The Great Indian Kitchen cast: Nimisha Sajayan, Suraj Venjaramood
The Great Indian Kitchen director: Jeo Baby
The Great Indian Kitchen rating: 3.5 stars
Last night, I watched a film which didn’t feel like a film at all. It felt like real life. The people in the frame felt like people I have known, and felt for, even though I had never set my eyes on the characters played by Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Vejaramood. The Great Indian Kitchen has gone straight to the top of my best films, the ones that stay with you long after you’ve seen them.
When we first come upon her, she is dancing. Her face is a-lit. Rhythm really gets her, makes her swing. Then comes an event which occurs in so many young women’s lives, the arrival of a suitable young man, and marriage. You could, at this point, wipe the ‘happy smiling girl’ slate and transpose upon it, ‘the beginning of the end’.
She has no name. Neither does he. She is addressed as ‘molae’, generic Malayalam term of endearment for girl, and she calls him ‘etta’, a salutation you will hear in many Malayali households. They come together as any couple does in an arranged marriage, hoping to find commonalities, a mutual spark that will keep them going. But very soon, she discovers that the two men who live with her in the sprawling ‘tharavad’, her husband and father-in-law, have very specific needs, and her only job is to keep fulfilling them. Quietly, without making a fuss, or raising her voice, day after day, meal after meal.
The ‘great’ in the title has to be the most ironical use of the word: it subsumes ‘molae’, makes her small, imprisons her. Her day, from the time she awakes, till the time she sleeps, is full of commandments. She has to turn out meticulously cooked (the rice shall not be made in the pressure cooker, only on the fire; the leftovers of lunch shall not be eaten at dinner) meals. She has to clean the messy table, collect the dishes, wash the dishes, wipe the stairs, throw out the stinking garbage into a stinkier dugout in the backyard, wash the clothes by hand (no, no, the machine will weaken the fibre), hang them out, fold them away when dry, make tea for entitled visitors (oho, is this what you call black tea?), and lie back for the obligatory bout of marital sex. And then start all over again, the cooking, cleaning, washing, till ‘etta’ demands lights out.
No time out. No time for herself, unless it’s that time of the month, when she is banished to a thin mat on the floor, untouchable till she purifies herself ‘on the seventh day’, making sure she will not be seen by the spouse, who has taken a holy vow of abstinence. A perpetually scolding, scathing older woman, a relative of the husband, helps to keep ‘molae’ in her place, lest she forgets.
In 2021? Yes siree, this happens even today, like it did in our mother’s and grandmother’s generation. Patriarchy is alive and kicking, thank you very much. Those who are oblivious of these age-old ‘customs’ and ‘traditions’ are either lucky or blind. The Great Indian Kitchen spreads its wares generously. It is not just the kitchen which is designated as the woman’s domain (a leaking pipe will continue to leak because the ever-busy ‘etta’ hasn’t found the time to call the plumber); it’s also the hallways which she has to dust, and the bedroom where she has to perform, decorously, without demanding anything for her self. Foreplay? What’s that?
You watch ‘molae’ bending, ‘adjusting’, listening, obeying. You see her smile dwindle and die. She is just a creature, not a person. She is a vessel, not someone who can have an opinion, and certainly not someone who can be a party to the chatter around menstruating women and their exclusion from the Sabarimala shrine; she is asked to remove that offending video she has shared on Facebook. How dare she?
Finally, ah finally, she arrives at the point of no return with a voiceless but clear retort of her own. How dare he? You see her, walking along the road, the glimpse of the sea in the distance. You realise it is the first time, since her marriage, you’ve seen her out of that house, that kitchen.
The prologue becomes a bit too expository, too eager to tell us what we have seen. But that’s just a tiny niggle. This is a film which needs to be essential watching. The characters are very specific, the locations are in Kerala, but the situations which obtain through the film are horrifyingly universal. Finally, you see the ‘molae’ as the essential girl, the light back on her face, and you want to cheer. Out loud.