Tag Archives: #JyotiMinocha

Rebellion Simmers Alongside Curries In The Great Indian Kitchen

Every woman, who has slaved in the kitchen like her grandmother and great grandmother before her, nurturing her family with the hard labor of her cooking and care, day after day, year after ceaseless year needs to watch Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen.  This film makes dry statistics leap out of the screen. A 2020 Gallup poll found that women still did a majority of household chores in the USA, which is supposed to be a bastion of gender equality.

 If American women can’t get their partners to share in mundane chores at home, what chance do Indian women have in traditional settings?

The Great Indian Kitchen addresses the subtleties of gender inequality with a strong feminist message; but it’s less about flashy, strident feminist rebellion in short skirts, and more about the nuances of self-respect shredding and sweaty, grueling hours of labor being taken for granted,  simply because you’re female.

The film is in Malayalam and I don’t speak the language, but that didn’t detract from the essence and great acting.  It didn’t reduce the subtlety and realism of the emotions as a young Malayalee girl with a fierce independent streak, grapples with the reality of an arranged marriage into a conservative family.

Nimisha Sajayan plays the new bride. She is a typical middle-class girl in Kerala raised in a relatively liberal household. She blooms with happiness when her marriage is arranged to the young groom (Suraj Vengaramoodu.) Nimisha is attracted to this stranger who will be her husband. He is soft-spoken, as is the rest of his family, and Nimisha is eager to please her new in-laws in the way many Indian women are conditioned to. 

She doesn’t mind the weight of household chores expected of her almost immediately. The movie creates a clever, visual impact, scene after scene, of a loaded, dripping kitchen sink, constant washing and cleaning up of messes that men in the family left behind, and of Nimisha sweating over a stove, making endless cups of tea for her husband and father-in-law. 

In the beginning, Nimisha’s mother-in-law helps with the daily drudgery, but when she goes away to her daughter, the household burdens fall on Nimisha

A major strength of the plot’s message is the lack of drama.

Nimisha isn’t abused – she is cajoled and shamed when she doesn’t live up to her in-law’s narrow, self-serving expectations. Her new husband takes her for granted and isn’t sensitive to her burden. 

Innumerable Indian women will identify with the slow stoking of Nimisha’s rage as she is manipulated and sometimes overtly humiliated in a way that is considered socially acceptable. In one scene, a cousin who is visiting her in-laws with his wife tells Nimisha off for giving him black tea without cardamom or spices. He lectures her on the recipe, puts his wife down when she attempts a feeble defense of Nimisha’s tea-making skills and offers to have the men take over the kitchen for cooking duties that day. 

Switch to scene two – the men have cooked and eaten but left dirty plates on the table for Nimisha to clear. The kitchen is a disaster of dirty pots and spilled food, doubling the work for Nimisha. When she finally brings tea for the men and excuses herself to go clean the kitchen, the cousin laughs and says, “What work, we did the cooking today!” Scenes like these, of ordinary, everyday insensitivity with which female audiences will immediately identify, are the reason the Great Indian Kitchen has a four-star rating.

In a nod to the Indian Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to strike down the Sabarimala temple edict (which banned women of menstruating age on their premises), the film also takes on traditional superstitious rituals – like the banishment of women from the kitchen during their periods. Nimisha has to shut herself in a little room when she has her period and suffers the humiliation of being treated like a leper. As events pile up, and the grueling hamster wheel of daily household chores continues unabated, the movie speeds toward its climax.

The end is inevitable, and when it comes, there is shock and catharsis and a wise nodding of heads. The irony at the end is a perfect coda to Nimisha’s saga. 

The Great Indian Kitchen is available to stream on Neestream.


Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents.


 

A Desi Teen Finds Her Mojo in Skater Girl

The most recent movie about Indian villagers playing an unlikely sport because a Western benefactor taught it to them was Million Dollar Arm, about a baseball team being recruited from poor and talented Indian youth. Skater Girl is the feminist version of this trope—an underprivileged teen girl from a backward village discovers an unusual sport, and her life is transformed by the miracle of this exposure.  Her western guides are compassionate saviors, and western audiences can watch the poverty in the movie with an unblemished conscience.

Skater Girl caught my attention because skateboarding was such an original and unlikely activity to be adopted in an Indian village. It’s still considered the ultimate American thrill ride, masquerading as a sport.  When the movie began I assumed that the British-Indian character called Jessica, (played by Amy Maghera) is the savior-heroine who will discover a prodigy in an Indian backwater and, through the generous beneficence of her patronage, the poor little Indian girl’s life will be transformed.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the girl in question wasn’t presented as a prodigy at all, but as a girl terrified of falling off the skateboard.  And her white friend is less of a savior than a helpful friend who is battling her own identity crisis.

Prerna, (played by newcomer Rachel Saaanchita Gupta) is a teenager in a backward Rajasthani village with a tailor-made oppressively patriarchal family. Her father is an impoverished peanut farmer who refuses to let his wife work to supplement the family income, so Prerna is pulled out of school to help with the selling of peanuts.

Prerna yearns to be in class with her peers but is restricted by her father and, on the few occasions, she does attend, by her lack of basics, like a uniform and textbooks. Enter Jessica,  a British-Indian woman of mixed parentage, who comes to Prerna’s village looking for some sort of catharsis through a connection to her deceased father’s birthplace.

While wandering around the village, she encounters Prerna and her little, lovable imp of a brother Ankush (Shafin Patel), who drags around an improvised, homemade go-cart that resembles a skateboard except that he sits on it. The children are taken with Jessica who comes up with the idea of teaching them how to skate. Soon she has an entire village of children trailing her on makeshift boards and she eventually spends her own money to equip them with the real thing.

There is the inevitable culture clash between stuffy village elders and this band of nascent young skaters overrunning the village and crashing into shops and homes and people. When ‘No Skating Allowed’ signs are put up by the local bureaucrats, Jessica devises an ambitious scheme – enlisting the help of her skater friends in India to build a skate park for the village children.

The film takes the siblings on a route that is as predictably planned as a skate park’s manufactured ramps, right up to its conveniently orchestrated ending. Of course, Prerna’s oppressive father is against the skating adventure and the plot revolves around all the chips stacked against her because she’s a girl. The movie crams in a lot of social issues––when an upper caste boy in her school gets friendly with Prerna, we get a dose of the caste hierarchies that still exist in Indian villages.

However, the main point it makes–– of a psychological barrier suddenly crumbling in a young girl’s mind and opening a whole new and exciting dimension of reality for her is what gives the film some originality.

Prerna doesn’t become a champion skater—she learns to become the champion of her own life and desires. Skating becomes a metaphor for freedom.

After overcoming her initial fear of falling and embarrassing herself, she begins to feel uninhibited by any roadblocks in her way, including oppressive customs.

Rachel Gupta who plays Prerna infuses the role with incredible charm as she zips along the narrow village lanes with the most endearing grin of delight ever seen in a movie. We see her become more emboldened, and more able to stand up to her father’s sexism.

Skater Girl is surprisingly engaging: there are many winsome and nuanced touches in the movie which offset some of its predictability. In one scene, Jessica asks Prerna what she wants to be when she grows up. She’s baffled by the question because she’s never imagined a future for herself separate from what her parents have planned. In another realistic touch, one of the immediate questions Prerna has for Jessica after she discovers her age (30), is why she isn’t married. In her world, being unwed at 30 is unthinkable, perhaps the sign of a serious, invisible disability?

Another poignant moment is when Prerna’s mother, who secretly sympathizes with her daughter’s skateboarding adventures despite her husband’s fury, asks her daughter, “What do you feel when you are on the board? Why is it so special?”

Prerna replies, “I feel as if it is mine, something I can do all by myself where there are no rules and no one to control me. I feel like I’m gliding in the sky.” In those simple words, one can glimpse lifetimes of repressed womanhood, particularly in small Indian villages.

The movie rides on the backs of excellent performances by Rachel Gupta and Shafin Patel and by the originality and energy of the visuals— raucous village kids skating down narrow dusty lanes, crashing into tiny tea shops and crusty, shouting elders. Gupta and Patel are lovable and inhabit their roles so completely that one is hooked to watching even though, after the first half-hour, there are as many clichés littering the scenes as there are skateboards. The sheer enthusiasm the band of local children recruited as actors brings to the movie is infectious.

Manjari Makijany, who directed the movie and co-authored the script with her sister Vinati Makijany, had a skating park built in the village in Rajasthan where the movie was filmed, and it remains as a gift to the children of the village. However, I feel I want to know more about whether any lives were genuinely changed by the arrival of the film crew, the filming, and their whole novel skateboarding-as-a-metaphor-for-freedom concept in this backwater, tucked away in Rajasthan. I would suggest Ms. Makijany do a follow-up documentary so that we know that the park didn’t just become another misplaced monument dedicated to dog poop and stray cows.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.


 

My Bones Just Lit Up Says Indira Ahluwalia About Her Battle With Cancer

Indira Ahluwalia is tall and graceful with a warm, welcoming smile. She’s the picture of wellness and good health, or so you’d think.  Her story, however, is about an illness that inspires dread, but it’s a remarkable and inspiring one.

In 2007 Indira was told she had metastatic breast cancer which had spread to her bones. She did not have long to live. But since that devastating diagnosis 13 years ago, Indira has beaten the odds and has not simply lived, but thrived.

Her  forthcoming book, Fast Forward to Hope, describes the tortuous, but ultimately awe inspiring journey through the dark crevices of her disease, and the toolkits for survival she developed which she firmly believes, contributed to her recovery.

“I remember the day I went to my gynecologist’s office so well,” Indira says. “I had coped with a terrible back pain for weeks and was walking around with a cane. I had an appointment with an orthopedic doctor but then a new symptom appeared. I felt this awful shaft of pain from the underside of my right nipple all the way up my arm; it was a live, electric wire thing, and it prompted me to make an appointment with Dr. Maser, my obstetrician-gynecologist, immediately.”

That trip led to an immediate mammogram which diagnosed her breast cancer and her doctor insisted she get a PET scan.

“I had already been through an MRI for my back pain, but without contrast, and it didn’t show anything. But when I had the PET scan, my bones just lit up,” Indira recalls. “Dr. Maser, an incredibly supportive doctor, came out and held my hand and said to me “promise me you’re going to fight.”

The full meaning of what it meant to have the cancer in your bones didn’t hit Indira till later.

“I visualized a tiny, pinkie size spot somewhere, and was horrified when I saw the spread.”

The process of getting the right diagnosis is one of the first lessons in Indira’s book.

“My father had colon cancer and we were very conscious of taking care of our health and testing on time. I began having colonoscopies when I was 35. But I was 38 and had never had a mammogram. I simply didn’t see the connection or imagined it was a risk at my age. I didn’t know at the time that there is a genetic connection between colon cancer and breast cancer. It’s important not to underestimate your risk in any area, was the first lesson I learned. It’s also important to get every technologically advanced current diagnostic test done. My MRI without contrast hadn’t picked up the cancer in my bones.

Her second lesson was about the will to survive. At the time, her children were young: her son was 3, her daughter had just turned 5. After going through every stage of grief – denial, shock, anger and finally, acceptance, – Indira came to the conclusion that dying before she raised her children was simply not an option.

“You have to believe in what you want the outcome of your illness to be,” Indira says. “I had a simple choice – living or dying – and I was determined not to die. You also have to commit yourself to healing and not let a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness overtake you. I had some very low points in my treatment, when I had to actively cultivate my faith in the positive outcome I wanted – beating back the cancer. There is an enormous capacity all of us carry within us for self-healing and we need to believe in it, with gratitude and humility.”

 Indira’s strong conviction about the healing power of positive thinking is borne out by recent research that supports the power of optimism and faith in changing the course of serious illness.  She also found that being open about one’s suffering and disease brought enormous rewards.

“The first thing that comes to my mind from my ordeal is the goodness of people,” Indira declares. “I knew there was a stigma associated with cancer, but I was open about my illness and I was overwhelmed by the response I got from all sorts of people – friends, family, staff, clients, my children’s Montessori teachers, unknown strangers. She believes that given and opportunity, even random strangers offer unconditional kindness and compassion.”

She recounts a particularly moving incident. On a cab ride from her office in Ballston, the cab driver surprised Indira with a, “Oh, my God, it’s you!”  He explained he’d driven her home some months ago, “…. you were talking to your doctor and you’ve been in my prayers ever since.”

“It was the simple humanity of his words which really touched me,” Indira says.

“Another of my primary anchors was my faith,” affirms Indira. “I believe in the Sikh tenet of Chardi Kala which is, essentially, cultivating a state of eternal optimism as one goes into battle. And I was going into battle with my cancer, with all the resources I could muster, including my state of mind.”

Her doctor told Indira he had used her first diagnostic scan from thirteen years ago and her most recent scan, to teach a class of medical students. He presented them as scans for separate individuals. His students diagnosed the thirteen year old scan as that of a patient unlikely to live, but gave the latest scan a great prognosis. His students were astonished when they heard that both scans belonged to the same person.

“My doctor told me that they needed to bottle the magical elixir I’ve used to beat back my cancer and distribute it to all his cancer patients,” Indira recalls.

 “I’ve tried to share what I learned about my magical elixir in the book,” Indira says.” Writing it was a cathartic process and it lays out the essentials in terms of harnessing the science of your disease along with your faith and your social network, and creating your personal anti-cancer army. I really hope I can help others who may be going through a similar trauma. My advice to them: choose yourself and visualize your cure with all your heart.”

Indira’s book, Fast Forward to Hope, will be out in late April 2021 and will be available on Amazon and in Barnes and Noble and local bookstores.


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents