What does a messy dining table tell you? In The Great Indian Kitchen, it becomes the symbol of entitlement, callousness and patriarchy so toxic and entrenched so deep, that men can’t even be bothered to eat mindfully. Half-chewed bones, vegetable husks, spilt curry is strewn across the table when they finish. The women in the house, who eat at the same table right after, aren’t even given the courtesy of a clean table. They are second-class citizens, only there to serve.
The Great Indian Kitchen is a penetrating portrait of the life that too many women in this country lead. Writer-director Jeo Baby creates a scathing critique that isn’t propelled by high drama or a thick plot. Nothing major happens. The reason this film hits so hard is that he finds the horror in the ordinary – the way in which women toil incessantly, almost like prisoners trapped in front of the sink and the stove, how men take their labor for granted, offering neither help nor appreciation, the drudgery of their daily lives and the slow stifling of their individuality and their dreams.
It’s telling that the housewife in the film has no name. She is an Everywoman. We first see her dancing. Her face is flushed with joy as she sweats through the steps. But a few scenes later, she has an arranged marriage, into what we are told is a prestigious family. She moves into a sprawling home and becomes her mother-in-law’s assistant, cooking and cleaning – all with a smile. Her father-in-law wants chutney ground by hand, rice made on the fire and not the cooker and his clothes, washed by hand, not in the machine. He won’t even get his own toothbrush and slippers. His wife anticipates his every need. And when she leaves because her daughter is expecting, the load falls on the new bride.
Jeo insists that we understand the amount of mind-numbing labor she does. He returns again and again to the work – cooking, washing, cleaning – day after day. Then submitting to sex because her husband demands it – in a heartbreaking scene, as he is heaving on top of her, she is lying there, a reluctant participant, sniffing her hands. The smell of the kitchen has seeped in so deep that despite washing repeatedly, she can’t get rid of it. Jeo is keenly observant of these details. He doesn’t make the men outsize villains either. There is no physical abuse or even raised voices. They are just awful, in the way that entitled Indian men can be. The husband is egotistical and indifferent to her needs. When she hesitantly attempts to speak to him about their sex life, he shuts her up with viciousness.
As I watched, I felt a slow rage rising. Jeo’s screenplay builds the casual cruelty with breathtaking elegance. There is no background music so all you hear are the sounds of daily life. His frames – the cinematography is by Salu K. Thomas – are like miniature paintings brimming with dirty dishes, kitchen waste and her growing frustration. When she finally explodes, it is a thing of beauty. Nimisha Sajayan is remarkable as the housewife. She seems to shrivel in front of our eyes. There is a spark of joy earlier in the film, even in her interactions with her husband, that is slowly snuffed out. Suraj Venjaramoodu also does a terrific job as the husband. His entitlement is so pitch-perfect that I wanted to lean into the screen and slap him.
The Great Indian Kitchen reveals that there is little that’s great about the Indian kitchen. Instead, it is a space of domestic slavery. If nothing else, this film will make you appreciate all the mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, who continue to toil away, unsung and unpaid. And hopefully it will teach men never, ever to leave food on the table again.
You can see the film on a platform called Neestream.