All the Waste and the Disgust: “The Great Indian Kitchen” on dismantling Patriarchy

When a film begins by thanking “Science” and not “God”, you know it’s going to upset a lot of people. Lovely. The very same reason why Bruno was burned at a stake and Galileo was persecuted, science and rationality are themes that are slowly fading away into the folds of religion in our contemporary world. During a time when OTTs are filled with Mirzapurs and Tandavs, The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) comes out as a critical reminder of the woes of the inherently patriarchal society that we still live in.

I believe that this film hits everyone differently and alike at the same time; it’s impossible to review a film as subjectively good as this. But what I do want to say is this: lots of spoilers coming ahead, so I hope you’ve watched the film, whether you’re a malayali or not. Trust me, you’ll feel this one.

That said, this is one of the few films I’ve seen that rightfully uses feminist ideology without over-dramatizing it or using it as a mere trope to forward a story that would ultimately end up being patriarchal, as the trend goes for a lot of subversive attempts.

The Great Indian Kitchen remains true to its title and keeps most of the action of the film confined to the inner space of the kitchen, much like the women in the film. There are a lot of repetitive images of what happens in the kitchen on a daily basis — cutting, chopping, sauteing, frying. We mostly don’t see who does the cooking, all we get to see are hands. Weirdly these repetitions don’t end up boring the viewers but take us along through the mundaneness of the cycle of domestic “duties” that the women in the household have to go through on a daily basis.

There is nothing pompous happening. No rich background music, what we get are unadulterated sounds of women working. The characters are not given any names, emphasizing that this is the situation of a generic household across different spaces.

The film starts off with shots of Nimisha Sajayan’s character dancing freely, smiling. There are simultaneous cuts to shots of food being prepared for a pennukanal scenario, the typical precursor to an arranged marriage.

I think it’s a noticeable fact that the dancing shots show us the face of the woman while the kitchen shots show only her hands. A show of the hands regardless of the women’s faces signifies how mechanical the work is, and these images are repeated throughout the runtime of the film. It thus begins by drawing a binary between a woman in the outside realm and her invalidated position inside her home.

The recurring images of waste and filth function as powerful symbols to explain how women in a patriarchal society are entrapped within the messes created by men. The husband eats his food and throws the leftover wherever he wants because it is “my house and I can do whatever I want”, as he claims later. The waste he leaves on the table is all wiped off to a corner, dumped into the bucket, thrown away inside a larger compost pit to pile up and degrade. The cycle continues.

It wasn’t a revelation for me, the woman flinching away from the food and waste haphazardly leftover by the men. But it sure was uncanny to watch it on screen because the idea of the woman being okay cleaning up his messes, one after the other, has been normalized so much. The protagonist constantly attempts to wash away the stench of these messes, with water, with the dishwasher. It just doesn’t go away. Even when she is having sex with her husband, she is haunted by the lasting images of the filth and stench.

The leaking sink tap is a metaphor for her growing frustration. She tries to contain the leak using a bucket and a sack cloth. She changes it everyday with a fresh cloth and despite shouting out to her husband everyday to call a plumber and just somehow fix it, he pays no heed to her calls. The woman thus traverses between this constant cycle of clearing up waste, putting up with it, throwing it away and then washing off the stench.

The image of waste holds a lot of significance in this regard. On the one hand we see the woman cleaning off the man’s messes while on the other, we see men oppressing women over the idea of menstrual blood being “dirty”. And it’s not just men, the film portrays how the women of the society have also internalized patriarchy and the whole notion of “the purity of blood” which it is built upon.

The protagonist is relegated to a separate room when she is on her period. She’s not allowed to touch anything in the household she otherwise had to relentlessly work in, her husband wouldn’t touch her, she is refused basic human considerations. She is not even allowed to sleep on the bed because her “bad blood” has evil tendencies that would damn the mattress.

She seems to undergo incarceration during this time as she is not allowed to meet anyone. Throughout the film the woman is confined to closed walls, in fact the only time we see her outside the house (apart from the ending) is as a mere presence tagging along with her husband.

The film places this issue in the context of the controversial Sabarimala verdict and comments on it from the micro as well as macro perspective. We see a mob attacking a woman’s house after she put up a video against the misogynist practices propagated by faith and religion. We see the protagonist being berated for sharing the same video. By doing so, the film makes us think about how religion dismisses human rights even though faith is supposed to be a humanitarian concept.

The interspersing of religion and faith is furthered by how much patriarchy permeates these institutions. There is a scene in the film where the protagonist tries to help her husband when he falls off his bike. She is on her period and he is preparing to take the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Because of the whole can’t-touch-because-ooh-she’s-not-pure notion, he shouts at her for helping him up, which seems like a completely baseless reaction if you’re thinking from a commonsensical point of view. But then again our society is functioning on a very non-commonsensical worldview so this reaction, no matter how absurd, is backed by patriarchal morals.

Following this, the protagonist’s husband contacts one of the senior priests and asks him what could be done to rectify the “sin”. Ideally the man is supposed to eat cow dung or drink cow urine. However, in this “special” case, he is exempted from doing all this and just needs to take a dip in the holy pond to purify himself. It is absolutely ridiculous that the rules of the society can be bent according to the comfort of the man while the woman has to go bonkers over it. If it was a woman in his place, wouldn’t she have been forced to swallow the cow dung? Why is a man excused from paccha chanakam then? What validity do these customs hold if they can be twisted according to the whims of a particular person or community?

We also see how these customs are a luxury afforded by upper class families because the man is the sole contributor to the economy of the household. However, their maid cannot afford to sit at home during her period and not work because she too has the responsibility of feeding her family. She knows that nobody cares about whether she is on her period or not and works even when she is bleeding.

I found the protagonist’s question of “It hurts when we have sex, can we do some foreplay before?” to be quite powerful. The husband is shocked that his wife knows about something called “foreplay”. He feels emasculated that she isn’t sexually satisfied by him because dear old society puts a man’s dignity on the potential of his penis. The narrative around this toxic hyper-masculine thinking has been going around for some time now. Yet, I still find men who are surprised to know that women masturbate and watch porn.

The husband’s immediate reaction to his wife’s question is “I should feel something towards you to do foreplay.” It’s an extremely insensitive response, but not shocking considering how the generational misogyny perpetrated by the society has treated women as mere objects to satisfy men’s desires.

Patriarchy takes control of social institutions by controlling a woman’s sexuality. She is seen as a mere vessel to propagate the bloodline of her husband’s family. Her sexual desires are given no consideration, she is considered impure when she is bleeding out the unfertilized egg. She is seen as immoral if she has sexual needs other than what her husband “gives” her. Every time a woman reacts in desperation, she is termed “hysterical” and “hormonal” due to her period.

Women’s resistance has been devalued over time by calling it mere hormonal outbursts.

The “good woman” of patriarchy submits to her husband, slogs like a machine (even if her father-in-law wants rice cooked at the hearth or his clothes hand washed), does not go to work but has to work her back off at home without even getting the credit for it. She is socially and financially dependent on her husband and has to clean up his messes. Nobody asks her if she is okay or if she needs anything because she is expected to have no expectations of her own.

Traversing through the roles of the good daughter, wife and mother, her life is expected to be lived for the men in her life, and she always remains under their control. She has to adhere to the rules of the society she lives in, no matter how absurd she finds it and has to silence herself every time she feels frustrated.

The film tells us that physical violence is not the only form of domestic violence a woman has to encounter. There is a lot of mental guilt tripping and questioning of her honor involved. She is gaslit into apologizing for raising her voice, for asking questions. This kind of soft-spoken violence kills slowly and her frustration often remains invisible to an outsider.

A gradual development of this frustration is shown in the film, as the protagonist becomes more and more tired of carrying around the waste dumped by her husband and his father. The ending is amazing even though there’s absolutely no drama. She becomes tired of trying to make the perfect tea and ends up giving them the stock of their waste. She throws the leftover stock at her husband’s face (every patriarchal human must have felt drenched then), takes her bag and just walks out. There are no attempts to correct her husband and take him back, there is no begging. She leaves behind everything and goes back to her natal family who by the way, thanks to ingrained patriarchy, want her to apologize to her husband and go back.

She refuses, throws away the tumbler, shouts at her brother for making his sister get him water and groans in frustration. In the following scene, we see her as a confident, independent dance teacher choreographing her own life with her head held high. We are also shown that her ex-husband has gotten remarried. Despite claiming to have learnt his lessons from his previous marriage (which he calls a “rehearsal”), we see that he hasn’t mended his ways. It’s a vicious cycle, after all.

It’s scary, how patriarchy pervades the different institutions of society and is perpetrated through generations. The Great Indian Kitchen succeeds in its task of deconstructing these patriarchal notions and reminds us that filth does not lie in menstrual blood after all, but in people’s minds and their ideologies.

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Trying to figure out what to binge-watch next.

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