January 28, 2021
At the beginning of the Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen, a man (T. Suresh Babu) asks his new daughter-in-law (played by a tremendously expressive Nimisha Sajayan) whether she has ground the chamandi (chutney) by hand. She confesses that she has used a mixer. He tells her that’s fine: “Why strain yourself grinding chutney by hand?” And we, the audience, are lulled into a false sense of security. Here is a tolerant household.
That is part of the nuanced beauty of director Jeo Baby’s film. Although it was released this year, it feels eternally relevant to South Indian women. The horror unfolds slowly. The film has the pace of a boat on the Kerala backwaters: it is more documentary than drama. A young woman comes to her husband’s house and spends her days cooking and cleaning. On its face, it does not seem like the worst fate in the world.
And it isn’t, at first. But when her mother-in-law leaves, and the woman (who has been left nameless in a clever narrative choice) takes on all the housework, she begins to crack. The kitchen is not equipped with any of the modern devices that might make it easier to clean. The basin leaks, and no one can be bothered to get it fixed. Her husband (played competently by Suraj Venjaramoodu) wants lunch packed daily — and no leftovers, if you please. As it turns out, her father-in-law does expect hand-ground chutney. Using a mixer, a pressure-cooker, or even a washing machine is seen as an unacceptable shortcut.