"The tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes," lectures Anne Lamott to young artists in her immortal book Bird by Bird. Now we are almost a year-and-a-half through the pandemic, yet the storytellers across the world keep coming up with stories that can move our hearts, give us hope and keep us centred in these turbulent times. From a basket full of such spectacular stories, I have picked one that has left an impression on me and which I wish to discuss here. So, without further ado, let's enter The Great Indian Kitchen.
From the outset, writer-director Jeo Baby leaves no stone unturned to set the ambiance. With its sweet music and beautiful cinematography, the movie successfully captures the essence of an ordinary life in all its realism. The nameless yet all too familiar characters, who, as it turns out, continue to remain anonymous throughout the film, help the audience slip into a flowing narrative by means of their body language, mannerisms and micro-expressions. The film opens from a marriage interview, followed by a traditional wedding ceremony, leaving us with two lovebirds, all the while foreshadowing something subliminal and immediate. Gradually, the harsh truth starts peeking through the cracks in the relationships.
Jeo Baby is a master storyteller as he goes on to present us with everyday misogyny and how it all plays out so smoothly against the backdrop of a typical Indian family. The husband enters the kitchen, romances the wife, everything is natural and as would be expected from the newlyweds, except for the fact that he leaves his teacup for his already busy wife to wash. These small habits that dot the entire film and that nobody gives a second thought to are, in real life, the small doses that sedate the reasonable mind and bypass our critical lens, and before we know it, we are all perpetrators. The director uses repetition to draw our attention to the daily grind. The grime, the filth, the sweat and the drudgery of the unending chores – which we have seen before but have conveniently chosen to look away from. The most dreadful realisation for me was not that, in every male figure in the movie, I saw someone I know in real life, but rather that I saw myself in each of them, varying just in degree. This is the reason I found this article especially hard to write. No matter what I think, say, or write about being a feminist, I, too, am charged as guilty for looking away. I, too, have indulged in occasional sexism and patriarchy. My ideals have raced ahead, my actions always lagging behind. But I think the shame that I am feeling right now is very important, as this movie intends to nudge us into an awareness and perception that is urgent and necessary.
This Malayalam drama grapples with a difficult goal: to discern the place of women in our families. The contrasting scenes of women working in the house, chopping, boiling, cooking, mopping, cleaning, washing, moving about the house relentlessly, not allowed even a momentary respite while the men of the house lounge around, indulging in various recreational activities strike a vivid picture of our society and the gender roles that we all have conformed to so nonchalantly. I also like how we are shown in the protagonist's friend: yes, there are women who are financially independent, following their passion and have a progressive and supportive partner, but there are very few such. The film has also touched upon other pressing issues such as the fragile male ego, toxic masculinity, twisted feminine worship, taboos surrounding female health and sexuality, the estrangement women face from their families post-marriage, censorship, oppression and prejudice. This only emphasises the fact that the problems faced by women are more universal in scale, more nuanced in dimension and more vicious in design than we collectively realise.
There is a scene, of great import, where the protagonist finally leaves her in-laws' house for good, and just starts walking along the road, while chants in praise of god can be heard coming out of every house and from the side of the road. This transported me straight back to my childhood days when I had come cross the following Sanskrit shloka:
"Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devataah
yatreitastu na pujyante sarvaastatraafalaah kriyaah."
It means that gods haunt the place where women are respected, and where this does not occur, no action, no matter how noble and honourable, bears any fruit. At this point in time, I could clearly see god walking out of the house following our protagonist. It is almost impossible to talk about the Indian way of life without talking about religion and the film has not shied away from it. Religions across the globe have been interpreted in a way to undermine the status of women and pigeonhole them into certain stereotypes for the convenience of a male-dominated society.
The way virtues like love, sacrifice and patience can be manipulated to enslave such a sizeable portion of our society speaks volumes about the art of rhetoric, mob mentality and micro-habits. Evil, social or otherwise, in essence, does not have a beginning. This is why we should reassess our beliefs, customs and practices more often so as not only to keep pace with the changing times but also to preserve our fundamental values of freedom, dignity and humanity.
The movie ends on a pragmatic note rather than a wishful one. At the end, the protagonist is shown to be engaged in pursuit of her passion and self-expression, highlighted by a vibrant, palpitating classical dance performance. Meanwhile her ex-husband remarries and begins the vicious cycle once again. This only tells us that it is going to take a while before things start to change.
The Great Indian Kitchen is one of the most poignant and thought-provoking films that I have watched in a long time. The use of food as a metaphor and the kitchen, where it all starts to unfold, essentially renders it a must-watch, and a topic of much conversation and debate in the male community. This is vital to treat the cultural amnesia regarding the role of women in laying the foundation of our society and their everyday quiet heroism. As much as we take our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, wives, girlfriends and all the other women in our lives for granted, it is only fair to resist – as much as we can – our generationally acquired evil and start appreciating them everyday.