Malayalis really do go on (incessantly) about their cinema, and in their defence, they do churn out some of the really good ones. Therefore, it shall not surprise you, dear reader, that I spent my weekend watching The Great Indian Kitchen.
Kinda maybe sorta spoiler ahead — generally smart, holistically educated Malayali girl gets married into generally boomer, patriarchal doofus’ household where she is made to play the role of cook, waiter and maidservant to the men, while being denied the opportunity to work so she can be chained to this new role for eternity. Throw in a cup of period-stigma, a tablespoon of sexual abuse, a gallon of general oppression, with a sprinkle of religious bigotry and there you have it — the premise of the film, which needless to say, is the story of something so commonplace that all the film really had to do was give it some attention.
This isn’t a review. The only fact of relevance is that I loved the film and resonated deeply with it, as I had seen some of those scenarios play out in my very own household. I remembered an incident at my cousin’s wedding a month ago, wherein my stomach was burning from hunger and the accompanying acidity, but I was made to get up from my seat at the lunch table and offer it to a male member. To make matters worse, I had to accompany the women-folk in serving the very food I was yearning for to the men, and then run around at their beck and call for the second, third and fourth helpings. After what seemed like eons, their heavy burps put the lid on this batty activity. The older women then collected their banana leaves (dripping with gravy and morsels of rice), threw them, and then settled down to eat in the manly mess (a mess that only the males in my family are somehow allowed to make while eating). I remember that my hunger had turned into nausea by the time I finally sat down to eat with the other women.
The cringe-worthiness of the whole affair detailed above made me resolutely bring the movie up on my next video call with my parents (irrespective of the open sex-talk in the movie and other perilous things that I generally make no mention of to my parents, because Indian). You can imagine my utter shock when my mom got severely offended at the very mention of the movie.
“Oh please, I’ve read the reviews. What a load of nonsense! It’s completely exaggerated. I do not know a single woman who goes through that. They’ve portrayed our lives in such bad light, yadayada…”
I looked back at my life and couldn’t recall a single day when she wasn’t expected to juggle the roles of cook, caregiver, homemaker and high-school teacher. Granted she didn’t have it as bad as Nimisha Sajayan’s character did in the movie, but hers certainly wasn’t a life free from the clutches of patriarchy. Her own mother was denied the right to work when they were in Bombay, and was forced to cook and take care of the house and children. I recalled my ammamma’s sheer disdain towards cooking as she aged — the overly mushy vegetable stew, the coarsely chopped onions, the complete lack of salt — a travesty of the exemplary cooking skills she had been hailed for throughout her youth. I realized in that moment that old age had been her only escape. An excuse, finally, for retirement from the role she was forced to take up. I felt a little less scorn for that mushy vegetable stew.
I struggled to find a single woman in my mother’s life who did not go through at least a version of what the movie portrayed. And yet, here my mother was, vehemently rejecting the attention this issue deserved. I soon found out she wasn’t alone. Apparently, her opinion was quite common amongst the likes of moms everywhere. Friends and acquaintances shared similar experiences, wherein their mothers gave the movie the ultimate trashy rating (in the Indian context) by branding it an ‘art film’, and what not. This was quite on the contrary to the nationwide revolution I had expected the movie to spark, with women like my mom at the forefront. I was confounded, to say the least.
A few days later, I received a series of WhatsApp messages from my mom. In four shattering paragraphs, she had bared her soul. She spoke of the respect my generation received because we were allowed to place career before marriage — some of us earned as much or even more than our male partners. Here she was, fifty-five years old, carrying the guilt of not having studied hard enough and taking up a better-paying job, when the reality was that she hadn’t received even an ounce of the support generations below her had. She admitted that she had read the plot of the movie and found many parts where she could actually relate very strongly — she was not willing to disclose what those were. She just didn’t have the strength to watch it unfold on screen.
I wanted to give her a big hug. And I did, albeit virtually. Her words from a few days ago, the harsh reviews of other mothers branding it an art film — all white lies to protect their own sanity. I imagined a life spent normalising the patriarchy you are subject to, as a means of just surviving; only to have one godforsaken art-piece come and tell the world that you have only been a victim your entire life. To tell you that nothing about your life was normal — you have only lived a life of being wronged, constantly. When fifty years into this existence, you finally accept your life for what it has been and manage to smile genuinely through everything you have lived through, do you really want to go back and question what you have made peace with, only to go through the entire ordeal all over again?
That night, I understood why my mom didn’t even want to give the movie a chance. I understood her rage towards the very mention of it. And I’m happy. I’m happy that she does not want to carry regret. I’m happy that she has managed to be grateful for the life she has lived. I’m proud that I was born her daughter. And I’m privileged. To have watched this movie, and to have simply accepted, that I could relate.