Director: Jeo Baby
In The Great Indian Kitchen, written and directed by Jeo Baby, Nimisha Sajayan plays… I don’t remember her name. And that, perhaps, is the point. She is Everywoman. One day, she’s in a dance class, clearly enjoying herself. The next instant, she’s having an awkward meeting with Suraj Venjaramoodu, who plays… again, I don’t remember the name. And that, perhaps, is the point, too. He is Everyman. And bam! They’re married with the abruptness of a jump cut (it actually feels like one), and soon, she’s seen entering his ancestral home, his tharavad. Her life changes as suddenly as her wedding happened. But like any Everywoman in a patriarchal society, she’s been brainwashed with “help your mother-in-law in the kitchen”-type advice, and that’s what she does. Uncomplainingly. Smilingly. At least for a while.
But flash back to that early scene of this woman at her dance class, and you’ll remember the stretch being intercut with shots of food being prepared. That remains a stylistic motif throughout. Our Everywoman is from a “Gulf family”, and she was probably not inducted all that much into “great Indian kitchen duties” — but now, in her new home, that is all she does. It’s not just that tea has to be made. It’s also that it has to be served to her Everyman. It’s also that that mug has to be washed and put away. And then, the floors have to be swept and mopped. And the clothes have to be washed. And…
The Great Indian Kitchen is a slightly deceptive title. Of course, Indian food being what it is (it’s not like you can slap a sandwich together and call it a meal), the preparations are indeed great. And by the time one meal is over, it’s time for the next. Cinematographer Salu K Thomas finds a number of innovative ways to show us what goes behind the scenes of the food that seems to appear magically in front of us, if we happen to be men. Sometimes, we get a top-angle shot. We see vessels simmering with ingredients on both burners of a gas stove, because just one dish won’t do. (In this ultra-traditional household, warmed-up leftovers from the fridge won’t do, either.) Sometimes, the camera moves in real close, observing onions and tomatoes and meat being chopped. Sometimes, the camera sticks with the women, trailing them, giving us a sense of the hustle and the bustle. And sometimes, we get a calm wide shot that shows us the whole kitchen, our Everywoman surrounded by all the things that are her “domain”, including a leaky pipe that her husband keeps forgetting to fix.
But the title can also be extrapolated to mean… The Great Indian Traditional Patriarchal Household. This is the kind of setup where the men retire after a certain age, but the women never do. Our Everywoman’s father-in-law even expects his wife to hand him his toothbrush, with a dab of toothpaste. It’s a miracle he doesn’t ask her to brush his teeth as well, while at it. He wants his clothes washed by hand, not by machine. He wants his rice prepared on a firewood stove, not in a cooker. He doesn’t like the idea of his daughter-in-law working — that is, working outside, in a job. He probably thinks kitchen work isn’t actually “work”, as it is unpaid. The film’s biggest joke occurs when our Everywoman’s mother-in-law leaves the tharavad to care for her pregnant daughter. So far, we’ve only seen her in sweat-soaked saris. Now, she’ s wearing a salwar kameez. And we get a tiny glimpse of who this woman really is, when away from home, when not being expected to fetch her husband’s toothbrush every damned morning.
She encourages our Everywoman to pursue her dreams and take up a paying job. But she does not want anyone to know that she offered this encouragement. That, in a nutshell, is a thesis of an entire species of Indian womankind. The men, meanwhile, do their best (meaning, their worst) to define an entire species of Indian male-kind. The husband isn’t against the job. He just says he will decide when the time is right. He seems to think he is being kind, considerate, progressive. He doesn’t see that he is controlling his wife as much as his father controlled his mother.
The drama escalates when the mother-in-law leaves the tharavad. Now, it’s just our Everywoman at home. She has to do it all. She probably wouldn’t mind these kitchenly/housely chores if it weren’t for the men. They comment on the food, as though they were food critics on a Michelin-star expedition. They make a mess of the dining table and when they offer to cook, they make a mess of the kitchen. Unlike women, they don’t seem to realise that the Great Indian Kitchen isn’t just about cooking but also about cleaning up afterwards. You feel for our exhausted Everywoman when she suggests having some leftovers for dinner. But no. The husband wants chapati-s, which means the dough has to be kneaded, more pots and pans will end up getting used and end up needing to be cleaned…
The first hour of The Great Indian Kitchen is superb. We are numbed with the routines of domesticity, the drudgery of housework. Much later, we get a brilliant stretch where we see old photographs on the walls, photographs of stately men and women, people who have occupied this privileged residence for generations. And what do we hear in the soundtrack? The squelching and sloshing of wipe-cloths, the clang of utensils being washed, the sound of running water. Simply put, our Everywoman isn’t the first wife to find herself in this plight. There have been generations of women who looked fantastic in their wedding photographs and never again, because they became cooking-cleaning machines. Even at the end, with respect to the husband (The Man), nothing changes. Literally, nothing changes. We get an exact replay of an earlier scene. That’s how much nothing changes.
The Great Indian Kitchen is a powerful entry in the sub-genre we know as the Female Emancipation Drama. What changes from film to film is the reason the female begins to seek this emancipation. In Arth, the reason is infidelity. In Thappad, the reason is the humiliation that follows an act of domestic violence. In How Old Are You? and English Vinglish, the reason is being undervalued, mocked, taken for granted. Here, the reason is the Everywoman’s realisation that she is essentially a glorified domestic help who doubles as a bedmate. If she isn’t able to enjoy sex, it’s not just because her husband doesn’t believe in foreplay. It’s also because her mind is too filled with sights and smells she deals with all day.
And we keep waiting for the explosion. At first, she is a smiling servant. Then, an annoyed one. But the shit really hits the fan when she is “imprisoned” when she has her period, in addition to her “imprisonment” in the house. Later, when she walks on the roads and sees other people and smells the sea, it’s as though we are seeing her on another planet. She is finally on her own, neither confined in her parents’ place nor in her in-laws’. The leads are exceptional. There’s no one who shows internalised angst as well as Suraj Venjaramoodu (his characters always seem to be a bit uncomfortable in their skins), and Nimisha Sajayan makes her Everywoman a person instead of a martyr. She gives us a woman who wants to be “a good wife and daughter-in-law” as well as her own person. As the film goes on, we really feel this split widening until she reaches a breaking point.
If the last stretch of this hour-and-forty-minute drama doesn’t rise to the brilliance of the preceding portions, it’s because the film widens its scope to include all women. The parts where the story of one woman becomes the story of a gender needed a smoother segue. A subplot involving a Facebook video feels especially rushed. Also, I wished our Everyman had had at least a redeeming quality or two. He remains fairly one-dimensional, and I wished he hadn’t been so easy to sneer at, so easy to hate. But the ending is marvellous, and it’s important to remember that the applause we hear comes from just one person and not a crowd. Our Everywoman may have found emancipation. But her gender? India is full of these kitchen stories.