Vikas Khanna finds cooking to be not only inspiring and artistic but also therapeutic. But for most housewives it is a thankless chore of endless drudgery. The cutting, chopping, steaming, frying, sizzling, washing, chomping…Jeo Baby’s fascinating study of the kitchen as a patriarchal prison is a marvel of sounds, all stripped of extraneous embellishment.
This is the first Indian film I’ve seen which does away with the background score completely. For that alone, Jeo Baby’s film deserves a standing ovation. Has Indian cinema finally begun to trust the audiences’ judgment without hammering and spoon feeding every frame with punctuation marks? I wouldn’t be too sure of that. Just as I’m not sure if this film will bring a radical change in the status of housewives as culinary automatons.
The Great Indian Kitchen is that breakthrough film on the fine art of cooking that Tarla Dalal could have never imagined. It takes us right into the heart of the kitchen so close to the gas cylinder we can smell the onions sizzling in the saucepan as Nimisha Sayajan (simply billed as the anonymous ‘Wife’) toils over the meals endlessly. The nervous preparation is almost like an elaborate college exam every day. Her monotony and fatigue mean nothing to the men in the house, her husband (Suraj Vejaramoodu) and her father-in-law who are required to eat and litter the dining table with bones and morsels, with occasional burps of approval, mostly frowns. At one point, the father-in-law tells the wife to not prepare the rice in the pressure cooker.
“The flavor goes,” he mumbles and leaves.
Nimisha registers every flinch of her character with the volume of immersion that’s at once unparalleled and unplumbed. Like The White Tiger, the other recent masterpiece on casual social discrimination that has acquired a traditional sanctity in our society, The Great Indian Kitchen pulls us so close to the Wife’s tormented tedium that we feel her inescapable claustrophobia, made doubly unbearable as nobody around, men or women, see her predicament as anything but comfortable.
The remarkably scathing comment on gender discrimination will shock you. This is not an easy film to watch. In some ways, it is the ultimate horror tale where only the protagonist feels the walls closing in on her while the men around her are busy enjoying the fruits of her hellish labour.
Then there is the Wife’s menstrual break. The four days when she is isolated and forbidden from entering the kitchen. This is where director Jeo Baby, after denuding the culinary arts of all romance and enchantment, politicizes the plot by bringing in the issue of women not being allowed into the Sabarimala temple. While the Wife grapples with the wages of kitchen politics, on television news, women fight with police and politicians for the right to enter their place of worship.
The pattern of patriarchal persecution emerges in this fine, almost great, film with an intensity that will hit you hard in your solar plexus. Standing at the centre of the culinary chaos is Nimisha trying her best to be the docile cooking concubine, toiling in the kitchen all day and then making herself available to her husband for hurried unceremonious sex in the night. When the Wife suggests some foreplay, the Man looks at her with naked contempt and replies with shriveling condescension.That’s when I knew. This is not a film that will let the Great Indian Patriarchy off the hook easily. It will make you squirm and wince. But what it says cannot be ignored.
Image source: youtube/GOODWILLENTERTAINMENTS/Imbd
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