes its point. If watching the same process is tiring, imagine what it is like to be doing these chores day in and day out. Both the lead actors, Sajayan and Venjaramoodu, have done a remarkable job of expressing their emotions with minimal verbal interaction.
The Great Indian Kitchen is a film that works to draw attention to existing inequities to empower women. Although the film’s focus is India, it speaks well to the issue of unpaid domestic labour and the need to value such work socially, politically, and economically in order to accord equitable power to women globally.