Last year, I saw Gamak Ghar, a Marathi film that told the story of a home and several generations that lived in it entirely through images, human behaviour, mundane day-to-day activities, and minimal dialogues. It got me thinking why nobody attempted something similar in Malayalam cinema recently. Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen, streaming on NeeStream, is the answer to that. It’s the real deal. It’s a masterclass on how to present a stark portrait of reality without any gimmicks whatsoever. It goes back to the very basics of filmmaking — relying purely on image and sound to bombard us with one uncomfortable truth after another. Here’s a film that addresses the politics of gender, kitchen, and bedroom while managing to be incredibly subtle.
When we first meet Suraj and Nimisha as a young couple about to tie the knot, we see two shy, awkward individuals — total strangers wondering what to say to each other. But this is just the beginning. Although they manage to get past that initial awkwardness that affects most couples, we rarely find them having a long, meaningful conversation.
Jeo puts Nimisha in the kitchen for most of the runtime, but never once did I feel bored. We see certain activities repeated, again and again. But there is a purpose behind every shot and action, unlike those films where a character watches paint dry, and you start questioning its significance. There is none of that here.
Have you ever wondered what the women in your family thought of men leaving food waste outside their plates — on the table, that too? Or how they dealt with food debris clogging a kitchen sink — or a leaking drainpipe — or a stinking waste bucket? There is a stretch where the camera observes Nimisha trying to manage an ugly situation in the kitchen from a certain angle. She experiences the same again in a later segment of the film. The second time, though, the camera observes her from above, and we go, “Ugh!” There is another moment where the camera goes wide to give us sufficient time to take in all the dreary details of her kitchen. But, unlike her, we are spared of her misery for an extended time.
We are not spared, however, of its psychological after-effect on the wife. She is thinking about this in the middle of sex. She is distracted. The stink hasn’t left the palm of her hand. Will she have to deal with the same situation tomorrow?
Will the husband forget to call the plumber? Terrifying thoughts, these. We get another clinically framed sex scene which elicits a much stronger psychological reaction than the last one. Now we are being bombarded with multiple gross images from the kitchen in quick succession. We go “Ugh!” a few times. My mind immediately remembered the emotional turmoil of Eric Bana in the sex scene from Steven Spielberg’s Munich.
But it’s not just the kitchen issues plaguing her sex life. The situation in the bedroom is even worse. The crisis becomes magnified when she tells her husband that she has been experiencing pain while “doing it” and that “some foreplay would help”. The biggest irony comes in the form of the husband’s profession. He is a school teacher giving a lesson on “family values” and “building the foundation of a family” and whatnot. If you think the worst is over, wait for the part where the wife is forced into ‘quarantine’ to keep the men observing fast during the Sabarimala season pure. And you know what’s scary? Many homes are still not free of this centuries-old ‘disease’.
Besides Gamak Ghar which I mentioned earlier, this film also reminded me of a 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman. But thankfully, Jeo didn’t need four hours to convey his ideas. He does that in less than 100 minutes. Every picture in the film speaks a thousand words.
Take, for instance, the final moments where Nimisha is walking past a peaceful protest where a group of women demand the safeguarding of age-old Sabarimala-related rituals. Look closely to find a drawing of Che Guevara on the wall of the adjacent bus stop. The other notable aspect is how seemingly insignificant characters say the most impactful lines. For instance, a co-worker tells Suraj that he has come across a ‘swami’ who takes off his sacred chain while drinking.
What’s most impressive about The Great Indian Kitchen is how it creates so much tension without using a single piece of music. Jeo avoids the tendency of using a musical cue to elicit emotions. The actors’ body language is enough to inform us of their thoughts. And when you have actors like Suraj and Nimisha, you know a filmmaker is in safe hands. This film serves as a testament of the remarkable evolution of Suraj and Nimisha into two of Malayalam cinema’s finest actors.
Their dialogues are not loud, and yet, so effective. There is a notably tense moment where Nimisha questions why Suraj has impeccable table manners at a posh restaurant, but not at their home. He quietly makes it known that she has no right to question her and he’ll do whatever he damn pleases. It’s a chilling scene. She is now guilty and has no option but to apologise to him later.
The Great Indian Kitchen also sheds light on a complex problem — the patriarchal conditioning of older women. On the one hand, we see women conditioned to believe that being a housewife is “good for the children”; on the other hand, we see women forced to eliminate all thoughts that would liberate them, such as finding a job. How do we find a solution for this? The husband and father in the film are so outdated that you start wondering if they are from another planet.
The most haunting shot in The Great Indian Kitchen doesn’t feature any people; just photographs and sounds. We see a wall carrying pictures of married couples from different generations, and we hear the sounds of household chores alongside. The most uplifting shot appears in the finale. We see a dance class. The students are dancing to music that is energetic, full of life. It’s the sound of liberation — apt for the woman standing in front applauding them.
This film made me want to talk to every woman in my family and ask them how they handled their frustrations and why some of them never dared to question their men? I hope every man and woman — married or not — see this film, and I hope the women who have been in similar situations find it therapeutic. This is the first great Malayalam film of 2021.
Film: The Great Indian Kitchen
Director: Jeo Baby
Cast: Nimisha Sajayan, Suraj Venjaramood
Streaming on: NeeStream