It is 2021. COVID-19 is still a thing. In my part of the world, the state government has imposed a lockdown. Work from home continues to be the norm, and my mother has found a new way of unwinding – streaming. A lot of it.
So when The Great Indian Kitchen released on Makar Sankranti, my Malayalee mother’s curiosity was piqued. A Malayalam film with a minimal budget set around what seems like marriage dynamics? And with glowing reviews? It took her all of 12 hours to find it and sign up for NeeStream to watch it.
Director Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen is a slow burner film, detailing the regressive, confining machinations of the Indian household. A young, nameless woman (Nimisha Sajayan) is forced to confront the harsh realities of her newly married life. After marrying into a “prestigious” traditional home, she can either accept her reality of modern enslavement or break free. Whether it is patriarchal norms that forbid women from working, or religious customs that question the purity of Sabarimala devotees, 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.
My own mother, born and raised in Kerala, had an arranged marriage. Hers however, wasn’t the most conventional one – she pursued her masters after having her first child, and has been a working professional for the past 15 years.
What follows is a conversation between a feminist daughter and a blossoming feminist mother, as we discuss the film and the subtle ways in which patriarchy still manifests itself today. I am denoted as M, and my mother as Amma. This conversation largely took place in both Malayalam and English and has been duly translated, but some words and phrases are best preserved in Malayalam.
M: So Amma, what did you think of the movie?
Amma: Brilliant! The movie was something that all parents and especially girls should watch to understand self value. It’s important to know that you shouldn’t sacrifice your self-worth either in love or in marriage.
I’ve seen it – girls from well-off families, who are raised as the apples of their parents’ eyes, get married looking at the prestige of the tharavadu (ancestral home) and the parambariyam (traditions) of that house. It is assumed that the girl will put her dreams and ambitions on hold once she gets married, but this isn’t discussed when the marriage is proposed.
When the girl finally gets married, she moves to a big “respectable” tharavadu, one belonging to a time long gone. It’s fitting, because of its old ideals – the old man doesn’t like chutney made in a mixie (blender); only chutney ground by hand suits his palette. He wants his idlis served fresh every morning with both side dishes, also made fresh. I have this visual of women not being allowed to sit at the table with men, even if there is ample space. We’ve all grown up seeing these things, and we’ve internalised them as being normal. But we really ought to question it. Considering the background she’s from, I’m surprised the girl didn’t have the spine to stand up for herself.
M: But Amma, what about the kind of habits she is forced to normalise? Think about it, growing up, she was instructed not to a rebel, and that she needs to be a good girl and a good wife. She must have adakkam and odukkam (self-control and modesty/compliance), along with an implied continual subservience to the men in her life. If she’s been taught that, and may have grown up seeing only that, how could she have possibly built an acceptable boundary?
Amma: Agreed. And it makes sense, technically. But that’s the thing – it’s so difficult to accept, as a mother and as a woman. See, she’s educated, talented, and she has a family with some monetary standing, so it makes me wonder why on earth she is taking all of this upon herself. Her family and the family she’s married into are two different worlds, and naturally the values will collide. But she takes it all, probably because of her parenting.
M: Why her parenting?
Amma: Because I’ve seen the impact of poor parenting amplified in the choices women make. Growing up, I saw women make the mistake of falling for the prestige of the tharavadu without knowing anything about the home they were about to step into. It didn’t matter how educated they were.
So, when I was getting married, I made it very clear that I wanted my parents to go to the homes of my prospective groom and make sure it was the right fit – because I had my criteria. I wasn’t allowed to go to the groom’s house, so I instructed my parents to do the same. It was a radical thought in the 90s. While radical then, I believe it’s a strong pre-requisite for the both of you [my sibling and I]. I want to make sure that your partners are right for you, and their families respect you. If not, it’s my responsibility as a mother to call it out and let you know.
I know both of you have a spine and can make decisions as you deem fit. But some of those mentalities don’t change, like that of theendal (contamination). Even I’ve come to quietly bow down and listen to when Swamis (men that have taken penance to go to Sabarimala) deem me pure or impure. I know you don’t, and I know why you don’t.
M: Once, when I was younger, I was confined to a room alone for seven days just because a male relative was a Swami. But what did my menstruation have to do with the penance he undertook? Why did I have to be confined separately in a corner of the house, eat my meals alone, shunned away as if I had some kind of disease? It made me so angry then and it makes my blood boil even today. I swore I’d never follow such ‘rules’ again.
Amma: And I fully support that. But at that time, neither of us knew we had the power to speak up. In our house, your father doesn’t believe in theendal. Granted, he grew up with sisters and has daughters, so he realises it’s impractical and silly. But not every man is half as sensible. Do you remember, in the film, how the husband set aside his mala (a necklace denoting Swami) to beat her? The hypocrisy wasn’t surprising, but when you see it happening in front of you, it’s unnerving. It’s the reality, but it was so difficult to accept the truth. It was a tough watch, no doubt.
M: Why was it such a tough watch, Amma?
Amma: As a mother, I can’t watch these women and not imagine my daughters in these situations. Like the time I watched Uyare, I spent the entire evening crying afterwards. I kept thinking of the many women in my life, friends and family, who married into families thinking about tharavadu swathu (the money in the landed family). There was no respect for them. Talented, bright women, they were all subjugated by the men in their lives.
That’s exactly what we see in the last scene of The Great Indian Kitchen, with the wife’s temper boiling over. It’s amazing that even today so many families believe that when a girl gets married, the family’s responsibility is over. But before or after marriage, she’s still your daughter. If you don’t want that responsibility in your life, don’t have the child. Marriage is not the end of the world, and you shouldn’t compel anyone to marry unless they find the right person in all ways.
M: What are your final thoughts on the film?
Amma: The reviewers are right. It’s an absolute must watch. It’s a must watch because it’s putting up a very jarring mirror to existing structures, and it’s a must watch because it’ll make a lot of people uncomfortable. Cinema needs substance – such storytelling needs space because cinema like this can change the way you think.
Mythily Nair is a contributing writer at Feminism in India (FII), where I write largely about cinema, gender and body, and was also their Author of the Month for August 2020. My work has been published at FII, at Film Companion and at The Unconventional MBA.
Featured image credit: A still from the film, The Great Indian Kitchen