Feminism From The Matrilineal Land by Maithili Rao

The idea of the self-sacrificing, nobly suffering woman has been an inherent part of Indian cinema for nearly a century. Jeo Baby is the latest film-maker to join the honourable list of men questioning this compliance in his marvellous The Great Indian Kitchen.

Six months is a long time for a film on the net. There is always the rush of new films, series – in so many languages – clamouring to be seen that a film like The Great Indian Kitchen can be expected to be forgotten. Word of mouth and heated discussion among friends has kept this significant film alive. It set off a very relevant conversation. It adds to the cache of feminist films in India that speak to us and for us. There is a difference between a feminist film, and a woman-centric film.  

We are all only too familiar with the weepies glorifying the woman as a victim who stoically bears all the miseries and injustice heaped on her, for the sake of her loved ones. We thought that stereotype is dead and gone, but it survives, mutating like this wretched virus. 

The stereotype is still entrenched in many layers of Indian society despite flaunting our modernity. It surfaces in cunning and subtle ways even when a narrative is espousing a feminist cause. Most men are tone-deaf, or pretend to be so when the conversation gets uncomfortably close to home. 

The Great Indian Kitchen screams at the tone-deaf to wake up and hear the truth. This inherited deafness penetrates through class and education. Not just men who take their privilege for granted, but also women can’t shed centuries of socialisation and psychological conditioning: submission to injustice in the interest of family, and its status is an ordained duty. Log kya kahenge is a fear that conditions most of us.  

The idea of the self-sacrificing, nobly suffering woman has been part of the Indian cinema’s DNA for nearly a century. The good thing is that it continues to be challenged by films that have an agenda to change the narrative. Jeo Baby is the latest film-maker in an honourable line of men who questioned this compliance. He comes from a society where matrilineal descent has an honoured place, and he challenges that very society: he takes on patriarchy, religion and oppression within marriage head-on. 

Jeo Baby wants to make it as hard-hitting as possible, and, perhaps, sacrifices nuance for impact at times. But that is the truth he wants to tell, and chooses the way he wants to tell it. It is significant that the husband and wife are not named in the film. They are almost generic, as if the film is speaking to all the regressive men and submissive wives in our benighted country where Shakti is worshipped alongside male gods. The film becomes a morality tale, not a fable. 

The newlyweds (wife played by Nimisha Sajayan and husband played by Suraj Venjaramoodu) represent the typical middle-class couple yoked by an arranged marriage. The details are authentically localised, but the situation can be called pan-Indian. The bride comes to the in-laws’ house, uncomplainingly fits in, and tries her best to conform to the expected role: endless hours in the kitchen, practically running to the table to serve the men, and clean up the mess after them, and submit to mechanical sex, devoid of any emotional warmth. 

One day, she dares to tell him that the sex hurts and a little foreplay would help. Oh, you know about foreplay, he sneers. And rounds off the insult: how can I give you foreplay when I have no feelings for you? Jeo Baby puts it crudely, no doubt. He doesn’t put a discreet veil of sentimentality over the mechanics of copulation in an arranged marriage, where the woman provides sex sans feeling. And yet, she comes from a more educated, modern family. Brought up in Bahrain, she meets the intended groom once, and the knot is tied. Her family has a car, and the husband rides a scooter to his school, where he teaches the primacy of family to adolescent students. 

What makes the match desirable is the Tharavad the family owns. Remember the Adoor classic Elippathayam? The Tharavad owner, a cowardly idler trapped in feudalism like the dreaded rat caught, at last, sneers at the Gulf returnee young man flaunting visible prosperity. That was in 1982. 

Nearly four decades later, the status of a Tharavad-dwelling family seems undiminished in a society where the Left, in its last remaining bastion, has not been able to bring about societal change in attitudes to tradition. Baby is relentless. The men are so entrenched in their entitled life that the father-in-law must be given his toothbrush before he can deign to drink his morning tea. The bride is surprised, but complies, since the mother-in-law has gone to tend to the pregnant daughter. 

“There’s no violence in the film, and no one is demonised. It’s a very realistic portrayal of the deeply entrenched insensitivity within our homes,” Clinta PS, assistant professor of English at Christ College in Irinjalakuda, told the BBC.

Public and critical reaction has been positive in Kerala. They seem to have welcomed this microscopic examination of their inherently patriarchal society despite its progressive image, nearly100 per cent literacy, and many working women.  Let me recall a personal experience. 

I was attending a film festival in the early 90s at Kozhikode. I was impressed by the total attention of a packed house during a Pasolini (a demanding director) retrospective. When I mentioned this to a Malayali friend, she said: how many women were present in the theatre? I realised the cineastes I had admired were all men. 

The taboo Baby confronts head on in the film is menstrual seclusion. That’s the only time a maid comes to clean and cook. When the aunt comes to help out when the bride has her period, she is as dyed in the wool traditionalist as her brother. She is aghast the menstruating woman is sleeping on a bed. She is made to sleep on a mat on the floor, and the poky room must have its door shut. 

The mother-in-law had succumbed to the diktat of not working even when she has a post-graduate degree. Something the patriarch points out with pride as an example to the new bride. She has encouraged the bride to apply for a dance teacher’s job, though men think wives of their family should not work. 

Change has to come from the outsider who has married into the family, not daughters who are supposed to imbibe tradition in the Tharavad air they breathe. Yet another taboo for the rest of India is broken. Beef is a delicacy savoured by the husband when they dine with his cousin. So everything that Hindutva is trying to impose on the country is countered — matter of factly as beef-eating — or as a calculated rebellion against the austerity/celibate period preceding the Sabarimalai pilgrimage  

Naturally, Sabarimalai has to enter the narrative once menstruation becomes a major issue. The new bride’s simmering resentment boils over into an act of deliberate desecration. She gives the dirty water leaking from the sink for the puja, and throws the same water at the husband’s face when he enters the kitchen asking for the missing tea for guests. 

The leaking kitchen sink is central to the narrative as the larger metaphor for the moral dirt accruing into the entrails of this pious family. She walks out. We see her walking past a bus stand where a placard is held up against women’s entry into Sabarimalai. We last see her driving her car to a school, overseeing the rehearsal of a dance celebrating female power.  

The Great Indian Kitchen has been equated with Nora slamming the door of the Doll’s House. Ibsen’s play showed a disempowered woman, cossetted like a doll, who walks out of this controlled life. Jeo Baby shows a contemporary woman who enters marriage with the thought of work, pursuing a vocation but gets trapped in the unending cycle of domestic slavery.  

The inspiration for The Great Indian Kitchen, he says in an interview, came to him in his kitchen. “After I got married in 2015, I started spending a lot of time in the kitchen since I believe in gender equality. That’s when I realised that cooking involves a lot of heavy lifting.”

After a while, he says, he started thinking about “how to escape the kitchen — the drudgery, the monotony and the repetitiveness. I felt like I was trapped in jail. And then I started thinking of all the women who can’t escape, and it troubled me.” Baby wants to reach beyond the converted, and not confine himself to an echo chamber to which most change makers are relegated to.

2020 had made the sound of a slap resound in our cinema halls. Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad created the space for conversation now enlarged by The Great Indian KitchenThappad is more nuanced, and doesn’t paint the husband as an insensitive misogynist. He slaps Taapsee Pannu at a party that was supposed to be celebratory in a moment of frustration caused by his career setback. Amu’s (Taapsee Pannu) situation is different. She is a homemaker by choice, looks after her invalid mother-in-law with care, invested in her husband’s career goals.

But the unthinking slap by her otherwise attentive husband sets her thinking what others, including her mother and brother term a ‘mere slap’, diminishes her as a person, an affront to her self-respect.

Like the mother in Thappad, the mother in The Great Indian Kitchen also advises her daughter to adjust to the archaic traditions of her in-laws. Both mothers, one in Kerala and the other in Delhi, think their daughter must fit in with the norms of the new family, even at the cost of self-worth.

Thappad weaves in stories of two other women, from two different classes, into the narrative of women’s self-assertion. Be it the reaction – overreaction according to some – to a slap or throwing dirty sink water at the husband, the assertive young woman has arrived to question the basis of marriage. These two films complement each other. And they are different from Lipstick Under My Burkha and Parched, where women’s sexual needs and frustration found voice. 

All these voices’ clamour to be heard. And heeded.

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