From the predominant Hindi-Urdu cinema to the varied regional language ones, the many cinemas of India have historically attempted to engage with diverse issues swirling around gender, tackling them via different filmic modes of the popular, the art and the avant-garde. In addressing the divergent issues around gender, from the historical to the contemporary—child marriages, purdah, access to education, female foeticide and infanticide, dowry, sexual violence, parity in healthcare and employment, property rights, sexual autonomy, and political/legal reforms—one key aspect of gender inequity has been entirely eclipsed. It is the overwhelming gender disparity of performing unpaid domestic and caretaking labour that sits exclusively on the shoulders of the women in almost all Indian households.
A new regional cinema, primarily ascending from the South, is beginning to foreground this issue, forever blotted out from cinematic and televisual representations. The 2021 Malayalam film, The Great Indian Kitchen, directed by Jeo Baby is the most inventive example of this audacious engagement. It is important to acknowledge that this trailblazing film arises from several transformational socio-cultural factors. I briefly address three predominant ones.
ALSO READ: The Irresistible Rise Of Popular South Indian Cinema In The Pan-Indian Market
First, there is a broader churning in Indian regional cinemas to engage with disadvantaged social and political identities around intersecting factors of gender, caste, religion, ethnicity, class, sexuality and disability. While this trend is apparent in certain Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi films; it is Tamil and Malayalam cinema that are heralding radical representational strategies to break new ground in their engagement with caste and gender. For instance, a considerable number of disparate women-centric Tamil films have emerged recently: Maya (2015, Ashwin Saravana), 36 Vayadhinil (At the age of 36), Rosshan Andrrews, 2015), Iraivi (Goddess Karthik Subbaraj, 2016), Irudhi Suttru (Final Round, Sudha Kongara, 2016, filmed simultaneously in Hindi as Saala Khadoos), Aramm (Virtue Gopi Nainar, 2017) and Magalir Mattum (Ladies Only, Bramma, 2017).
ALSO READ: Southern Surge: Film Industries Of South Are Doing What Bollywood Used To Do In 70s & 80s, Even Better
Second, Jeo Baby’s filmography inaugurated in 2016, completely emanates in the context of the ‘New Generation’ Malayalam film movement, emerging in the early 2010s. Scholars of Malayali cinema have identified this movement as inaugurating new themes, trends and techniques, influenced both by the rich history of Malayalam cinema as well as contemporary global cinema. The movement appears to recall dually, albeit to different degrees, the Malayalam art cinemas of the 1970s, helmed by prominent auteurs such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Govindan Aravindan; and ‘middle-stream’ cinema of the 1980s that combined parallel and commercial elements to forge the popularity of filmmakers such as Padmarajan, Bharathan and Lenin Rajendran. The New Generation films, departing from the conventional ‘superstar’ system of Mollywood (led by the likes of Mohanlal and Mammootty), have ushered in new urban and middle class themes where ordinary people are the heroes.
ALSO READ: Starved Of Fresh Content, Bollywood Is Desperately Looking For New Ideas
Third, in this New Generation movement, a subset of films has emerged where women have come to occupy the centre of the cinematic frame. Examples of such films with strong, unconventional female protagonists in the last decade are: 22 Female Kottayam (Aashiq Abu, 2012); How Old Are you? (Rosshan Andrrews, 2014); Rani Padmini (Aashiq Abu, 2015); Ramante Edanthottham (Raman’s Garden of Eden, Ranjith Sankar, 2017); Uyare (Up Above, Manu Ashokan, 2019) and Biriyaani (Saajan Babu, 2020). Another set, related to the subset, targets toxic masculinity and disrupts misogyny and patriarchy in films such as Chaappa Kurish (Heads or Tails, Sameer Thahir, 2011); Ozhimuri (Divorce Record, Madhupal, 2012); Kumabalangi Nights (Madhu Narayanan, 2019); and Ishq (Anuraj Manohar, 2019).
ALSO READ: OTTs Are The New Mainstream, Here's How
Focalising gender and domestic labour
The very next frame after the Censor Board Certificate in the The Great Indian Kitchen reads, ‘Thanks Science’. If this is our first cue that the film will hack down superstitious traditions, our second cue—the tender lyrics of the song accompanying the credits—states this may be a woman’s story: a woman who enjoys music and dances. The film then begins with a tight close-up of the female protagonist who joyously dances for a mere four seconds before the narrative cuts to a shot of food being deep fried. In the subsequent shots, the narrative cuts back and forth between our dancing protagonist (progressing from close-ups to long shots) and close-ups of food being steamed, deep fried and cubed. In the next sequence, we learn that this is food being prepared by the family of the protagonist for a pennu kaanal, a social custom in an arranged marriage setup where a potential groom sees the girl for the first time.
ALSO READ: Contrasting Ideas Of Nationalism In Indian Cinema In 50s
The grammar of parallel edit, introduced in this opening sequence, becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of Jeo Baby and his editor Francies Louis throughout the film, to lacerate the invisible bedrock of patriarchy. In sequence after sequence, the shots crosscut between women in the film who cook, clean and care toiling amidst oppressive heat and humidity; and men who practice yoga, read newspapers, scroll of their phone, play cards, and nap on easy chairs. The film insists on bearing witness to the two lines of action along gender boundaries: men eat fresh, elaborate meals while women sprint between the blazing kitchen stove and the dining table to cook for and serve the men.
ALSO READ: How Dubbing Has Contributed To The Growth Of South Indian Movies
The primary setting of the film is an ancestral home of an upper caste, middle class, religious Hindu family along the Malabar coast in Kozhikode, Kerala. But as the film progresses, we realise that the setting could be any home, in any part of India. It then gives the narrative a searing impetus to not name our central protagonists: the newly wed wife played by the talented Nimisha Sajayan, and the diffident husband played with subtlety by actor Suraj Venjaramoodu.
ALSO READ: ‘Dalithood’ In Kollywood: The Dalit Magic In Tamil Cinema
In this story of Everyman and Everywoman, the latter is easily replaceable, as long as her unpaid labour can be replicated by another woman. When the mother-in-law has to travel to take care of her expectant daughter, the daughter-in-law is expected to embrace all the left-behind labour that includes handing the father-in-law his toothbrush. When the menstruating daughter-in-law is relegated to seclusion, the declassed domestic help Usha and later, an aged aunt, are recruited to ensure a continuity of domestic labour such that men are not inconvenienced. Finally, when Everywoman walks out of the oppressive household, Everyman marries another woman, who coyly makes dosas for his breakfast while he leisurely sips his tea. The new Everywoman washes the teacup after Everyman, in a scathing 16-second close-up of the newly wedded hands that perform the grind of domesticity. Domestic labour has then been deftly transferred to maintain the due order of patriarchy.
Astutely, Jeo Baby does not end the film there. We return to the trajectory of Sajayan’s character who is supervising a dance rehearsal by her students having driven to the venue in a red car. The car is a financial asset that she presumably owns and is claiming ownership of, likely, for the first time in her life. Opening lines of the song, which the students perform, proclaim: “You are Earth’s music, its form/When you personify valour/A flame that refuses to be put out/You light up this world…” The film ends with a close-up of Sajayan’s character, clapping robustly at the end of her student’s rehearsal, but we instantly realise that this applause is as much for herself as her students.
ALSO READ: Demigods Of South Indian Cinema
The Great Indian Kitchen is audacious not only in centralising the injustices of unpaid domestic labour by women, but also dares to mount the sexual labour by women and focalise social and cultural stigmas around menstruation, thereby overtly referencing the Sabarimala temple agitations. It is likely that connection to this controversy initially saw the film being rejected by both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and being directly released on Neestream, a Malayalam streaming platform. Three months after this release, Amazon Prime Video acquired the rights for the film, and the satellite rights were later purchased by Asianet. The film went on to win Best Film and the Best Screenplay awards at the 51st Kerala State Film Awards and received an enthusiastic critical reception even among Indian diaspora.
Even though sensational gendered issues such as sexual violence have enjoyed a consistent cinematic representation, it has taken a very long time for Indian cinema to spotlight the gender inequity of domestic and caretaking labour. An Indian woman puts an average of 352 minutes per day into domestic work, while men put in a mere 51.8. The global value of unpaid domestic labour by women stands at about 13 per cent, but in India it is 40 per cent of its current GDP. In the 2011 Indian Census, 159.9 million women stated that household work was their main occupation and were thus considered non-workers, making 49 per cent of women in a country of 1.3 billion people not having their work accounted for. The Great Indian Kitchen then serves a clarion call to make visible the invisible.
(Views expressed are personal)
Strength Of A Woman: Why South Indian Filmmakers Are Willing To Bet Big On Their Heroines
I’m Driven By Fear Of Complacency: S.S. Rajamouli
OTT Is Just Like IPL, It Introduced More Opportunities For Talent In Indian Cinema
The Great Mollywood Kitchen: How OTTs Empower Regional Cinemas To Compete With Bollywood
‘Indian’ Cinema And Dravida Nadu
Diary Of A South Indian Growing Up In The Hindi Heartland
Priyadarshini Shanker is an assistant professor of film studies at university of north carolina wilmington