In 2017, Malayalam filmmaker Jeo Baby, his wife Beena and their newborn found themselves spending more time than usual in their kitchen. The “frustration” at having to constantly cook and clean inspired a movie that has received rave reviews across the board, especially from women.
The Great Indian Kitchen, which is available on the streaming platform Neestream, examines the drudgery of housework through the experiences of an unnamed recently married woman (Nimisha Sajayan). The wife’s physical and emotional labour is invisible to her family, especially her insensitive husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu).
Baby’s screenplay is layered with details about typically Indian male entitlement. For instance, the husband, a lecturer in sociology, keeps ignoring his wife’s complaints about a leaking pipe in the kitchen. Her father-in-law (T Suresh Babu) spends all day sleeping and eating and forces her into time-consuming chores. He insists that she does not use a cooker for boiling rice and wash clothes only by hand.
Some of the scenes are directly inspired by Baby’s days and nights in the kitchen. “There’s a scene where Nimisha smells her fingers and just cannot get rid of the kitchen smell,” Baby said. “That was my experience. You use as much soap or handwash, but the smell of cooking, mopping the house, cleaning the washbasin won’t go. Hiring a househelp was a luxury even then and it is still a luxury.”
Baby, who has directed three films previously, worked on the screenplay of The Great Indian Kitchen for three years. The movie was made over a 27-day schedule in 2020. According to Baby, producer Jomon Jacob approached several streamers before opting for Neestream, a service aimed at Malayalam movie fans.
“Traditional producers, in Kerala at least, would never touch a movie like this,” Baby pointed out. “That’s why we produced the film ourselves along with our friends on a roughly two-crore budget.”
Among Baby’s bold choices was to use the songs by Sooraj S Kurup and Mathews Pulickan in the credits. The movie also eschews a background score “since the sound of the kitchen and everything else was enough”, Baby explained.
“In the 100-minute film, there are 200 scenes, and each and every shot was in the script itself,” Baby added. The dialogue was improvised during the shoot along with Sajayan and Venjaramoodu.
Among the few named characters is the domestic worker Usha (Kabani), who navigates the patriarchy with humour and common sense. While the heroine is forced to isolate herself during her menstrual cycle, Usha goes about her business by hiding the dates of her monthly period from her employers.
“Usha earns a living for what she does,” Baby said. “Usha’s politics is the politics of the movie.”
Baby has been heartened by the warmth shown towards The Great Indian Kitchen, especially on social media. “It has touched women’s hearts while men are claiming that it’s been an eye-opener, although I am not sure if their eyes have actually opened,” he added.
What’s next for the filmmaker? “We did not expect such a positive response nationally,” he said. “We have to thank women for this. We are currently deciding on what to work on.”