It was in 1930 that the play Adukkalayil Ninnu Arangathekku (From the Kitchen to the Stage), penned by V.T. Bhattathiripad, the social reformer and writer, was staged. This rebellious play performed by angry Nambudiri brahmin youths of the times was about the tragic plight of women who were confined to their homes and about their breaking into the front stage of society and the world. Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (TGIK) returns to the same issue after almost nine decades. If in the play the rage was against marrying off young girls to old men, here it is the very system of the family that is under question.
In the film, the girl literally breaks out of her “arranged marriage into the kitchen” to assert her freedom. From the time of the play to that of the film, a lot of things have happened in Malayali society and in the outside world: joint families have broken up into nuclear ones, women have begun to pursue education and professional careers, young men have migrated and their remittances have created a new and aspiring middle class, and new media gadgets have transformed the tone and tenor of social and personal lives. But despite all this, the role of women inside the house remains unchanged; their unpaid slavery and endless drudgery continue unabated, which the film portrays chillingly and intimately.
The responses to the film in the social media forums are a candid reflection of the state of gender affairs: while women from all walks of life celebrate the film for finally revealing the silent brutality of patriarchal family values, most men have resorted to apologetic and confessional modes. TGIK also has come at the right time and in the right mode: in COVID times as an OTT (over-the-top) release, bypassing theatres, to reach out directly to homes and homemakers, who immediately identified themselves with the central character. A theatre release and its word-of-mouth ripples would have taken a longer time to make a similar impact.
TGIK begins and ends with marriage and dance; it begins with a dance class and a marriage, and ends with a remarriage and a dance rehearsal. At the centre of the narrative is a middle-class, middle-caste girl “married off” to a man from a respectable and “traditional” family, a schoolteacher (brilliantly played by Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Venjaramood respectively). Interestingly, both the characters are never named in the film. She is from a non-resident Indian (NRI) family (her father was employed in the Gulf), educated, conversant with computers, interested in dancing, and hopeful of finding a job. But like any other girl in India, after marriage her life—everyday routine and lifestyle, dreams, needs and desires—is recast and recalibrated to fit into the iron framework of her husband’s family. And to add to her woes, as soon as she arrives, her mother-in-law (someone sensitive to the young bride’s aspirations, though she cannot express it) leaves home to look after her pregnant daughter living elsewhere.
The rest of the film is about how the young bride is drawn deeper and deeper into the vortex of that family set-up, which is very gentle and respectable on the surface but totally impervious and blind to women’s sensitivities. Here the one and only mission of women in life is to keep the family well fed, the husband happy in bed, and the house clean. They also deal with all the waste, dirt and dust.
Throughout the film we see the wife and the servant cleaning, sweeping, wiping, polishing and scrubbing, and disposing of dirt and waste. Even though these women clean the house endlessly, they are embodiments of impurity: when they menstruate they are treated as untouchables. On the other hand, the men at home—ever pure—eat, browse, sleep, exercise and copulate, according to their sweet will, bodily needs and spiritual routines. Any hint of discontent or instance of sloppiness at work by women is punished through gentle but brutal rebukes or silent but unrelenting commands. It is this genteel and whispered mode of intimate violence within the family and between the couple that produces the film’s chilling effect.
Take, for example, two instances where the bride feebly attempts to cross the line: at the hotel where she comments on the husband’s table manners and in the bedroom where she hints at foreplay. In both instances, there is no explicit physical force or verbal abuse. But the deep, inherent and muted violence employed by both the husband and the father-in-law in the house to discipline and silence the women is far more brutal and deep. Obviously, it is a world run by and for men. Women either have to fall in line (like her mother-in-law and aunt) or get out.
The movie relentlessly dwells upon the inhuman drudgery and labour that goes into the much celebrated “homemaking”. It is the bounden duty of women to keep the men and their surroundings—physical and spiritual—pure and clean, and it is in the smoky, sooty, leaky kitchen that most of the narrative unfolds. In the end, realising the plight that awaits her in life, the protagonist storms out of that prison. The flashpoint is reached when the men in the house decide to take their annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala. This exclusively male ritual, its celibacy vows and the collective frenzy surrounding it, provide the perfect setting for the film’s climax.
Kitchen for Women and Hotel for Men?
Recently, there have been several commercially successful “food movies” in Malayalam such as Ustad Hotel, Salt N’ Pepper, Kammath & Kammath and Spanish Masala . Cooking and eating figure prominently in films such as Kalyanaraman and Mr Butler too. Even while these films celebrate cuisines, cooking and eating, with regard to gender roles and spaces they exhibit an interesting pattern. While women belong to the kitchen at home where they cook to serve family members and guests, the male hero is a cook, a food lover or a chef either working in a hotel if it is his profession or doing cooking out of sheer passion or for pleasure. The women’s work at home remains unseen and unpaid. In contrast, in the case of men, cooking and eating is a celebration of personal identities, pursuit of professional dreams or assertion of individual tastes. They cook to conquer the world and others, to take or hand over a family tradition, or as self-expression. Unlike the sooty and sweaty kitchen, this masculine world of food, cooking and eating is all about a spectacle—for showing off culinary skills and the rich and colourful spreads at the dining table, and for recognition and adulation from those having the food. What happens before or after cooking/eating is never visible in this world.
TGIK is all about the umpteen sickening and stinking activities before cooking and after eating: cutting and cleaning vegetables; preparing dough and meat; cleaning the table; and disposing of waste. The men in TGIK dictate the menu and even prescribe the mode of preparation, while their wives slave their lives away executing their orders and satisfying their hungers. The top-angle shots of kitchen labour—of vegetables being cut; stuff being mixed, cooked, garnished, fried, and stirred in pans and vessels on stoves; cleaning; clearing of waste—recur throughout the film, forcing the viewers’ gaze to the inhuman everyday grind.
Like in life, in our films too, gender spaces, domains and movements of men, women (during menstruation and other times) and servants are architecturally defined; their respective territories and domains are clearly marked and rigorously followed. Spatially, the veranda and the drawing room are where exchanges between the family (read the patriarch/head) and the outside world occur, the dining room is for family matters, and women, even when present, are silent and mute witnesses and servers. In contrast, the kitchen is left to women and servants; it is an essential but invisible site of endless production and labour. In TGIK , this gendered architecture defines the lives of men and women; the men only peek into the kitchen or make guest appearances. A striking montage in the film sums it all, which shows a series of photographs of married couples on the wall accompanied by various kitchen sounds in the background: that of the grinding stone, the mixie, the grinder, the stove, the cooker, etc. In the end it is the very same kitchen that turns into the site of rebellion.
From the Kitchen to The Stage of Revolt
The soft, intimate and brutal violence and silent oppression of women constitutes the core of this film. In the end, the wife and the film burst out, releasing all their pent-up frustration and rage. Moving away from the cold, detached and incisive format of the film until then, Jeo Baby opts for a magical solution and a wish-fulfilling closure. In the scene showing the “after-life”, we see the girl orchestrating a dance rehearsal celebrating female power. In fact, the long walk under the searing sun and along the raging sea that she takes to her natal home—passing a bus stand, which is a memorial to a martyr, and a Sabarimala Ritual Protection Committee pandal—resonates deeply with the theme and form of the film.
The “victorious” last scene, in a way, hints at the impossibility of a normal and happy life for women inside home and family: In order to be free, a woman has to be a “feminist”, “activist” or a performer of sorts. This again puts the binaries home/world, family/society, wife-woman/feminist-activist back at the centre. A woman cannot be independent, happy and “normal” inside family or in society and has necessarily to be a feminist or an activist-performer to assert her self and identity, which further normalises the second wife in the kitchen all the more. Both the potential sites of liberation—that of the open kitchens of living-together couples and the redemptive energies of the Dalit servant woman’s song—seem remote and faraway from the symbolic dissent of the dance performance.
Though the Sabarimala trope gives the otherwise claustrophobic domestic narrative of the film a socio-political dimension with a feminist edge, it seems to divide the world into gender binaries: all the males and their subservient women congregated on the one side, and everyone and everything that opposes and resists it on the other side in the form of “feminist-activists”. What is lost in the process is the lived reality of the world itself, with all its subversive pleasures and transgressive possibilities of freedom, friendship and equality. Such a self-satisfying closure weakens the whole plot which draws its narrative power and formal integrity from the deliberate elaboration of the mundane and the everyday. Whenever the narrative strays outside that house, it tends to falter and lose its intensity, as it does in the scene of the “defenders of belief” burning the scooter of the feminist-activist or the cooking-crazy man, which are totally at odds with the rest of the film.
The performative feminism at the end seems to work against the very aesthetic or structure of the film by posing feminism as a spectacle, drama or performance, rather than the assertion and realisation of the everyday freedom of women and their right to pleasure and simply to be. This is especially crucial in the context of the groundswell of communalism indicated in the film itself: that of the secular-liberal family of the girl feeling proud about a marriage alliance with a “traditional” family, her father himself becoming an Ayyappa devotee at the end, the solidarity of the male neighbourhood in showing outrage against her Facebook share on the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala, the array of devout women—who are ready to wait—in the ritual protection pandal, etc. In many ways, TGIK deals head on with this backlash that is seeping into Kerala society.
The WCC Impact
The formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in 2017 was a very significant moment in the history of the Malayalam film industry. Though its impact in terms of asserting and ensuring women’s equality and rights within the industry is yet to become a reality, its influence on film narratives is loud and clear. In film after film, the woman question is being raised, grappled and contended with ( Kumbalangi Nights, Halal Love Story, Ishq, Prathi Poovankozhi , etc). It is a sign of young film-makers creatively addressing the gender issue by bringing it into their narratives to interrogate the patriarchal values within communities, relationships and institutions. Freedom @ Midnight , a short film directed by R.J. Shaan, which had more than 10 million views on YouTube within a fortnight, indicates a similar trend. In this film, the female protagonist goes to the extent of expressing her sexual fantasies to her husband, though in a daydream.
TGIK ’s success lies in creatively responding to the physical restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the closure of theatres and the opening up of home markets by new online platforms, and in engaging with the changing thematic terrains of cinema and with the gender anxieties of the Malayali public.
V.T. Bhattathiripad’s play literally ends on the political stage. In the final scene, we see the rebellious newly married couple coming out of home to celebrate the occasion with like-minded friends in a community meeting. Ninety years later, in TGIK , the rebellious woman is alone, working at the final rehearsal of a performance that still veers between a chained woman at one end and the celebration of female power at the other, performed in an auditorium without spectators, and with only herself to applaud. Meanwhile, back home, things have progressed beyond rehearsals. There, the second wife is busy cooking in the kitchen. The husband, happily sipping tea, tells her: “Our life till now was a rehearsal. Now let us go forward correcting the mistakes”, to which she nods in agreement. He walks away leaving his cup near the stove which she dutifully picks up and washes in the sink.
The kitchen and its reality are far away from the dance stage and its fantasies, and evidently beyond redemption. It is as if the one who walked out created only a momentary ripple in that stagnant pool. How far is life and freedom from such all-too real drudgery and symbolic performances?