The Great Indian Kitchen movie review: Startling, scathing, stunning take-down of patriarchy and its eternal sidekick, religion

I went into The Great Indian Kitchen expecting a pleasurable food flick, and sat in its thrall for 1 hour 40 minutes watching an unparalleled gem.

Anna MM Vetticad January 18, 2021 15:08:03 IST

4.5/5

She chops, slices, dices and grinds. She cooks, washes, wipes, sweeps and swabs. 

Meanwhile, he does yoga before breakfast and office. In another part of the house, her father-in-law waits for a woman of the house to put toothpaste on his toothbrush and bring it to him while he sits relaxing or reading the newspaper on the porch. 

As the men exercise their bodies and minds, she picks up the trail of garbage they leave in their wake.

She takes out the trash. She keeps out the holy lamp. She is the first to wake up and the last to bed, there to be raped by him to whom she is legally and socially bound.

The Great Indian Kitchen movie review Startling scathing stunning takedown of patriarchy and its eternal sidekick religion

Nimisha Sajayan in a still from The Great Indian Kitchen

Writer-director Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen aka Mahaththaya Bharatiya Adukkala is a Great Indian Film that captures an under-discussed horrific reality with astonishing accuracy, by merely replicating on screen what happens in millions of Indian households. It is in Malayalam, but the title reminds us that patriarchy knows no state borders. The characters have no names because they are you and I and everyone around. 

(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) A wife leaving her husband’s shoes out for him to step into as he leaves the house, a man cooking one meal and leaving a mess behind for women to clean up while lauding himself for having given those women a break – these are not mere fictional scenes in a film, these are snapshots from homes we inhabit or have visited, where women’s hard labour is romanticised as a mark of a devi-like unlimited capacity for love and sacrifice in a pre-emptive bid to demonise women who break free. (Spoiler alert ends)

I went into The Great Indian Kitchen expecting a pleasurable food flick, and sat in its thrall for 1 hour 40 minutes watching an unparalleled gem. 

It could have been called Portrait of a Wife as Cook, Cleaner, All-round Housemaid and Sex Slave, but that would not fully capture what this extraordinary film conveys.

The Great Indian Kitchen movie review Startling scathing stunning takedown of patriarchy and its eternal sidekick religion

Suraj Venjaramoodu in a still from The Great Indian Kitchen.

There is no story to tell, so here is a precis of the first 9 minutes. Nimisha Sajayan plays a dancer in The Great Indian Kitchen. The film opens with her family preparing for a pennu kaanal (a potential groom coming to see a girl for an arranged marriage). Suraj Venjaramoodu’s character arrives. He is the prospective husband. We have seen her house and family, but are told nothing about him, his occupation or financial background in those early scenes except for snatches of a fleeting conversation implying that he is from the sort of family that is considered ‘prestigious’. 

Formalities are completed, rituals are done and dusted, and soon the new bride arrives in her new home, where her routine as a wife and daughter-in-law sets in.

I have seen Jeo Baby’s last film, Kunju Daivam (The Little God, 2018), which earned Adish Praveen the National Film Award for Best Child Artist. It was sweet and clever for a while, but the storytelling lacked polish and it didn’t come together for me. Nothing in Kunju Daivam prepared me for the utter brilliance, the acute power of observation, the subtlety and finesse of The Great Indian Kitchen. Note the song sung with the closing credits, the lyrics brimming with literary tropes that have long been summoned to glorify women and thus keep them enchained. 

Sajayan here lives up to the formidable reputation she has built for herself in her brief career. From her debut in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017) to Eeda (2018), Chola (2020) and a bunch of other films, her strength has been the ability to immerse herself so completely in a role that it becomes near-impossible to believe she is not that very person in real life. In The Great Indian Kitchen she flows through the veins and breathes through every cell of the unnamed Wife. 

Venjaramoodu, her senior co-star from Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, displays remarkable artistic intelligence by playing The Great Indian Kitchen’s Husband not as an overtly repulsive fellow but as a seemingly diffident Everyman with a nice-guy demeanour whose regressive attitudes stress the fact that villains are usually the regular chap next door. 

The Great Indian Kitchen movie review Startling scathing stunning takedown of patriarchy and its eternal sidekick religion

A still from The Great Indian Kitchen.

Jeo Baby has done well to pack his uniformly flawless supporting cast with unfamiliar faces – Sidhartha Siva is the only ‘star’ among them. The rest are theatre actors from Kozhikode who come across as real people plucked out of real life for the film.

The understatedness of their acting is complemented by every technical department, from supervising sound designer Tony Babu’s finely detailed palette of swishes, trickles, bubbling oils and human mouths chomping down food, to DoP Salu K Thomas’s shooting of the leading lady’s dimly lit marital prison until that glorious finale with its explosion of brightness and light. The editor, Francies Louis, ensures that every single shot in the film counts. And costume designer Dhanya Balakrishnan dresses the characters in outfits that provide a range of insights into Malayali culture, until that luscious closing scene in which she gets to give her imagination free rein. Even the subtitles are top-notch.

The only scene lacking subtlety in The Great Indian Kitchen involves a telephone conversation between the female lead and her friend. No other point in the film is put across with so much underlining. 

Jeo Baby weaves the Sabarimala Temple’s refusal to allow menstruating women near the deity so smoothly into his story that it is hard to tell when it begins. This film is unlike Lal Jose’s comparatively bland Nalpathiyonnu (41), which used Sabarimala as a hook but was hesitant to make any contentious statement about it. 

It should be a matter of pride for the Malayalam film industry aka Mollywood that within a span of a year it has given us stinging critiques of both Hinduism (this film) and Christianity (Midhun Manuel Thomas’s Anjaam Pathiraa) in the state. There are many such Malayalam films and no space here for an exhaustive list. At a time when Muslims are being demonised across India, offering a balanced, fair critique of Islam is trickier because the community is on edge and liberal filmmakers might fear that their works will be misused by anti-Muslim elements, but Mollywood has shown the intellect, sensitivity and courage to do even this. In a post-9/11 scenario, for instance, producer Aryadan Shoukath and director T.V. Chandran made Paadam Onnu: Oru Vilapam (2003), skewering a reprehensible Muslim social practice. 

The uniqueness of Kerala society as compared to other Indian states lends itself to such cinema – Hindus account for approximately 55 per cent of Kerala’s population, Muslims about 27 per cent while Christians are a little above 18 per cent. This means that though Muslims and Christians are a minority, their percentage is still large enough versus the national 14.2 per cent Muslims and 2.3 per cent Christians to ensure that neither community has a justifiable reason to feel insecure in Kerala. 

Among many memorable elements in The Great Indian Kitchen is that moment when a woman weaponises a man’s conviction that menstruation makes her impure. Take that, misogyny! 

That said, the film does marginally falter in its conversation on periods. Of course it is despicable that a woman is seen as a pollutant when she is menstruating, but The Great Indian Kitchen misses a crucial nuance: unlike this film’s heroine, many women suffer from pain or extreme discomfort in addition to heavy bleeding, and enforced segregation in homes that consider them dirty at this time of the month is, ironically, the only reason why they get the rest they so desperately need. 

The Great Indian Kitchen movie review Startling scathing stunning takedown of patriarchy and its eternal sidekick religion

A still from The Great Indian Kitchen.

In a Mollywood that tends to normalise domestic violence (recent examples being Aadya Rathri and Ayyappanum Koshiyum), The Great Indian Kitchen illustrates how horrendous realities can be portrayed without being casual about them. (Minor spoiler ahead) It also shows layering among progressives exemplified by a Hindu man who has no qualms about eating beef in his house but has no reservations either about his wife serving food to family and guests as he sits around being served. 

(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) Unlike many films that let men off lightly for patriarchy by emphasising women who buy into patriarchy and perpetuate it, The Great Indian Kitchen has the intellectual depth to portray a range of women, from victims to rebels, from enablers of patriarchy to allies of other women. My favourite supporting character in the film has barely any minutes on screen, but a key argument is driven home through her: contrary to social and cinematic stereotypes, the mother-in-law (a wonderful Ajitha VM) symbolises female solidarity and shared suffering here – Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ek Din (Bengali, 2000) devoted its entire length to this theme; The Great Indian Kitchen does it with brief conversations and by showing the senior lady slaving away in the posh house of her well-off married daughter who is nearing the end of a pregnancy. This also brings up another facet of Indian society – family support – that is romanticised endlessly while its exploitative aspects are ignored: that Indian families walk the extra mile to support each other is great, but that’s no reason to ignore the uncomfortable truth that this culture is routinely misused to take advantage of considerate relatives. (Spoiler alert ends)

The director’s commitment to his theme is best illustrated by his decision to begin and end with shots of Sajayan. Even Take Off – one of the best Malayalam films of the past decade – veered from its course (as so many women-focused films do) by ending on Fahadh Faasil’s voice and image though it told the story of Parvathy’s character.

The Great Indian Kitchen is a startling, scathing, stunning take-down of patriarchy and its eternal sidekick, religion. That Jeo Baby achieves so much with the simplest of stories, one that has been staring us all in the face all our lives, is what makes it such a work of genius. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Great Indian Kitchen is available on the Malayalam-only streaming service Neestream.

(All images from the film's trailer)

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