On my visits to Kerala (my hometown), I was be baffled to see a particular phenomenon play out before me. I’d see my brothers reclining on the sofa yelling out to either their mother or sisters to get them a glass of water as they watched their game with an unwavering focus. My sisters, who would be studying in their room, would then have to choose whether to abandon their flow of learning temporarily or brace themselves to getting thrashed for disobedience. Surprisingly, they would mostly cave in and if they didn’t, their mothers would get the glass of water for their sons.
It’s them who should have done it, the mother seemed to imply to the daughters.
Growing up outside Kerala, I was always gauged by my relatives, home and here, on how Malayalee could I manage to become. There was someone always ready to conclude that my accent wasn’t pure enough, my hair not oily enough, lipstick too red sometimes, and laughter too loud all the time. That I wasn’t Malayalee enough.
Mind you, all this has been so subtle that it might as well be a figment of my imagination!
My paternal grandmother often asks my mother, if I help her in the household chores or if I can cook, and how well. Don’t get me wrong, she is proud of my academic achievements, she really is. However, there is always a “but”. In the underbelly of their pride lies their sublime concern about my upbringing, their fear of me growing up in an alien land, growing up to be someone not akin to my peers raised in Kerala.
Hence, the film The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) was a homecoming to me. A daughter of a Gulf Malayalee (gulf is a very Malayalee way of referring to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf) gets married to the descendant of a conformist family, with a “huge tharavadu” (a large traditional house). At heart, Pravasi Malayalees consider themselves to be more Malayalee than those living in their own land. As such, there couldn’t be a better match for a Gulf returned family than a tharavadi family to make up for the loss of traditional values, courtesy their hybridization.
The newly-wed bride, played by a resilient Nimisha Sajayan, is shy and cheerful as expected of an “addakkavum odhakkavum ulla penkutty” (well-groomed girl).
A day after her wedding, she enters the kitchen to assist her mother-in-law, with her hand full of bangles and anklets radiating her presence, for it would be awfully rude not to. Her husband, played by the manifestly versatile Suraj Venjaramoodu, comes to the kitchen to complete his last night’s romantic streak only to playfully tell her that if it is all about sex, who needs a honeymoon anyway? Every day could be their honeymoon.
He stands by her, sipping on the tea while judging her ability to make a perfectly round dosa. He smirks as she succeeds in her first unwritten test to be a perfect wife.
Soon the number of bangles in her hand gradually reduces; her anklets are no more heard. The “savagasham” (cutting some slack) of being a newly-wed that she was awarded would eventually deplete.
She and her mother-in-law would jostle their way through the narrow passage linking the kitchen and the dining space to serve hot crispy dosa to their respective spouses only to later feed on cold soggy dosas.
The husband, a sociology teacher who teaches his female students about how a man and woman’s “durable association” forms a family, is a pseudo-liberal whose “male ego” is more fragile than a house of cards. A slight touch to the palpitating nerve of “table manners” or a mention of painful intercourse has the potential to blotch his machismo and crumble his very essence of self-worth.
His nonchalance in addressing his wife’s concerns – be it summoning a plumber or her desire to work – is in stark contrast to his agility in dictating his wife to delete a certain “feminist” post she shared on Facebook.
Like his father, the patriarch, he too exhibits his capacity to undertake necessary actions, but only when push comes to shove. In any case, why would a leaking kitchen pipe even be consequential to the men of the house? What is more important is whether the coconut is ground in a mixer grinder or if the rice is cooked on the “aduppu” (hearth) and not in a cooker.
Gender roles in their most brazen form are brought to the fore.
While the father reclines in his chair and his son resorts to yoga for peace, the women of the house wage a war against time and resources. The juxtaposition is poignant.
The Great Indian Kitchen explores the untapped potential of drama, suspense, romance, drudgery and action possessed by the largest room of a Malayali house, where vegetables, pulses, rice, fish and meat become food. Food, once it has outlived its utility, is filth that no one wants to deal with.
I wonder why this drama that a kitchen was capable of had not been thought of before!
The ravishing introductory shots of unniappam and pazham pori being soaked in bubbling coconut oil and the meticulous slicing of the Kozhikode halwa might transported you to an Ustad Hotel (2012) or a Salt ‘n’ Pepper (2011), but this is not one of those films.
It is not a film that celebrates food in all its gloriousness, but one that entails the glorification of unpaid labour in its most prosaic form in the kitchen.
The women get out of the kitchen, but the kitchen doesn’t get out of them, even when they are in the middle of their act (intercourse) or in a faraway land assisting their pregnant daughters. Even when men become occasional chefs to relieve women of their routine job, they possess the luxury to chicken out after bagging their credits leaving their mess to be cleaned by the women.
In the opening credits, Jeo Baby “thanks science” for being a reliable ally to mankind (read: womankind), so that he (she) saves time for himself (herself), for his (her) hobbies, interests and passion. It is such a pity that their mindset cannot keep pace with their home which is modern enough to house these appliances.
A shrine of purity and the nucleus of power, the kitchen in a traditional household is a prohibited zone that should not be trespassed on “those” days, lest the bleeding woman’s impurity pollutes its sanctity – her impurity that supersedes that of a lowly-born woman. You keep wondering which one is the lesser of the two evils.
The second half of the 100-minute film is set against the ongoing debate on the Sabarimala controversy: whether women in the reproductive age should be allowed entry to the shrine of the celibate god, Lord Ayyappan.
For a film replete with powerful moments, the one between the wife in her banishment and the neighbourhood girl sent a shiver down my spine. The secluded menstruating wife asks the little neighbourhood girl to not come near her, after she admits having become a “swami” (a term used for devotees of Lord Ayyappa who observe the 41-day austerity period prior to their pilgrimage to Sabarimala), lest she gets “deivakopam” (god’s curse). The naive little girl reads the wife’s abstinence as her indifference and insists on meeting her anyway. Following their ritual, she hands the wife the gift – from one goddess to another.
The very blood that gives the goddess in women the power to give life makes her impure, unworthy of human touch and undeserving of anything human. What in the name of God is this?
While working on this article, I overheard my mother insisting upon my father to watch the film, for he should know what breathing inside the high walls of patriarchy looked like. However, on seeing me, my mother smiled, and said, “But your father helps me a lot.”
I replied, “Yes he does, whenever he can. Whenever he chooses to. He has the privilege of agency, something you and I don’t.”
The story of an everywoman and everyman, even though, vehemently rooted in Kerala, The Great Indian Kitchen is as Indian as it could possibly be. For all that it is worth, this film brings forth a watershed moment in the history of Malayalam cinema as one that would be a conversation starter, a film that my male and female cousins unequivocally prodded me to watch. I could only hope it is beginning of the snow melting, one flake at a time.
The Great Indian Kitchen is streaming on Nee Stream.
A Malayalee raised in the city of joy, Shinali is mostly perplexed about which one of these cultures houses more inside her. When not grappling with the cost-benefit analysis of Economics she is pursuing, she writes about anything she is inspired by – films, rain and the likes.
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