The Great Indian Kitchen: Why we need to reflect on role of upper caste Hindu patriarchs

The Great Indian Kitchen is a recent Malayalam flick directed by Jeo Baby with Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Venjaramoodu in the lead roles showcasing stellar performances as the husband wife duo in a quintessential savarna Malayali household that accurately portrays the division of labour among other things in Indian society.

The movie begins with an upper-caste marriage function and the bride going to the in-laws’ after the ceremony. The dutiful wife immediately sets to assist her mother-in-law in the kitchen, in not just cooking but also cleaning up after her husband and father-in-law finish their meal with leftovers strewn all over the dining table. The background tone is set through sounds of cutting, peeling, boiling, frying, sweeping, mopping and washing which indicate the monotonous routine of the women. The father figure of the house also demands that his toothbrush be brought to him directly and slippers be laid out near his feet before he sets out for the day every morning and that clothes including his underwear be washed by hand by the womenfolk. At a later scene when the couple is out at a restaurant, Nimisha’s character jokingly points out her husband’s table manners in public in contrast to his careless behavior at home but he takes it as a blow to his fragile ego and gaslights her into apologising. When the wife suggests better foreplay so that sex becomes a pleasurable experience rather than a painful ordeal for her, she’s looked down upon and mocked by the husband for knowing all about ‘it’, in addition to expressing his disdain by saying that he should also feel the desire to engage in foreplay thereby putting all the blame on her.

The movie also sheds light on the taboos surrounding menstruation and how it restricts the mobility of women in private and ‘sacred’ spaces. While on her period, the woman is excused from household work or rather forced into isolation lest she pollute the otherwise ‘sacred’ parts of the house, like the kitchen. Violation of this unwritten rule automatically results in being rebuked like when Nimisha gets endlessly taunted by an aunt. In the scene where the wife tries to help her husband to his feet after he falls off his scooter, he shoves her away as she is expected to know that he’s following a vrata (in Hinduism, a Sanskrit word meaning resolve referring to pious observations like fasting, celibacy etc) to go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala and behave accordingly like a ‘good’ housewife who respects Hindu traditions. To undo the gross injustice that has been done to him by his menstruating wife, the husband seeks the expert opinion of a pandit who advises him to either swallow a morsel of cow-dung or drink cow-dung infused water but these are ‘modern’ times so he’s excused from taking such extreme measures and is asked to solve his plight by simply taking a dip in a pond.

The father-in-law who is a former member of Nair Service Society (NSS) feels obligated to fulfill his responsibility of restoring the community’s honour which was temporarily desecrated when his daughter-in-law shared a video on Facebook that upheld the Supreme Court’s order to allow entry of women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple. When her husband goes to reprimand her for the same, the wife stands by her opinion unapologetically and shuts the door in his face.

In the events leading to the climax of the movie that unfold against the backdrop of hymns being chanted with increasing rhythmic pace, celebrating the celibate Hindu god Ayyappa, by fellow pilgrims set to accompany the men of the household on their holy expedition, Nimisha is ordered by her husband to serve them tea. Boiling over with rage that she had held in for too long, she serves the wastewater from under the leaking sink in teacups and throws a bucketful of it on the faces of the men who storm into the kitchen to punish her for the ‘audacious’ act.

The sense of entitlement and impunity with which the patriarchs of an upper-caste household control and determine the lives of women are brought to life by Brahmanical diktats of Manusmriti that dictate the ‘dharma’ (meaning duty in Hinduism) of women as living in servitude of the husband. There is much pressure on the savarna woman to fulfill certain prerequisites to be a ‘good’ woman who can uphold the ‘honour’ of her community since upper caste hegemony is sustained by the control of its women’s sexuality through the practice of endogamous marriages. Hence, the extent to which the woman can express her sexuality is only by being the submissive wife who is dedicated to satisfying her husband’s virility in the bedroom even after a full day of toiling in the kitchen as shown in the movie and by producing suitable (read: able-bodied male) children. Thus we infer that oppression of savarna women is perpetuated by her own community in order to maintain Brahmanical hegemony thereby making the annihilation of caste the only means for women to liberate themselves.

Mainstream Malayalam cinema has mostly revolved around catering to the Hindu savarna gaze and exclusively portraying the sick romanticization of upper-caste ‘victims’ residing in elaborate but ‘decaying’ Nair ancestral homes on-screen and in that sense, The Great Indian Kitchen doesn’t even make an attempt to appear progressive. The movie limits its exploration into the oppression of the savarna women within the kitchen. Towards the end of the movie as Nimisha walks away from the oppression inflicted on her into a future where she’s free from it, she passes two groups on the road- one under the banner of DYFI and the other, few women with a banner stating ‘Upholders of Tradition’ who are seen protesting against the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict. By symbolically emphasizing on the binary of ‘secular’ atheism and ‘bigoted’ religiosity, the filmmakers miss out on the most important vantage point in the story that is caste.

Although it is encouraging to see female characters on-screen tear down structural impositions and move ahead in life, it is important that we remind ourselves of the contributions of Bahujan icons like Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh, Phoolan Devi and numerous others who have been doing the same and much more since generations, for the betterment of society and emancipation of women from the shackles of Brahmanism. This film is just a stepping stone for better ones to come that would portray the nuances of how oppressive social structures function and maintain their hegemony.

Karthika Jayakumar is currently studying at Tata Institute Of Social Science in Tuljapur, Maharashtra.