For the greater part of my life I have seen my mother and grandmother spending most of their time in the kitchen. Caring for the domestic space has always been the burden of the woman and this is a fact for women across the globe. Naturally, the first women of the feminist waves have demonized cooking which is intrinsically related to house and domestic chores. The intense apathy towards cooking only made women want to fit into spaces that were till then reserved for men.
‘My mother, university-educated but frustrated by her subsequent life as a housewife, was clearly one of those who ranked cooking as a lowly pursuit, and she passed her lack of interest (and her attitude) on to me. In my turn, I furthered the belief that cooking was a demeaning pursuit for women who wanted to get on in a man’s world.’
-Rosie Boycott ‘Why a woman’s place is in the kitchen’
Media and advertisements added to the stigmatization growing against cooking, as a way to popularize readymade meals and fast food joints. In India, advertisements of Complan, Maggi, Parle-G, Rasna made them household favorites among parents and children alike. Effect of industrialization and post World War boom began to be seen in kitchens in the form of electric appliances ranging from toaster, mixer grinder, to refrigerators and washing machine. In India by 1980’s refrigerators had entered middle class households closely followed by mixer grinders, and microwaves in the 2000s. The success of Maggi can be wholly attributed to its tagline 2 Minute Maggi which captured the attention of women throughout the nation who were becoming more involved in earning and sharing the financial burden. On the other hand a lot of women were deprived from stepping outside their house with excuses of ‘who will do the cooking?’ Rather than being a pleasurable experience filled with care, this suppression turned cooking into another chore for women that needed to be completed quickly while ensuring that the flavor is according to the palate of the diners.
Eating is an elaborate ritual. It involves a number of steps that are intrinsically connected and each step requires equal attention. From buying ingredients to cutting them, cooking them, presenting them for consumption to cleaning up leftovers, eating involves six to seven steps which can be broadly segregated into i) cooking, ii) eating and, iii) cleaning. Television serials and films have always depicted cooking and eating as a relatively happy experience focusing on the first two parts while completely disregarding the final step. Cleaning is a highly labor intensive work which have always been delegated to the lower castes and class. In the Euro-centric countries African-Americans and Asians make up the larger percentage of the domestic work sector. In US. 91% of domestic workers are women while 52.4% are black, Asians, or Hispanic.
‘[In India,]domestic work is one of the largest sectors of work in urban areas. The socio-demographic profiles of domestic workers indicate that the majority are illiterate, and that dalits form a large proportion (about one-third) of these workers.’
As is trend, anything related to women, bahujans and lower class are completely overlooked in India which makes domestic work one of the poorly recorded and highly exploitative sectors. Thus, the act of cleaning up after food is eaten is either forgotten or not given as much importance as the cooking and eating part of the ritual.
The Great Indian Kitchen is one of those rare films on cooking and the internal workings of a family which diligently showed the aftermath of eating and what the women of the house are left with after the men have ‘played’ with or eaten the food. At first watch this film seems to capture the deepest of secrets that women have been bottling up inside their minds. The opening song ‘Oru Kudam’, played along with the opening credits, starts with the lines,
Oru Kodum Par Oliyaduthal Cholam
Oru Milinthiyil Kaliyak Maru Milinthiyil Manamutt
(A bunch of secrets, stay close and I’ll tell you.
With one eye full of mischief and the other full of sorrow.)
This song will continue to return throughout the film hummed by the domestic help Usha. The tricks and secrets of domestic balance are known and have been negotiated by Usha seasoning her to survive the demands of patriarchy. The newly wedded wife (played with skill by Nimisha Sajayan in her signature understated manner), on the other hand, grew up in a relatively progressive family and enters her husband’s house naive, with ambitions and certain concepts of conjugal life. Despite her inexperience she tries to adjust to her new environment to the best of her capacities. She understands that breakfast has to be cooked fresh and presented hot to the men of the house while the women waited on the men and have food afterwards. On the bride’s first morning in her husband’s (played with equal skill by Suraj Venjaramoodu) house she is told by her Ammayi (mother-in-law) that Achan (father-in-law) prefers everything hand ground, establishing that food is cooked according to the patriarch of the house rather than the convenience of cooking or preference of the matriarch. It is not as if there are no electric appliances available in the house, but things are just done the way Achan wants.
Before the bride can get accustomed to the rules of her husband’s house her Ammayi has to leave for her sister-in-law’s house who is pregnant. Ammayi is one of the unlikely allies the new bride has in her husband’s house. She understands that getting used to the work in a new environment can be difficult. In a phone conversation between Ammayi and her daughter where Ammayi is heard asking if she can stay back for few more days for things to settle, the daughter replies impatiently, ‘But there is already someone there.’ The shot of the daughter has a blurred outline of her husband in the back, almost mocking the conversation and underscoring the unsaid fact that she also has someone with her. We get a glimpse of the extent of work entailed in keeping a house functioning when the mother-in-law was present and it is clear that the nuances needed to cook and the expertise needed to get everything ready on time required complete involvement of two people. The perfect synchronization between the bride and her mother-in-law when preparing the rasam, blooming mustard seeds and other spices in oil, and making the dosa is beautifully captured by an overhead camera. After the mother-in-law leaves and the bride is left to cook by herself the same overhead camera highlights the absence of the extra pair of hands with work remaining the same. Add to this the insensitive demands of Achan, some of which borders on abuse and sexual perversion, underscores the loneliness of the bride and the amount of chores she is expected to complete, every single day, for the rest of her life. The care and love the wife came with to her husband’s house seems to slowly fade as none of her efforts are acknowledged by either of the men. Her Achan wants the rice to be cooked over fire rather than in a pressure cooker, he expects the toothbrush and toothpaste to be brought to him in the morning and have his clothes and inner-wear washed by hand rather than the washing machine which is available and fully functional. The first time the wife is hinted at the fact that the toothbrush need to be presented in front of her father-in-law, she is confused and goes to her husband. Her husband, however, finds this amusing and laughingly mentions, ‘but he is your father too, right?’ It does not occur to him that the relationship between a father and daughter cannot be the same as between a father-in-law and a daughter-in-law or that it might be uncomfortable for a woman to touch a stranger’s hygiene tools whatever the relationship between them may be. This in no way takes away the possibility that platonic intimacy cannot grow between daughters-in-law and fathers-in-law with time, but such gestures can only come from the daughters-in-law and not imposed in any situation or encouraged as milestones of ideal family life. The film is replete with such scenes of gender disparity which minutely reflect the orthodoxy, prejudice and derision that patriarchy has against domestic work and women’s role in a family. From chewed on drumsticks and other leftovers strewn across the table which the women are expected to pick up and clean, to waterlogged kitchen sink, and leaking pipes, the film brings out the unflattering pictures of working in a kitchen, juxtaposed by scenes of the men meditating, relaxing with newspaper and tea, or simply taking a nap. The nonchalance that men have towards household duties are shown in the way the husband despite being repeatedly asked to call the plumber for repairing a leaking pipe, forgets to do this simple task and later mocks his wife’s problem with waste.
The ritual of washing the feet of the bride before she steps inside her husband’s house adorned in gold and other precious jewelry start seeming like a farce when those same jewel adorned hands are seen washing dishes and picking the leftovers and eating stale food from the previous day while her husband and father-in-law eats freshly cooked food. Disparity does not end with domestic chores, a woman is also expected to cater to her husband’s sexual needs at the end of a laborious day whether she feels like it or not and without having her own sexual needs reciprocated.
Without giving names to any of the characters in the film other than the servant, the film portrays a generic Indian household. As is preached by the husband in one of his classes, ‘Family is the simplest and basic group in our society. It is the most important social institution.’ The definition of a family is, ‘durable association of husband and wife with or without children’ and it is characterized as a universal group based on marriage. This universality is maintained in the film by showing the respective responsibilities of a husband and wife. The husband wakes up to do yoga while the woman takes bath and enters the kitchen to cook. The man leaves for his work with a tiffin-box filled with food cooked by his wife while the woman stays back in the house to prepare lunch, clean the house, and wash clothes. The most mundane chores of everyday life are meticulously shown along with the gender bias and stigma related to menstruation that women face on a daily basis. Menstruating women have always been a complicated subject among men. I have known men who smiled nervously when asked to buy sanitary napkins. As a child, I remember my mother feeling uncomfortable asking someone to get sanitary napkins, a discomfort picked up by me in the way I always waited for every other customer to leave the medicine shop before I can ask, in a hushed whisper, that I need sanitary pads. I have heard male school friends mentioning they will be doing puja in place of their mother since she is menstruating. Urban residents often dismiss such prejudices as something that happens only in villages but I am a city bred woman who has studied in an urban private school throughout her life and I can testify that prejudices are not specific to any region or economic class.
Despite teaching social science at school, the husband, in the film, do not try to reflect on what he teaches on a daily basis or actually understand the work required to keep a marriage from dissociating. The husband does not seem inclined to have any personal association with his wife beyond the basic exchange of labor. He understands that his responsibility towards the house is to earn livelihood and that is the only duty he feels he needs to perform. While the responsibility of a wife is to keep the house functioning, ensuring both the individuals who constitute a family is fed, clothed and sheltered. In terms of cooking, the husband’s role is to find raw materials which the wife uses to prepare and feed the husband and herself so that they can rise up the social and economic ladder. Throughout history, procurement of wealth has been the right of men thus glorified as the superior work. While the woman’s responsibility of keeping a house functioning and catering to her husband’s sexual needs is often seen as easy work that can be undertaken by any woman.
Throughout the film we see four to five women of various age groups frequent the household of the husband and wife protagonist. When the wife is menstruating she is thrown to the deepest corner of the house prohibited from touching anything or going out apart from taking a bath. Yet the life of men is not disrupted by the wife’s absence. Whether it is the maid or the father-in-law’s sister, some woman is always available to take care of chores. Women are not identified as individuals but a pair of hands, a robot for labor ready to provide for men.
The notion of purity farther states the hypocrisy of men which has also been addressed in the film. When a woman menstruates she is supposed to remove herself to a separate room from where she cannot come out. She has to prohibit herself from doing everyday work during the period of her menstruation after which she needs to clean and wash anything she might have used during that time. If a menstruating woman touches a man who is following abstention for Sabarimala pilgrimage it is said that the man becomes impure and cannot take part in the holy pilgrimage. In one of the scenes from the film, when the menstruating wife come in aid of her husband who had fallen off his bike the husband throws her off and is livid that she had touched him despite knowing he had taken the black garb as is custom for Sabarimala Pilgrims. After this incident the husband consults the priest on how to purify himself and the priest suggests eating cow dung but since that might seem extreme he suggests that the husband can take a dip in the river. It is ironical that men choose to bend rules as is convenient for them but expects women to adhere to age old rituals.
On the flip side, the issue of untouchability related to menstruation is much more nuanced than the one shown in the film. Biologically the body of a menstruating woman is going through various changes meant as a preparation for future procreation. Without going into the individual experience of menstruation and menstrual pain, the tradition of prohibiting women from doing household work has been a way to allow women time to rest and recuperate when her body is being drained of blood. The stigma of untouchibility and prohibiting women from entering temples has been a much recent development. In the film we see the wife unwilling to sit idle while the maid cleans the house, suggesting that she is fit enough to do household chores and not act like an invalid during her period. In one of the piercing interviews of director Jeo Baby in The First Post, the interviewer brings up the debate over mandatory period leave and how some women have excruciating menstrual pain which does not let them get out of bed to help with housework. The director, as transcribed by the interviewer, pauses for a moment at this point and answers that, ‘these people does not care if the woman rests’ and it is a valid answer that most households prohibit women from cooking and entering the puja room during periods not because they care about the woman’s health but there is a stigma attached to menstruating women being impure or dirty- a problem that needs to be addressed, but at the same time it is also true that the actions of the wife in the film during her period dismisses the pain of menstruation that a lot of women deal with and for such women having those 7 days of rest can be a boon even when they know that it is unfair discrimination.
Cooking is intrinsically related to cleaning and waste. It is estimated that India generates 1.50 lakh MT of solid waste every year of which 90% is collected waste. (India Today) This figure does not seem absurd when you see the amount of waste one single household produces as shown in The Great Indian Kitchen. And most of these wastes are picked up and disposed by the women of the household. It is strange that as a country India is supposed to be progressing at an unusually fast rate but in a household of three people the burden of waste disposal is put on the woman. The thought of picking up the discarded bones and other waste from the table after a meal is complete does not arise in men who have grown up in a tradition that flaunts the idea that eating ‘jootha’ (leftover) of the husband will increase love between a man and his wife but the same is not true for the wife’s ‘jootha’. The wife picks up leftovers and throws them in the dustbin which is again picked up by her the next morning to be thrown in a pit behind the house. Sometimes waste disposal is not that straight forward, the pipes start leaking and dirty water start flooding the kitchen and the wife again have to look for quick resolutions before the plumber can come which is again dependent on the husband making a call to the plumber. It should be remembered that in most traditional households one cannot enter the kitchen without taking a bath. So the wife has to take a bath before entering the kitchen where the first thing she has to do is dispose of the waste, which just ends up being counter-productive. The repeated scenes of waste disposal, clogged kitchen sink, leaking pipe and the wife washing her hand after dealing with waste feel like a vicious circle that she has gotten into. Juxtapose these scenes with the changing attitude of the husband and father-in-law who turns a blind eye towards the young wife’s aspirations and dreams all the while adding to her daily chores, a pattern is established. The wastes that the wife continues to dispose of become a metaphor for the growing dissatisfaction and sorrows that she disposes every day for familial peace. Sometimes these sorrows leak out like the leaking pipes of the kitchen sink, like that one time the husband takes the wife out to dinner and she notices how her husband does not discard the bones directly on the table as he is prone to do in his house but carefully stacks them up on a bone plate and she cracks a joke about it. For her it’s an innocent comment because she didn’t expect this change in manners in her husband but for the man it is an attack on his character which he won’t take lightly. The ‘durable association’ that is marriage seems to be crumbling between this couple. Later the wife is ordered by the husband to apologize for her comment, making men seem like fragile creatures with ego that need to be constantly fueled by the women in their lives. But all the dissatisfaction bubbling and settling inside the wife is never addressed neither is the leaking pipe in the kitchen. Those sorrows like the wastes in the kitchen have to be negotiated with by the woman all alone. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when after a long day the wife is too tired to provide for her husband’s sexual gratification. She meekly asks permission to say something which the husband grants and she mentions how foreplay will probably make the act hurt less and make things easy for her. The subtle hardening of the man’s expression prepares the spectators for what can come next-slut shaming or physical abuse. But the genius of the screenplay lies in how the husband looks away and utters, ‘I have to feel something for you to do foreplay.’ It shatters the very thread that holds the precarious relationship of these two newlyweds. The audience remembers the first night after this couple’s wedding and how the husband dove right into sex rather than trying to have a conversation and getting to know the person with whom he is supposed to spend the rest of his life. From that point on we see the subtle shift in the wife. She has reached the end of her patience, not just with her husband’s family but her own mother and family who do not find anything her in-laws do as unfair just because she has married into a ‘respectable, prestigious family’.
In the end when the wife leaves after serving her in-laws waste water that had been accumulating under the kitchen sink, it is not her sabotaging her husband’s Sabarimala Pilgrimage but literally feeding them all the sorrows and anger, sadness, unfairness and insult that she had till then kept bottled inside her and which had finally burst out. In that moment she knows it is impossible for her to be in the same space as her husband.
The Great Indian Kitchen provides a piercing gaze on the most private parts of a generic Indian family. The kitchen is not modular but a traditional one as is seen in most middle class households. The customs shown are deeply embedded in the lives of savarna Hindu family. The duality between the inner world of the house and outer world is expertly handled. Beef and other meat is eaten outside the house, the husbands wanting to provide relief to their wives cook dinner but leave a mess in the kitchen that the wives have to clean up while the men feel self satisfied in doing their bit for the household because the work is done after the food is cooked. Yet, if there can be any critique of a film that got patriarchy right in every instance, it is the way that kitchen became the true villain in the whole narrative. From the very first scene the art of cooking is pitted against the art of dancing. The protagonist is seen rehearsing a dance sequence which is jump-cut by scenes of Unniyappam and Pazham Pori being fried, Aluva getting cut into chunks and table being set for guests to arrive. The film also ends with the wife leaving the kitchen and finding empowerment as a dance teacher. It is true that women are confined to the kitchen for the most part of their life and it is seen as a duty of the wife to cook for the household while the men take rest after working hard outside the house. But at the same time kitchen is probably the only place in the whole household where women can take charge, expressing their creativity and individuality. They have their privacy in the kitchen to do what they want while the rice gets cooked or the curry is simmering. Take for instance a scene from Kumbalangi Nights where Baby is discussing her love life with her Chechi (sister) as they make Chapati in the kitchen. In that instance, the kitchen is the private world of women and whatever discussion happens there will remain there unless a man interrogates it out of women. Even in The Great Indian Kitchen, the wife applies for a job sitting by the kitchen table while lunch gets cooked on the stove. By repeatedly focusing on how bad kitchen work is it takes away the only space that can become a symbol of empowerment for women who can find self-independence by using the only art they can practice freely. Cooking or even doing chores is not bad, repetitive work is. This is true for any kind of work and art. Musicians, corporate employees, government workers or even chefs are not expected to cook every day. And even if chefs do work in the kitchen for seven days of the week it is a job that they willingly took and not something that was imposed on them. Not to mention, a job has a return whether it is financial compensation or creative outlet. Household chores are known as thankless labor because there is no respite from it, especially for women who are part of patriarchal households. That doesn’t make the work demeaning but people’s perception of it give it a bad name. Apart from the protagonists there are short scenes of other progressive couples. In one such scene we see a husband bring a cup of tea for his wife and discuss how he is going to make beef biryani. It is a kind of recreation for men who like to cook occasionally but at the same time a previous scene of the aftermath of men being in the kitchen establishes that men like to do the important job which is visible to rest of the world, the invisible labor of women remain unrecognized. Moreover, if a man had been doing the exact set of work in the film it would have been interpreted as an achievement because ‘when women cook it is duty and when men cook it is art.’
To conclude it cannot be stressed enough that The Great Indian Kitchen is one of the better films on the interior lives of women in a patriarchal society that came out in recent times and any critique of it cannot take away that achievement from it. It is so close to reality that women across India found a part of their lives being represented while a lot of men did not find anything extraordinary about the film to be worth watching (says a lot about how men still find it hard to interact with women). The Sabarimala verdict of 2018 is debatable since women were not allowed inside the Temple even after the verdict was passed and discrimination related to menstruation is still prevalent throughout India. Moreover, as an article in Caravan Magazine points out the myth of Sabarimala Temple itself is shrouded in confusion and in all intent and purposes the pilgrimage and the rituals related to it are not Hindu but rather tribal ones which had been forcefully Brahmanized after 1902 when the responsibilities of the Temple were taken up by a Brahmin family. But the question here is not the validity of the rituals but rather the discrimination of women based on a biological condition and whether such discrimination should exist or not- an answer to which seems pretty simple and obvious.