Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen holds a mirror to the audience. When a film is determined to show you the ugly truth for a good 100 minutes, you can’t help but feel a sense of discomfort creeping up your skin – much like the darkness of winter evenings in the hills. You get the same chills and you shift uncomfortably in your seat the entire time, but you cannot look away. Not even if every scene triggers you and depicts incidents you have witnessed in your daily life. And when the screen goes dark, you sit there for a long while to try and process it all.
We humans have a tendency to appreciate everything when shown through a camera lens. You show the field beside your house to a friend, he won’t be interested. You click it on your phone and add a couple filters and with the right hashtags, you get enough likes to feel validated. Now this rule works for things that are not flowery as well. We often don’t see the brutality of what is happening right in front us if not shown through lenses. That is what The Great Indian Kitchen does. It shows you how brutal the institution of marriage is, and how we as a society constantly fail to see it.
The Great Indian Kitchen follows the ordinary story of an arranged marriage where the girl moves into her husband’s – or rather his ancestor’s – house and loses her virginity on the same night (I would like to say raped on her very first night, but, as per the law, marital rape doesn’t exist in our country). From the next day on, she starts her textbook role as a housewife. While she works relentlessly with her mother-in-law, her husband sweeps into the room suddenly, and hugs her from behind, and then informs her that they won’t be going for a honeymoon as they don’t need any separate private time together. Moreover, he says laughingly, that every day is a honeymoon for them now anyway.
The wife looks at him uncomfortably and the audience shifts in their seats.
When her mother-in-law leaves home to take care of her pregnant daughter, all hell breaks loose. The newly married woman has to do all the household chores on her own, finish everything on time, and carry forward the meaningless burden of traditions. Living with the old and young patriarch of the house, the woman dreams of becoming a dance teacher. When she expresses this wish, the old patriarch, true to his values, forbids such ideas immediately. The young one however, being a bit more ‘liberal’, simply stalls it. This is the moment when the truth of the progression of our society and the hollowness of the institution of marriage become all too evident.
As the film progresses, reality becomes more and more scorching. The scene capturing all the family photographs hanging on the wall with the typical sounds produced in an Indian kitchen playing in the background almost grabs us by the hair and makes us realise what a horror story most of the Indian marriages are. It feels like an earthquake is taking place and until the pictures fall from the wall and are shattered, there is no escape from it.
The pictures don’t shatter, obviously. But the woman breaks free. She throws a bucket of dirty water on the face of the religious patriarchs, the same water that had caused her incessant trouble in the kitchen but no one had paid heed to it. Throwing that water on the face of the men was simply like slapping them, like throwing at them all at once everything that had been building up inside the woman. It had almost been an orgasmic act, a release that both the audience and the woman had craved for so long but not given until this very moment.
The film, being the piece of reality that it is, shows the woman starting a new life as a dance teacher and the young patriarch starting a new life as well with a second wife. This is where the brilliance of The Great Indian Kitchen lies. It doesn’t make us absurdly hopeful. It simply shows that there are still grains of hope alive, only if one can grow courage enough. It makes us realise how every married Indian woman has probably gone through similar moments like the protagonist where their dams of patience have broken and yet they haven’t chosen to release the anger, the sheer frustration of being an Indian married woman, a housewife. They have continued despite the disrespect, the crude order to switch off the lights when they have said it hurts without some foreplay and the blatant confession of their husbands having no feelings for them.
And that is how the institution of marriage has survived and not flourished. The film here makes it clear that without any opposing views, without the exchange of healthy ideas of change no institution can grow, just like without any opposition a fascist regime grows. The male domination in Indian marriages has only grown because there are so very few who question it, oppose it, or let alone defy it. Marriage here has become like a stagnant pool, there is no healthy flow of water and only dead corpses of the ghosts of women suffering under patriarchy are floating on it.
Given the point we are standing at right now, it is high time we build a force that essentially asks the question as mentioned by Nivedita Menon in Seeing Like A Feminist, “If marriage is the end of life/ how can it also be the goal of life?”
Pramila has befriended the void and lives inside it.