Tag Archives: #nimishasajayan

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.


 

Does the Great Indian Kitchen Lead to the Great Indian Marriage?

While I ran about in the sprawling open courtyard of my mother’s house in a somewhat sleepy little village in rural North Bengal, I remember my granny sitting on a low stool cooking in the dimly-lit kitchen. It was already dusk and a few hours later, a tasty dinner was served. My parents had gone down to spend a few days during the Durga Puja holidays. 

After my mother’s family moved to Kolkata, I often used to visit my maternal uncle’s place. Here, the kitchen was big and bright, but granny still continued to cook. Her specialty was a chicken dish which no one ever in my family has been able to replicate. Maybe it was the spices she used or her loving and caring hands that were behind the deliciousness. 

Granny is now no more. She passed away a few years ago, but I still remember her chicken curry. Today, after watching The Great Indian Kitchen, a Malayalam movie earning rave reviews from critics, I realize how I never knew my real granny: what was she like, her likes, dislikes, desires, and aspirations. Maybe none of these things ever mattered to anyone in the family.

And this is what makes the ‘great Indian marriage’ such a fearsome thing to enter into, especially in an arranged marriage set up, where women are mostly expected to cook and clean and act submissive. Exceptions are always there. In my family, I have seen my father making tea, cooking rice, and even doing household work. An aunt of mine who lives in Delhi was horrified when she learned that I had praised her husband’s culinary skills in front of my other relatives. It was a most shameful thing for her and she reproached me for making the hush, hush fact “public”. 

I can understand her consternation, the great dilemma she felt because women are expected to cook for their families. Little do they realize that in doing so, they become fettered and chained forever. 

A scene from the Great Indian Kitchen.

I am no great cook, but I can make basic meals for myself and during the lockdown prepared a few dishes, among them egg biryani twice. My friend Neeraj, who is a great cook himself, keeps on sending me recipes and colorful snaps from his kitchen from time to time. He once taught me to cook the perfect rice over the phone. 

Cooking is art no doubt, but as the movie shows it can become a tedious routine. The movie’s female protagonist, Nimisha Sajayan who plays the docile wife and later leaves her husband to follow her dreams, is expected to cook rice on the firewood, besides making a variety of tasty dishes and serving food to the men. In almost all the scenes featuring her, she is shown cutting, chopping, and dicing vegetables, besides making hurried meals, attending to the faulty kitchen sink in need of urgent repair, cleaning up the kitchen, dusting, and washing her hands frequently.

I entered into a brief marriage only to regret it to this day. My in-laws expected me to shift to a small town where they lived, take up a part-time job or better still become a housewife and cook for the family whereas I wanted to pursue my dreams. So, I packed my bags and came to Delhi when I was offered a transfer. 

Cooking is not an issue. I prepare food for myself every day and quite enjoy doing it. But slaving away in the kitchen is quite another matter. In the movie, the men are shown relaxing, doing yoga, and reading newspapers whereas the women are portrayed tirelessly working in the kitchen. The most evocative scene in the film is the one where the women eat food at the table made dirty by the men with spilled over and chewed food. When the wife confronts her husband about it later at a restaurant over his bad table manners at home, he gets angry.

For most women, cooking and doing housework is a routine and they are not supposed to complain. It is for us to decide whether to follow our dreams or please the men. If you want the first, just let it go like I did eight years ago, or else give up on your desires and aspirations. 

My next-door neighbor back in Kolkata could not fry papad properly and they always used to get burnt. She was always the subject of criticism in the neighborhood, but nobody praised her ever for being an excellent teacher, her love for Bengali literature, and intelligent conversations. 

Women in our kitchens have become such a regular fixture that we never pause and question their narrowed existence. All my childhood memories are centered around the great Indian kitchen: my granny on her low stool, my father’s mother stirring the milk tea, my aunt chopping vegetables, my mother making sweet delicacies in winter, the neighborhood aunty (she was called Ronny’s mom after her son’s name as if her identity never mattered) making parathas so that we children could enjoy it on Sundays.

Welcome to the great Indian kitchen. If you don’t like it, you are free to leave like Nimisha’s character or me. After so many years, a remark by my erstwhile husband came back to me. He had remarked once, “You never served me tea (in Bengali of course).” But you see I was born to rule and not to serve. I served him coffee, of course, but he conveniently forgot all about it. But what I remember is that he never made either tea or coffee for me and that’s what made all the difference.


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.