Indian women are subjected to the brunt of domestic labor. In director Jeo Baby’s Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), we see this explored. Baby uses neo-realism to portray the daily life of a savarna Malayali woman, and her experiences with gendered domestic labor – as well as gender’s intersections with caste and religion.
The Great Indian Kitchen, typical of Malayalam film, expertly creates a realistic environment in order to portray gendered labor. The plot is rather simple – an educated dancer from Bahrain (Nimisha Sajayan) marries a teacher in Kerala (Suraj Venjaramoodu). She moves in with his family, who adhere to traditional and patriarchal religious and cultural norms. The nameless protagonist has a repetitive daily life, doing all the domestic labor without much help or appreciation from the family. This is shown through subtle ways that will strike a chord with many Indian viewers – the constant sweat on her clothes and her demure and frightened mannerisms in front of her husband. When another family visits, the men offer to do the cooking and let the women rest – however, it is the protagonist who ends up doing the work of cleaning the filthy mess they made in the kitchen and dining room. The film ends with a catharsis and self-liberation for the protagonist, with her dumping waste water on her husband and leaving him in order to work a job the men prevented her from doing – a situation which isn’t achievable for the majority of Indian women.
The film is an effective portrayal of gendered domestic labor, with powerful social commentary on brahmanical patriarchy, but the analysis of class, caste, and religion are equally as important as a gender analysis of the film. The framing of the family in The Great Indian Kitchen as an upper caste (presumably Nair) family is integral to understanding the film, especially in the context of brahmanical patriarchy and Kerala politics. Political and social theorist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is often quoted as saying that all women, including upper caste women, are shudras (servant/labor class). This is seen in Manusmriti, the framework for much of Hindu society’s laws and customs, stating that “it is the duty of all husbands to exert total control over their wives.”
The purity culture of caste and Hindu patriarchy are combined when we see the protagonist not allowed in the kitchen for the week because she is on her period. She is locked in her room and treated akin to a prisoner in her own home. The purity politics surrounding periods is one that is strongest in upper caste households.
In some ways, the Bahujan woman is more liberated than the savarna woman. While we see this in the restrictions by caste, gender and religion imposed on the film’s wife, we also see it from other characters. There is a maid who helps out at their house sometimes, and she is likely from a lower caste, which shows how Bahujan women are doubly subject to domestic labor. However, the Bahujan woman is independent, is outside of the shackles of her home, and is getting paid (even if unfairly) for her labor.
The political backdrop of the film is the Sabarimala women’s entry issue. Women were traditionally not allowed to enter the temple. The family in the film supports this tradition, as they are devout Ayyappan devotees. The wife despises the traditionalism of her family, sharing feminist videos on Facebook to the community and family’s anger. It is through this that Baby highlights the specific restrictions and patriarchal norms imposed on Hindu women, especially in upper caste families that subscribe to the Hindu notions of purity and gender.
Additionally, the ending is a possibility restricted to only some women. The wife was educated enough to find her own job and reach financial independence, allowing her to walk out of the house. This isn’t possible for the majority of women in India, especially lower caste and the non-college educated majority. While in this context, the woman throwing waste water onto the men who kept her down and walking out released her from the shackles of her own home, women’s liberation will look different for lower-caste women from different backgrounds.