The mind numbing account of a newlywed Malayali bride obliged to internalize patriarchy through a laborious routine and how after all it is the story of thousands of Indian women is what The Great Indian Kitchen is about. The age old patriarchal norm consistently battled by women that attempts to lock women in the kitchens is the baseline of the movie, presented with tedious, painstaking and angering detail. So much so that a common female viewer naturally puts herself in the place of the nameless, generalized protagonist and the men cannot resist feeling guilty about their past behaviour which might have even the slightest resemblance.
Realism has now become synonymous for Malayalam cinema and The Great Indian Kitchen fits the frame. Although, incorporating symbolism even within the most realistic settings such as the presence of too much gold in the house worn by women who apparently are not allowed any financial freedom (apparent romanticising of home making tasks), the lengthy sequence of multiple photo frames of the couples who have lived through the same routine in the house and the protagonist’s inability to open herself up to desires even during sex because she’s so overwhelmed by the routine; are simple and brilliant at the same time. When she does gather the courage to open herself to the pleasure of physical connection, she’s given a passive blow so inconsiderate that could seem fatal to someone hoping for just a little consideration from someone she’s been doing so much for. The flip side of the romanticised role of ‘home makers’ as experienced by the ones that did not play a role in romanticising it, but lived through it in real life is accounted completely in this movie.
Jeo Baby has intelligently filmed almost the entire movie in an unremarkable kitchen that is like solitary confinement for the woman. The instances of passive contempt expressed by the two grown men who cannot cater to the most basic of their own needs invokes despise towards them in the women watching. The father-in-law, practically a beggar with a lot of choices in life, shuns the women in the house and confines them to domestic slavery and preaches what they’re doing is greater than government jobs. Through the process of it, the idea of how many women after all might have gone down in history having lived similar miserable lives disturbs me beyond my understanding. This movie must be the feministic attempt that addresses an issue so universal yet so understated. And I cannot appreciate The Great Indian Kitchen enough for that.
She’s smoothly made to apologize against her will for calling the husband out rightfully for his manners. She’s politely asked to disregard her passion to be a dance teacher. She’s forced to cooperate during physical intercourse that the man performs apparently even without being attracted to her. And she’s thrust to endure an endless loop of chopping and washing and cleaning and waiting days out until she can do it again. Capturing the mundane, the uneventful is a considerable challenge for a film maker but Jeo Baby has aced the art with flying colours. The mood shifts and the emotions fluctuate in the mind of a viewer through the movie, and I don’t suppose one can ask for more.
Coming to the uncalled diversion that I cannot help but mention here. If you feel like I’m looking too much into it or that this observation is unnecessary, I leave it open to your perception – this is just mine. The movie flows perfectly well and is realistic and relevant until the two men in the house accept initiation to undertake a trip to Shabarimale. Then on, I could quite literally feel the energy in the room dilute (I watched it with my students and a colleague) because there on the connectivity feels lost. The makers pushed the extremities a little too far with the sequence of the men initiating rituals for the Shabarimale trip and the protagonist menstruating at the same time. The instances that unfolded in the movie at that part are just not how things happen in real life, and that’s where it disconnected from the audience who know the traditions first-hand. Until then, the women were empathizing and the men reflecting, but the flow simply diluted during the particular sequence.
Every woman in South India encounters literally hundreds of men who have accepted the initiation for Shabarimale visit during November –January every year. Everyone goes about their days normally without pretending to be ‘extra pure’ or treating women like some sort of contaminating factor. Most of them stay out of homes in makeshift huts that they dismantle after the initiation period, consume food that they themselves cook without being dependant on women in the household and perform their regular duties. For men working as bus conductors, teachers or salesmen, there is not the slightest possibility of evading women during the time and none of them attempts to. Life goes on normally and women are not treated with extra contempt by men clad in black and worshipping Ayyappa Swamy. Not whatsoever.
And this ‘extra’ element disconnects the movie from reality and dilutes the message. The final blow that the protagonist gives the men is perfect – just that the Shabarimale reference was totally uncalled for. The domestic movie that was so impactful lost track when a religious element with wrong interpretations was incorporated. The overwhelming routine of household chores and the final sequence where she breaks free of them might as well be joined together without the Shabarimale sequence; and The Great Indian Kitchen would have conveyed a message so intense that could be unparalleled in Indian cinema.
Don’t get me wrong – it still has. This movie is still, hands down, one of the best movies I have ever watched and connected to (even without experience of that sort). All through the movie I could not stop thinking how fast enough I’d have acted out and not endured as much as the protagonist did. And reflecting the whole while that acting out is not an option for so many women who lead such miserable lives in silence. For the choice of the theme, the story, the cinematography, casting and the message, The Great Indian Kitchen and its makers deserve all possible praise. I just wish they’d have left religion out of it, especially because what’s depicted is not true. We’d all accept it with open arms if the depiction was true.