February 7, 2021 6:30:06 am
Jeo Baby had a light bulb moment about gender and labour when, as a 17-year-old, he was assigned the household duty of washing dishes after a meal. “My back would hurt so much, I started wondering how my mother, who had been washing the dishes until then, did it day after day,” recalls the 38-year-old filmmaker. What angered Baby was the realisation that it was not just the labour that was back-breaking, but the conditions under which it was performed. “I noticed that the slab of the sink was too low. Nobody could bend over it and wash dishes without getting a back ache and it struck me that this was because it had been designed by men who, typically, do not have to do these kinds of chores around the house. Therefore, they don’t even think about how the design of the sink affects the bodies of those who actually have to use it every single day.”
At the time, Baby fought with his father about what his mother had endured at that sink for so long. He also made up his mind that when he got married, he would ensure that his wife wouldn’t have to bear the entire burden of household chores. “Of course, when I entered the kitchen after marriage and started working alongside my wife, I realised all that goes into cooking a meal,” he says. This was when the idea, which would eventually be realised on screen as The Great Indian Kitchen, germinated. It grew over the next few years as, over conversations with his wife, sister and women friends, Baby heard more and more incidents of gender discrimination within the home. “I realised that just because a woman has a job doesn’t mean that she’s independent, as long as she still has to shoulder most of the responsibility at home,” he says.
The Great Indian Kitchen tells the story of a young woman (Nimisha Sajayan) who gets married into a traditional, upper-caste family and discovers what a thankless task it is to run a household. The men take little notice of all that goes into keeping the house running smoothly as long as they get their homemade meals and other comforts. The father-in-law even expects to be handed his toothbrush, with toothpaste squeezed on, before he stirs from his chair each morning, while the husband, despite many reminders, forgets to call a plumber to fix a drainage problem that is making extra work for his wife.
This is not the first time that the director, who is from Thalanadu, in Kerala’s Kottayam district, has addressed gender in his film. In his debut feature 2 Penkuttikal (2016), he sought to highlight the social restrictions that are placed on women from an early age, telling the story from the perspective of two young girls who decide to bunk school one day. Although the film didn’t have a big box-office impact, it fetched the Kerala State Film Award for Best Child Artiste for one of the leads, Anna Fathima. His second feature film, Kunju Daivam (2018), about a young boy grappling with what it means to lead a virtuous life, won its lead Adish Praveen the National Film Award from Best Child Artiste. The theatrical release of Baby’s third film, Kilometers and Kilometers, starring Tovino Thomas, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now streaming on Netflix.
The Great Indian Kitchen, with its confident, unhurried pace and the deliberate anonymity of its location and characters — to emphasise the universality of its story — is a far cry from the slightly gauche preachiness of Baby’s earlier films. It’s also made far more of an impact on the audience. Baby says, ever since the movie released last month on the Malayalam streaming platform Neestream, he’s received many messages from women, telling him that they feel like someone has finally taken notice of them and their struggles. “They tell me that even though they want to achieve more in other ways, they are unable to because of how much work they have to do at home. It really moved me to read those messages,” he says.
He’s also got messages from men who tell him that they recognise themselves in the husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu). They feel guilty for never realising how much the women in their lives do. There are critics, too. “Some tell me that this is an old story, such things don’t happen anymore,” says Baby.
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