The Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) available on Neestream, firmly brings the question of women in popular culture once again. The kitchen and by extension food in this film, is a metaphor for all that’s wrong with the sexual division of labour. It confronts us with the relevance of feminism, much against the generation’s willingness to shun the label ‘feminist’.

In the classroom I encounter many statements that begin with ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’, which suggests that feminism is a bad word, too radical, its connotations too heavy to bear. Caricatures reducing feminists to ‘men-bashing, men-hating hairy women’ have certainly not helped.

The Great Indian Kitchen is part of a culture which puts enormous emphasis on eating. Food brings people together, and takes them apart. Everyone likes to eat, but almost no one wants to cook. Much of our everyday lives and rituals revolve around food and food practices - you think of a life moment and there is a food custom and practice associated with it.

It is women who cook and serve up these rituals. The Everest Masala advertisement tells you that now even your mummy can make sambar as good as Mrs Reddy’s. Women’s Horlicks in their ad with Konkona Sen Sharma convince you that as a modern woman balancing household chores and work life, you must fortify yourself with their malt beverage to shoulder your responsibilities better…

The film chronicles the story of all women who are being circumscribed to different degrees: some with the allowance to study and work after marriage while managing home, and others confined to the house, restricted from stepping out or making careers. Every woman will find herself somewhere in this spectrum, with difficult negotiations they have had to make each day.

Writer and director Jeo Baby told the press how his own travails in the kitchen after marriage revealed the boring, tiring and repetitive nature of kitchen work which he quickly wanted to escape. It made him wonder about women who don’t have the choice to not do housework.

The film, set in contemporary Kerala, precisely shows the lived experience of one such woman. It begins with an arranged marriage being set up between two propertied families, with a groom who ironically teaches sociology at a school and a bride who is an aspiring dance teacher.

The frame and tone are set in the opening shots, of the woman dancing in a studio intercut with visuals of steaming bananas and deep fried paniyarams (rice and dal rounds) and pazham pori (bananas fried in flour) to be served to the prospective groom and family.

What follows the marriage are nauseating visuals of food being cooked from morning to night. Piping hot dosas, simmering sambar and fresh coconut chutney prepared laboriously on the ammi kallu grindstone for breakfast; rice cooked slow on firewood and iddiyappams with stew, curry and veggies for lunch; and rotis and more curries for dinner, with the spices painstakingly ground using mortar and pestle.

Her life is now clocked around the food that must be prepared at all mealtimes. This is followed by waiting on her husband and father-in-law, after which the mother-in-law and new bride get to eat. The table where food is served is a testament to the aftermath of the men’s gastronomical exploits, littered with chewn-off drumsticks to be picked up and cleaned by the women.

The nightly ritual of cleaning the kitchen and washing utensils makes you dizzy just watching it. By night, the film also reveals the conjugal relations common to many couples – something the film Lipstick Under my Burkha also alluded – that women in marriage exist to service men’s sexual needs, with no question of being tired or not in the mood. Her suggestion of foreplay as she finds the sex too painful is dismissed with contempt, and she is looked at suspiciously for even having this knowledge.

The sexual division of labour in the house is rather strict. Each day the husband comes and sips tea in the kitchen while she cooks and he looks on, and later leaves to practise his yoga and get ready for work. The father-in-law seems to have retired, and lounges on the chair all day reading the newspaper. In the mornings his wife brings him his toothbrush after dutifully applying toothpaste on it. Before he leaves home to loiter and gossip outside, his wife brings his shoes and keeps them in front of his feet. This is not a stretch, I have known of men who ask their wives to tie their shoelaces because they never bothered to learn. When they were younger it was their mothers and now it’s their wives…

At home, the father-in-law spends his time scrolling mindlessly through his smartphone, and watching Whatsapp videos, while his wife slaves and labours in the kitchen on the grinding stone (because her husband prefers hand-ground chutneys and spices). The shots of the man’s yoga poses in the morning intercut with the woman making breakfast in the kitchen just break your heart and boil your blood.

After every meal the women always eat the leftover food, it’s just the right amount of fortification needed to cook the next meal. The pleasures of eating are not available to women or enjoyed by them, only the dis(pleasures) of cooking is theirs to own and claim.

Things come to head when the mother-in-law travels to tend to her daughter who is pregnant and about to deliver. This leaves the new girl to manage the household without any help from the men. The drudgeries of housework, cleaning, washing clothes, and strenuous cooking, are intermixed with the lives of men that never change.

Around the same time she wishes to apply for a position as a dance teacher and is dissuaded by the father-in-law who says it’s not allowed in the family, explaining that his own wife is a post-graduate who stays at home. The husband is of no help either and advises her against applying.

The rigid sexual confinement of labour where the women in the house wait on the men, run the kitchen, serve the food, clean the house, wash the clothes and are denied the opportunity to go work outside, all coalesce into pushing her over the edge. The tipping point is when she gets her period, and is not allowed to cook or enter the kitchen, and ‘help’ is called – which tells you that the women can change, but the work at home is always theirs to do.

Later, when the father-in-law and son take the oath for pilgrimage, she is not allowed to see them or touch them or serve them, and is made to spend her days in the outhouse as she is considered ‘impure’. This is perhaps the final nail in the coffin, and makes her reflect on traditions, customs and norms which do nothing but produce restrictions on her and her body.

Along with the food, heaps of chai are brewed in the house at all points. One such fateful day, when she is rueing the shape and form of her life, an insensitive order from her husband to make tea for guests galvanises her into action and she makes a bolt for it. Back at her parents’ home, there is no convincing her to go back to that dehumanising life.

The film ends with the girl, presumably now working as a dance teacher, mentoring a set of students in their final rehearsal before a performance. The husband has remarried and his new wife cooks in the kitchen while he looks on, sipping tea. Everything has changed, nothing has changed: the chores remain the same, the women keep changing.

Her desire to move out of the domestic sphere and gain independence is precisely what produces anxiety among most families. If the woman doesn’t have to look toward the men for money, how will they control her? This unfettered freedom will make her question her role in the family, and the roles of others as well. The choices for women then are either to get married and not work, or to work and still take care of the house and family, or not to get married at all.

This world’s demands on women are typified in one enduring image: the woman using her laptop to apply for a job against a backdrop of rice being cooked on firewood. The aspect of men cooking comes up twice in the film: once as professional chefs in a restaurant, a job profile that values this work, and second, when men cook for leisure, almost exceptionally to amuse themselves once in a while, leaving behind the aftermath of their experiments and play.

In a recent judgement awarding compensation to the relatives of a couple who died in an accident, the Supreme Court’s observation that women’s contribution to the household in rendering unpaid domestic services is comparable to men’s work outside, certainly helps in ascribing value to the work women put into the household. But it does not take us far. It tells us that women’s unpaid labour at home should be valued, but the sexual division of labour and labourers may continue, perhaps with more respect.

The Great Indian Kitchen is an important film, not because it tells us something new, but because it tells us that this still continues to happen, in subliminal ways, couched in the language of expectations, pressures, and a peculiar operation of the family. As I said to my husband recently, if men are so unwilling to enter the kitchen, maybe it’s time we do away with the kitchen altogether?

Aakriti Kohli is a documentary filmmaker and teaches journalism at Delhi University