by Nehal Ahmed
ndia’s Hindi film industry produces the largest number of films in the world, but they barely tackle the question of gender justice while women characters in cinema are almost always peripheral. In the last few years, however, things seem to be changing. There is now a growing number of films that focus on gender justice. Women-centric films such as “Pink, Lipstick Under my Burkha and Parched” have gained popularity generating public debate on various issues facing women.
Taboo issues such as marital rape, female sexuality as well as larger question of patriarchy have become the central theme of this new crop of “lady-centric” films where women are reclaiming their spaces in ‘public sphere’ by fighting back against patriarchal violence.
However, I would like to talk about a recent film, the Great Indian Kitchen, that brilliantly smashes subtle, every day patriarchy that often misses our eyes. The Malayalam-language film directed by Joe Baby from southern Indian state of Kerala, is a successful attempt to reclaim the women’s voice within ‘private sphere’ [kitchen] of a household while at the same time portraying a deeper understanding of how patriarchy works through the rituals and practices within the precincts of a household.
For an average male viewer, patriarchs in all the above films antagonise you through the display of their male chauvinism. These films fail to depict a much deeper and internalised form of patriarchy, where you don’t see yourself as part of the problem. The Great Indian Kitchen is the first film, which not only questions male’s social conditioning but also provides a chance for self-reflection for those unconsciously being part of the patriarchy.
The film’s storyline revolves around a traditionalist, upper caste Keralite Nair family, interestingly, who are considered Shudra in Varna system but still are upper caste. The family is middle-class comprising of four members – the head of the household, his wife and their son and daughter-in-law.
In rural India and semi-urban upper-caste Hindu societies, generally women contribute to economy of family through working for family as house-maker without getting any wages or recognition for their work for rest of their lives.
In the film, the mother-in-law bears responsibility for running the kitchen and in her absence, her daughter-in-law takes that role – her life restricted to the kitchen.
The film shows kitchen as a problem and not merely duty of a women.
The kitchen is the central theme of the film while patriarchy, religion, sacredness and profanity used as a prop. As far I remember, this is the first woman-centric film that I have watched, which starts from the kitchen and ends in the kitchen. One scene during which the protagonist applies for a job sitting in the kitchen beautifully portrays a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal set-up.
Joe Baby’s engagement with patriarchy is holistic and not just aimed at winning over the hearts of viewers.
Without indulging into the high-brow philosophical question about labour of women vis-à-vis patriarchy the filmmaker instead portrays what he saw in his family or elsewhere around and the causes behind the continuation of such practices.
Cinematographer Salu K Thomas has helped translate the director’s imagination onto the screen.
The film also highlights the question of purity versus pollution – central to upper-caste practices – in the kitchen space.
The idea of purity-pollution is different from hygiene and un-hygiene. One certainly could be hygienic but not necessarily pure. To be hygienic is to keep cleanliness and anyone could be hygienic or unhygienic.
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But when it comes to purity, only upper caste Hindu males are pure, it is their birth right while the rest of members of lower castes are not pure. And the lowest castes, the former untouchables, are inherently impure by birth. Untouchability was made a criminal offence after India’s independence in 1947, but the lower castes such as Dalits still face various forms of social discrimination.
According to Hindu upper caste tradition, even menstruating women are impure and they are barred from entering the kitchen – ironically the space where she is confined to serve the male members of the family.
In the movie, the wife is hygienic but impure for few days every month, while the kitchen is unhygienic but still pure and that is why she cannot enter into kitchen during those days to prepare food for the male members of the family.
The manners of her husband and father-in-law are unhygienic while eating but they are pure. Male members in a Hindu upper caste household are pure but they can become impure if they touch a hygienic woman or eat food prepared by her because she is impure due to her menstruation.
In an attempt to explain the source of gender discrimination, the film shows how patriarchy and masculinity are flourishing due to certain cultural practices perpetuated by the members of upper castes.
‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ portrays multilayer of discrimination alled intersectionality, which was coined by scholar Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. She uses this term to show how two identities create more deeper level of discrimination.
In film a woman is not just being discriminated for being a woman but also for being the wife due to the Brahmanical cultural practice. This makes the wife victim of double discrimination.
The inclusion of Sabarimala temple issue in the script helps us understand the universality of Brahmanical fanaticism across India, not just in Kerala state. Upper caste Hindu males have campaigned against attempts by women worshippers from entering the temple.
In Keralite Brahmanical societies, Sabarimala temple has its own importance. Until 2018, menstruating women weren’t allowed to enter the temple to prevent the impurity of Lord Ayappa, the temple’s deity. But the Supreme Court allowed women devotees to enter the temple in a judgment that sparked protests from several Hindu groups.
It is not just a hard-hitting commentary on patriarchy but also unsettles viewers. The film it seems targets men and their vulnerabilities, which lie in the kitchen.
Throughout the film director maintained a subtlety of submission of women. Both patriarchs of the family, father and son, don’t use any kind of violence or abuse because the participation of women is very normal and there is no need of any force or violence to regularise her.
By using ideology to develop a hegemonic culture, one doesn’t need force or coercion, instead this hegemonic culture propagates certain norms and values as ‘common sense values’, which maintains the status quo. The movie vividly portrays this theme.
Kitchen is used not merely a space for cooking it is a space used for male dominance which propagates values for women to be submissive, naïve, obeying and well-mannered.
There is direct relation of food and kitchen to this dominance, which could be maintained only if woman is part of the kitchen and takes part in it as an essential purpose of her life. In the movie, she is forbidden from working outside, as women are not encouraged to go outside for work.
An intelligent script makes it different from other typical women-centric movies. It maintains strong layers of universalism in terms of character as well story.
The film ends with a scene where the same man (son) is got remarried. He is standing with his new wife in the kitchen. She prepares tea for him and after he is finished she washes the cup. It could be interpreted as director Joe Baby knew the truth that this unending discrimination will remain the same and not going to change very soon.
Will this film change the psyche of men? Only time will tell.
Nehal Ahmed, M.phil/PHD, Cinema Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia