Mild spoilers ahead.
The aesthetically pleasing shots and the sumptuous-looking food in the new Malayalam release — The Great Indian Kitchen — lure you into watching the movie; and then even before you realise it, the movie slaps you right across your face. You sit there staring the screen and the hard-hitting reality, mum and motionless.
The movie is unsettling, enraging and, at times, even unbearable; and very rightfully so. The nameless protagonist marries a seemingly noble and soft-spoken man. She runs all the errands of the house single-handedly for him. Everyday she cooks multiple dishes and cleans his filth (from his dirty underwear to even the food dropped by him on the dining table) without a complaint and with a smile invariably plastered on her face. Her father-in-law further adds to her chores. He prefers that his ‘mole’ (daughter in Malayalam) cook rice over an open fire rather than in a pressure cooker, prepare chutney by hand rather than in an automatic mixture, and wash clothes by hand rather than in a washing machine. The protagonist has to suppress her desire to teach dance. Her mother-in-law is oblivious to her predicaments. Nonetheless, she is very ‘auspicious’ to the family, or so her father-in-law says. All the ‘auspiciousness’, however, vanishes every month for four or five days when she has her ‘red days’. She is isolated in a secluded room and forbidden from touching anything or any person. Her husband cannot even see her during those days.
Betty Friedan, the American feminist activist, put it more clearly than anyone else when she said, over fifty years ago, “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.” Perhaps nothing new was spoken of in this movie. The same old and continuing tyranny meted out to women by men is one thing we all are familiar with, no matter how much denial we live in. It is rather the stark honesty with which this oppression is portrayed in the movie, without any sugar-coating, that shocks us as viewers. The repetitive shots — vegetables being chopped, food being prepared and eaten, dishes being washed, choked sink being cleaned with bare hands, the house being mopped — seem to be our protagonist’s mundane routine and sit heavily on the minds of the viewers. Imagine actually doing those chores day after day and year after year! The abnormal angles of shooting and the shaky camera movements further add to the uneasiness of the viewers. When the husband practises yoga in the morning, the wife is toiling away in the kitchen; when the father-in-law mindlessly checks his WhatsApp chats, the daughter-in-law is busy mopping the floor right next to him. The nameless protagonist is every Indian woman who is suffering silently in the patriarchal set up (maybe that is why she was kept nameless). In the nameless protagonist, we see our mothers; in the nameless husband, we see our fathers. We ourselves might be the nameless characters. We know who we are!
Oppression comes in more disguises than one. There is no physical violence in the movie. The men of the house raise neither their voice nor their hand on our protagonist. The husband speaks politely to her and always nods his head gently in affirmation. The father-in-law smiles sweetly even as he dictates commands to her. One fine day, when his ‘mole’ can no longer bear the oppression meted out to her, she leaves. She leaves never to come back to the suffocating household that was considered ‘auspicious’ because of her. She did not wait for a messiah to redeem her. She did not wait for the men to change, for if she had waited, maybe she would have had to wait forever! The movie’s beauty lies in the fact that it does not preach. It simply puts questions in your heart and head, and lets you unearth the answers by yourself.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.