"Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation."- Bell Hooks.
Jeo Baby's latest scrumptious offering, The Great Indian Kitchen, has been touted as one of the best films of 2021, and rightly so. The film does a remarkable job at stating unsettling facts; there is no sugarcoating, no unnecessary sophistication that borders on being unrealistic, and no over-the-top scenes. Instead, at the heart of the film is a compelling storyline that speaks volumes about women's position in society and at homes. It is noteworthy that the protagonist's situation is a microcosm for what is a rampant scenario across India, and perhaps the rest of the Indian subcontinent. In the past, other films like Juice and Ghar ki Murgi also portrayed a similar issue, but there is something about The Great Indian Kitchen that penetrates your psyche and stays with you much after the credits roll.
The film starts with a kalyanam scene- a couple arranged to married is meeting for the first time. They discuss each other's education, and a very short conversation seals the deal. It's an arranged marriage, after all, what else would they want to talk about? And, where is the scope of saying no, if either of them wishes to? The husband belongs to an affluent and respected family, and marriage with him translates into security, wealth, and a good societal position for her. Of course, this will hit too close to home for every girl who has been at the receiving end of sexism, where a marriage both liberates and enslaves her.
Cut to her married life – the 'wife' (Nimisha Sajayan) is stuck, caged in a life of soul-crushing monotony where she is only subjected to back-breaking housework everyday, with absolutely no respite or even a moment to breathe. Her world is confined to the titular kitchen's leaking pipe, the seemingly never-ending task of cooking delectable dosas and rice. Her own desires, hobbies, and interests do not and should not matter; she seems to have as much worth as the several decorative pieces that populate the house. The leaking pipe is not strikingly different from her own life; her dreams and desires shed drip by drip, leaving a muddled mess behind. Her passion for dance gradually takes a backseat since her unnamed husband does not 'allow' her to pursue a job after marriage. There is palpable tension in the air in almost every scene, and one is tempted to wonder whether marriages are only pathways for men to find someone who will serve them food during the day, and sex during the night.
It's pertinent that the film is called The Great Indian Kitchen, and not, say, South Indian or Kerala kitchen, because this isn't an isolated, one-off predicament. Almost every house across India has the same story to tell. The women in these houses sit down to eat only when the men have had their fill; they are the first to wake up and the last to sleep, and, although this is less frequent, ostracised while they bleed. They are always an afterthought, never a priority. Similar scenes take place one after the other and are a scathing remark on the bleak rigmarole that housewives, nay, homemakers are constantly subjected to. It's a gut-wrenching portrayal of our society when even her mother shies from standing up for her, and shares with her what can only be called Indian mothers' most precious pearls of wisdom, "Persevere through it all. That is your home now, not this."
The best part about the film is the moment of immense courage shown by Nimisha Sajayan's character. Like a delectable dish, it takes time to cook, but the end result leaves you wanting for more. Towards the end, she realises that she deserves a better life, and as an aspiring dance teacher, has the potential to carve a fulfilling destiny for herself. In a stunning scene of revenge and justice, where she storms out of the house after scoring an edge over the ambassadors of patriarchy (her husband and father-in-law), the film comes full circle. She has had enough, and now she walks ahead, quite literally, to a path of liberation and individuality. It's a mark of the team's intelligence that by not naming most of the characters, they have pointed out towards you, me, everyone. Such people do not exist only in fictional worlds; they are very much real, and one of us.
The film impressively captures the nuances of a patriarchal setup and how women are unapologetically relegated to a doormat position. What's even more ironic is that the culprits do not realise that they are doing anything wrong; for them, this is how things have always been, and always will be. Breaking the cycle of toxic families and widespread misogyny will take a few more decades, but with art like The Great Indian Kitchen, perhaps that day is not too far away.