Writer-director Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen is possibly the most positively reviewed film of the year. It’s a rarity for a man to tell women’s stories and get it right. I don’t remember a film that has started as many conversations on WhatsApp groups as this. The women feel represented and validated while the men are allies or simply silent.
The Great Indian Kitchen is the story of a young bride breaking free from the shackles of thankless domestic labour and reclaiming her independence. It’s a tale of rebellion and hope. The film opens with parallel shots of the protagonist, played by Nimisha Sajayan, dancing with abandon and an array of south Indian delicacies elaborately handmade by a woman. It’s a prelude to the future of a young girl on the cusp of matrimony.
A new bride enters a home with a kind mother-in-law and an ever-smiling husband. What more can a girl ask for? An eager-to-please daughter-in-law happily takes on domestic responsibility. She suddenly finds herself in the deep end, however, when her mother-in-law takes off to take care of her pregnant daughter. The family now expects their daughter-in-law to cook fresh meals thrice a day, sweep, scrub, dust and wash, day in and day out, with no support. We see a quiet rage building in her each time a new demand is nicely made and relief is denied.
There are several long sequences of women engrossed in housework while the men at the same time indulge in leisure. The inequality is not subtle here. Double standards, sexism and the cost of traditional Indian values are obvious subjects of the film. It also tacitly keeps making another point – women are replaceable.
When the daughter-in-law steps in to fill in for the mother-in-law, nobody notices the latter’s absence. The men are at peace as long as the tea is served and the floors are swept. The family is quick to discard the woman to a separate room during her menstrual cycle. The house help takes over her duties. An elderly relative is called during another cycle to do the work and reprimand the daughter-in-law for her modern ways.
The conclusion of the film reiterates this reality. We see the protagonist having left that house, working as a dance teacher and living her best life. The filmmaker is smart enough to immediately point out that one woman walking out of the house is not enough to uproot patriarchy. There are no consequences for the husband. In an idealistic filmy world, the husband would regret losing his wife, but instead we see him with a new wife in an identical routine. Everything is exactly the same except the woman in the house is now different. But does it matter? It dawned on me that it never mattered who the woman in the kitchen was. The woman of the house is not a person of flesh and blood but a role to be filled by anyone who can submit to the needs of the men.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.