The film The Great Indian Kitchen, which made its appearance on a major OTT platform about a month ago, has created many ripples generating rave reviews and very deservingly so. What is interesting in the reviews is the total absence of a critique of a highly Brahminical way of living which the film so blatantly displays and the complete oversight of the caste dynamics at play in the narrative. Mostly narrated through culinary sounds in the kitchen, the film portrays the extent to which spaces are gendered and coded. The story set in an upper-caste household informed and run by Brahminical patriarchy, is a rejection of extreme gender binaries that manifest in the various spaces of the household that privilege the men and exploit the women reducing them to service-providers.
The lead female protagonist played by Nimisha Sajayan, who comes to the house as a newly-wed bride, starts her first day in the new house cooking, cooking endlessly – food constantly being prepared takes up the entire screen space. The scenes are poignantly juxtaposed: the men are invested in self-care and leisure, the women in domestic labour, care work and above all cooking. In her book Gendering Caste, Uma Chakravarti talks about the system of assigning value and worth to feminine labour in upper castes. Unlike the lower castes which toil, perform physically laborious activities outside the domestic space and are engaged in various means of production that demand both men and women to contribute equally in the process of production, women in upper caste families are conventionally assigned the status of valuable commodities because of their reproductive worth and their ability to perform labour within the domestic space of the house.
The reinforcement of this practice is evident when the daughter-in-law expresses her desire to apply for the position of a dance teacher and is gently reminded by her father-in-law that his wife, despite being a post graduate, never took up a job because that would have meant compromising the upkeep and functioning of the house. It is noteworthy how genteel and politely exploitative the father-in-law is. His brand of soft-spoken, ‘smiling’ tyranny that defines the running of the house and manifests in ground rules following – which demands additional labour from the women of the house – is emblematic of sophisticated upper-caste patriarchy defined by the instinct of self-preservation and centred on the purity-pollution logic.
Absurd logic that says his clothes should be handwashed since the washing machine can wear out the fabric is undermined by the ruthless thrashing and beating the clothes are subjected to when they are washed by hand. This implies that the rule is arbitrary and exists just to make sure that the women of the house remain bound to existing customs and conventions and keep modernity and subsequently western influence at bay whether it is in the form of a washing machine or a mixer-grinder and prevent technology and equipment from polluting the sanctum sanctorum of the house which is the pivotal structure only next to the temple in the Brahmanical socio-political economy.
The meta-narrative of the purity-pollution Brahmanical discourse finds a stubborn and persistent manifestation in the kitchen. In his seminal work Why I Am Not a Hindu? A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, Kancha Illaiah Shepherd contrasts the Brahmin-Baniya culture with the Dalit-bahujan culture. Describing the operations of a Brahmin household, he observes, “Washing a child is seen as an unclean activity and hence it is left to the woman…The kitchen too is a dirty place which he (the Brahmin man) should not enter.” So the kitchen, already a “dirty” place and therefore not appropriate for upper-caste men to enter, becomes an even dirtier place in the film with the leaking kitchen pipe, grimy water in the sink, and the sludge which the woman has to clean while feeding elaborate meals to the Brahmin men.
That the kitchen is not a space to bother about by the entitled upper-caste man whose dharma it is to be engaged in intellectual pursuits or religious rituals, is reinforced by the continued indifference of the husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu) towards the leak and the repeated pleas and reminders by his wife to get a plumber to fix it. On more than one occasion do we see the hierarchical relationship bordering on purity and pollution as the wife’s “filthy” persona (from working in the kitchen) is juxtaposed against the husband’s spruce bearing and how she recoils at the idea of a physical contact with her husband since she is “unclean”. It is only therefore structurally apt that the woman, the impure personified picks up leftover, half-chewed and spat out food from the dining table after the men have eaten, brooms the household, dips her arms in a sink brimming with filthy water, disposes off waste and also confines herself to a room when she is menstruating.
The logic of pollution runs deep and is a defining feature of Brahmanical lived reality. In this upper-caste domestic space, women toil day and night and pollute themselves to keep the men and their pursuits pure. This ritual and observation of purity transcends the material and enters the realm of the spiritual in the course of the narrative. The men need to be physically and mentally pure and purged as part of the preparation for the pilgrimage to Aiyappa, the celibate god. The indigenous god, conveniently Brahminised, demands his followers to observe absolute abstinence which will make them pure and therefore fit for his darshanam. Menstruating women are impure, refrigerated food is impure and the very touch of a woman during abstinence is impure.
Just like the Brahmanical prerogative is to maintain utmost purity of body and mind by restricting movement and proximity to polluting sources even within the house, the feminist prerogative is to to call out this extreme form of an oppressive logic of purity-pollution and destroy the binary once at least, if not for all times. The ritual of purity has to be met halfway by the ritual of pollution. That which is pure and the source of oppression needs to be polluted inside-out so that the dichotomy can collapse. It is only logical therefore that the livid wife resists this practice of untouchability which she has been subjected to time and again by serving tea-coloured filthy water which is ingested by the men immersed in Aiyappa’s rituals and then follows it up by throwing the filthy kitchen water at her father-in-law and her husband and drenching them. The ritual of polluting the oppressor is now complete – inside and out.
The wife’s act of walking out of her marriage and the house is strongly suggestive of the radical step that needs to be taken to dismantle the oppressive structure of Brahmanical patriarchy which exists only to serve upper-caste men and treats all others as vermin. The upper-caste woman needs to walk out and away from this regressive space steeped in rituals that operates through entrenched and divinely sanctioned practices and customs reinforcing exclusion and cultural isolation for lesser “others” (whether it is people lower in the pecking order of the caste hierarchy or upper caste women) and undermines universal values of love, equality, bonding and humanity.
Dr. Shyaonti Talwar is an academician, researcher and a writer whose areas of interest include art, culture, lifestyle, social inequality, literature, mythology and gender.