The Great Indian Kitchen

Decoding Indian Cinema

Gender, explored through the kitchen space.

Over the last few years, regional Cinema has been making great waves on the national as well as international platforms. The Malayalam film industry has made some spectacular films, in terms of screenwriting, acting and the themes, explored. Jallikattu, a 2019 film, was selected as India’s official entry for the 93rd Academy Awards in the foreign language category, even if it was not nominated.

The beginning of 2021 saw another Malayalam film that has been a hit with the masses and critics, alike. Written and directed by Jeo Baby, it looks at gender through the lens of the kitchen space. The kitchen, in fact, becomes a character, in itself.

From the Sunday Shillong desk, comes this film review.

The Plot

The film starts with a close-up shot of a pair of hands, cooking different dishes in the kitchen, accompanied by chants of “1, 2…1, 2, 3, 4” and a young woman dancing.

The scene then shifts to two families. The woman performs the role of the coy ‘would-be bride’, typical of many arranged marriages scenario.

The woman (seen dancing, in the first scene, and portrayed by Nimisha Sajayan) and the man (Suraj Venjaramood), meet for the first time as the two families make small talk.

We learn that hers is a progressive family, having spent most of their life, outside India.

The marriage takes place and we see the woman (now, wife) trying to adjust to the new family. Initially, her in-laws are accommodating, aware that she is new in their family, and will take time to learn.

Gradually, however, we see sinister undertones when they refuse to acknowledge that she wants to fulfil her dream of becoming a dance teacher. Her father-in-law tells her, “Didn’t we decide not to apply?”, adding how his wife wanted to pursue a career, but chose to sacrifice, despite being a postgraduate.

Day after day, she finds herself in the kitchen space, as if, that is her only identity.

That, even in the 21st century, regressive values exist, becomes the crux of the film. Things begin to go downhill. The woman is used to speaking her mind, but finds herself silenced.

We see her reach a breaking point and taking a life-altering decision.

The film ends with a dance recital on womanhood.

Themes/Motifs

Gender divide is the main theme of this film. A touch of humour is seen in the title, “The Great Indian Kitchen”.

We see women in different homes, toiling away from dawn to dusk. The men, on the other hand, take the women for granted. We seem them scroll through their phones or debate political developments, within the comfort of their day-to-day existence.

At the end of the day, cooking is a skill, necessary for our survival. Both men and women should learn how to cook and manage the home.

In the midst of this, the Sabarimala Temple Verdict grips Kerala. The Court’s verdict on menstruation, creates a furore. This impacts the woman further as she is expected to follow the diktat set by her new family.

That women internalise patriarchy forms the other aspect of the layered story-telling. We see this in the generational gap between the two wives – the woman and her mother-in-law. The former has a questioning spirit while the latter fulfils her ‘duty’; it’s like breathing for her, so why question.

It also shows how the idea of womanhood has changed with each new generation – the two women are clearly shaped by their time and space. For example, the mother-in-law hands the toothbrush to her husband, the father-in-law, every morning. The woman, on the other hand, is unable to contain her anger, even if she tries to make peace with her predicament.

Kitchen as Character

What is interesting about this film is how the kitchen becomes a character within the film. It shows the symbiotic relationship between women and the kitchen.

Moments in the film show women cutting vegetables or holding utensils. This visual imagery breaks down patriarchy. It makes us question what we take for granted.

What makes this film so unique?

Have we ever wondered how our kitchen spaces view us?

Long after the lights go off, the kitchen seems to be viewing the entire house of the family in the film.

The fact that a man has tackled this subject with such sensitivity, yet steeped in realism, makes for a visual treat.

Women have emerged at the forefront as leaders with the changing times. This echoes in the opening shot of the film. It has a curious circular motion – we have dreams and strive to strike a balance between having a career and running households.

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