At times we come across certain slice-of-life movies that tug at our heart-strings and make us feel for their characters. The Great Indian Kitchen, a Malayalam film written and directed by Jeo Baby, is one such cinematic gem. It is the tale of a "Husband" and "Wife" who get married in a typical arranged marriage: one high tea and two minutes of privacy. We are never told their names, because we don't need to know them, as this can be the story of any household. She is born and brought up in Bahrain, well-educated and progressive, while his family is highly conservative. And thus begins her struggle for adjustment with her in-laws after the marriage.
With a runtime of 100 minutes, the audience is subjected to repeated montages of the wife doing her daily household chores. She is following the same routine every day, day after day: cooking, washing, cleaning, picking up the leftovers after meals, dealing with plumbing issues, lighting the evening lamp, wrapping up the kitchen and performing nightly conjugal duty for her husband. It is a testament to the craft of the director and the cinematographer that we can actually feel the monotony of her life and her anguish because of it. They force the viewer to walk in her shoes and feel suffocated by the tentacles of patriarchy, which still thrives and flourishes in South Asia.
She is not allowed to work by her father-in-law because, according to him, when a woman stays in the house it brings prosperity to the family. After several nights of painful sex, when she requests her husband to engage in foreplay, he rebuffs her by stating that he doesn't find her attractive. Before eating every meal, she first has to pick up the chewed leftovers of the men of the house, who couldn't be bothered to clean up after eating. During her periods, her husband's aunt forces her to sleep on the floor, bathe in the river and stay holed up in a room like a prisoner. Her mother constantly advises her to adjust because she is lucky to be married into such a prestigious family. Her mother-in-law understands her pain but she has already accepted her own fate and thus has no energy or will to stand up for her daughter-in-law.
The final nail in the coffin comes when her father-in-law and husband threaten to throw her out of the house if she does not delete her Facebook post supporting the Sabarimala verdict. This is when she snaps and decides that she has had enough.
This movie is a poignant reminder that it is not just physical violence that makes a marriage or relationship abusive. The act of stifling someone's spirit or making them feel impure or undesirable also counts as abuse. Even today many women, including educated and working ones, bear with the drudgery of their daily lives (in some cases, juggling both home and office) unquestioningly because they have been taught that it is the duty of a woman to adjust and compromise. Why? Why can't everyone pitch in and help her? Why do the majority of men consider it beneath their ego to prepare their own tea and expect their wives to hand it to them?
A lot of readers might disagree, thinking that they belong to the New India, and I agree that there are some men who are progressive and actively support their better halves or mothers. But sadly, this species of liberal and "woke" men is still a very minuscule part of the population. If men think that they are doing a favour by helping women around the house, then it is not gender equality. Preparing a meal or loading the washing machine shouldn't be reserved for Women's Day or birthdays. "Share the load" should be the motto for everything, every day.
The Great Indian Kitchen is important because it is real. It portrays real issues that plague real women. Even in the climax there is no dramatic change of heart or last-minute epiphanies. The wife walks out of the house to pursue her dreams, while the husband finds a second wife to cater to his needs. This powerful scene reminded me of Mahesh Manjrekar's Astitva (another gem), where Tabu's Aditi takes the same route in the end.
Here lies the beauty of the message: if we want society to change, we, the women, will have to change first. We will have to stand up for ourselves and teach our daughters to do the same and not compromise on their dignity just for the sake of "ghar ki shaanti".