Cooked by Jeo Baby and Friends. That's how The Great Indian Kitchen ends and what a fantastic film Baby rustles up, brilliantly deconstructing the marriage between gender politics and patriarchy highlighting the reality of the majority of women in our country.
Nimisha Sajayan plays the wife, a trained dancer by profession who was raised in the Gulf. She gets married to Suraj Venjaramood's character, who is a school teacher and lives with his parents. The film, in a few swift scenes, sets up the arranged relationship between the two and the impending expectations the wife has to live up to. Small montages like that of Suraj's mother handing a toothbrush to his father so that he can brush his teeth or putting his chappals before him as he leaves the house act as a foreground for the focal point of the film: the kitchen (and the assigned gender-specific roles). Baby, who is also the writer for the film, showcases the rigmarole that the women (both old and young) of the house go through on a daily basis, the constant hustling, while also being treated without respect and as second class citizens. Baby is unafraid to show the filth and the grime the men leave behind for the sole woman to clean up (the mother-in-law leaves to take of her pregnant daughter). In fact, he shrewdly uses imagery such as a leaking kitchen sink, the overflowing trash and a happy wedding photograph — all of which later become motifs for the climax of the film.
But, The Great Indian Kitchen does not limit itself by focusing only on the kitchen. The screenplay smartly uses the setting as a means to lay out in the open the numerous patriarchal practices that hundreds of women across the country face as their reality every single day. For instance, the Wife who is a qualified dance choreographer wants to find a job but her father-in-law is against it. He says, "My wife is also a postgraduate but she never worked. So why do you need to?" In another scene, when the Wife explains to the Husband that it hurts when they have sex and that she would like some foreplay, the Husband gets egoistical, guilting her for having past experiences. Baby also uses Kerala's political climate well; the treatment of the Wife as someone 'dirty' and 'untouchable' by the men when she is menstruating, is a clear reference to the Sabarimala Temple issue. In another brilliant narrative choice, the Wife has to shift to a separate room when her period begins because the Husband is supposed to take the 'Sabarimala oath', practising celibacy and staying away from his wife. During her time in the room, the father-in-law's sister arrives and immediately berates the Wife for trying to sleep on the bed because everything the woman touches has to be washed. This finally results in her sleeping on the floor. Numerous other such incidents finally lead to the Wife's breaking point, captured in a realistic and gloriously cathartic segment where she puts the men in their place and walks out.
The performances by Sajayan and Venjaramood are exceptional. Sajayan's disbelief, endeavour and rage make the Wife a fully realized character, while Venjaramood's mocking tone and scornful silences are incredibly well done. The larger world, when it shows up at their house, is delightfully insightful: the relative who acts liberal but is as patriarchal and disrespectful as the men is a fantastic nugget. Surprisingly, none of the main characters has any names. But that is the point the film is trying to make: this story does not exist in a vacuum. The film's climax which is raw, refreshing and one that questions the status quo quickly turns sour by an end scene that positions the story back to square one — a new wife enters the kitchen. The house remains and so does the cooking and cleaning. This is the reality of India's kitchens, both big and small: a certain gender, irrespective of status, is pinned down and confined within the "boundaries" that society has set up.