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Why Jeo Baby’s “The Great Indian Kitchen” is a timely reminder of unequal labour structures at home

By Mythily Nair

Within Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood or any other type of cinema, we increasingly seek progressive storylines and characters, what is often called “conscious cinema”. Films that are socially “conscious” go beyond the catchy songs, the action sequences, and the nefarious good looks of the leads, aiming to actually make us think. Sometimes cinema isn’t always an escape into a fictional reality, but a powerful reminder of our reality.

And this is exactly what director Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen, a Malayalam drama film released last month, does. Detailing the regressive, confining machinations of the Indian household, a young woman (played by a magnetic Nimisha Sajayan) confronts the harsh realities of her newly married life, as she is relegated to the kitchen. After marrying into a “prestigious” traditional home, she can either accept her reality of modern enslavement or break free.

Why is the film worth a watch?

To begin with, the visuals of the kitchen. The film is a slow burner, and pointedly so. Nothing works better in delivering the intensity of the unpaid care work, and Jeo Baby especially ensures not to speed past the repetitive visuals of the Indian Kitchen, a space the wife is confined to from the word go. The amount of screen time the film dedicates around the preparation of Keralite delights and the way they stream out of the kitchen, only to return as food waste is jarring, to say the least.

The severity of the enforced patriarchal norms that forbid women from working, praying or retaining any sort of autonomy ensures that the audience stays glued, watching if her new reality forces her to bend and we wait to see if she breaks. Neither the husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu) or wife are named, and though the film is set in Kerala, the title itself aims to remind viewers that such regressive patriarchal mindsets are not limited to any state.

The film is mostly situated and shot within the single location of the house, and the woman’s space is limited to the kitchen or the bedroom, both locations wherein she is meant to be deferential to the husband and the word of the man. The kitchen in the film is a situational metaphoric representation of patriarchy, and it’s confining machinations. She is to labouriously toil and cook, day in and day out, sending out streams of delectable foods, only for them to return as food waste the women of the house are to sort. There is no responsibility laden within the men of the household to contribute to the home in any which way.

A reflection of reality

Unpaid work, as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO), is the “non-remunerated work carried out to sustain the well-being and maintenance of other individuals in a household or the community, and it includes both direct and indirect care (i.e. routine housework)”. The ILO estimates show that time spent in unpaid work accounted for “16.4 billion hours per day, with women contributing more than three-fourths of the total, which is equivalent to 2.0 billion people working on a full-time basis without pay”. In India, on average, women spend 297 minutes per day on unpaid care-work, while men spend 31 minutes per day.

Unpaid care work is embedded in archaic ideations of social morality and the role a woman plays in the household. It decrees that it is the moral responsibility of being a woman to take care of the household and domestic matters. It is understood that being feminine/femininity is about being homebound and docile, and some argue that it’s not just a moral responsibility, but even can be as molecular as genetic tuning: the rhetoric of “biological essentialism” where women are biologically predisposed to do certain kinds of work is used to further maintain such gender roles, but it is ultimately just a social construction.

The OXFAM 2020 Inequality report in India blames this as being a part of wider social norms practised in India about culture-specific gender roles. In a study conducted around areas of Rajasthan, observations were made as to gender norms pertaining to the gendered division of household work, conformity, employment and decision-making autonomy. The report also reinforces that unpaid care work emerges as one of the most prominent causes and consequences of inequality between girls and boys, and women and men.

Unpaid care work has been so deeply integrated into a woman’s identity, that advocating to redistribute it can cause an uproar from women themselves. The OXFAM report states that “50% of women said men should not help in unpaid care work”, because of the connotation that if a man has to step in, the women are unfit to be women. We then think about how patriarchy turns the kitchen into a space of “freedom”, whereas in reality, all it does is provide a mirage of agency. Especially after the COVID 19 pandemic, studies suggest that previously existing gender inequalities in households have worsened, says OXFAM. With the onset of the pandemic, men and women's roles in society have been on par with social roles set for them, as “breadwinners” and caregivers” respectively.

The unfortunate reality is that even in a highly literate state like Kerala, such regressive social structures exist, ones that dictate women’s place in the homes. A study by Lavanya Garg in 2017 shows that decision making powers aren’t a direct consequence of education, further reinforcing what the film tries to illustrate the lack of agency women possess, no matter their educational qualifications. The pandemic has also increased the burden of unpaid care work on women, especially with the newer requirements of social distancing and sanitization creating new unpaid chores.

Instead, a woman’s place in the house is determined by the perception of their household labour, which in an Indian kitchen, is meted out unequally. We see this in the film as well, with the mother in law scrubbing away with the young wife, as her husband comments about her being a Master’s degree holder. As an audience, we wonder what the purpose of tertiary education is for her, when all she is limited to are the 4 walls of her house. We also wonder if the younger wife will be subjected to the same fate.

Reclaiming agency

Luckily for us, we also rejoice in watching the not-so-subtle reclamation of agency. We must recall that one of the most unsettling feelings for an audience is the behaviour of the men of the house- they aren’t villains by any measure. They’re soft spoken, smiling gentlemen, someone you could be neighbours with or see in the town you live in. On their condescending shoulders, they carry the pride and arrogance that a privileged existence brought them. One that led them to believe that the women in their lives are second class citizens, and they are entitled to do with them as they please- household labour during the day, and sexual labour at night.

(Minor Spoilers Ahead) Bit by bit, the wife questions the centuries of conditioning that led her husband to believe that he must be respected unquestioningly- the little moments where whether it be the way she questions his table etiquette (or lack thereof at home), or ask for foreplay- both instances where she was turned down. But the way the wife would weaponise their own notions of menstruation being pollutive against them, resuming life as a dance teacher, makes one want to applaud from their seat.

So sit down, seat your entire family down. Watch the men of your household squirm, watch yourself think and rethink about all the instances you have watched oppressive patriarchy manifest, no matter in what form. This story doesn’t only resonate in Kerala, so make sure you feast on what comes out of The Great Indian Kitchen. We must remember that even though this wife had the strength to break free, there was still another soiled teacup left by the husband for another woman to pick up.

Watch the film on NeoStream.

Watch the trailer: The Great Indian Kitchen


About the author

Mythily is a student at IIM Indore with an interest in South Asian media, culture and education. Having grown up abroad, she often juxtaposes her experiences of a multicultural upbringing and college life in India. Find her on her Instagram @singacutie and LinkedIn



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