The suburban housing society where I grew up was cosmopolitan, populated by young couples with children around the same age, so when we were not at school or playing outside, we were parked in neighbours’ homes, where the aunties—and it was not a derogatory term yet—rustled up snacks for us; babysat us when our parents had to go out, and cooked traditional delicacies that were exchanged on festivals. All but one of the wives were stay-at-home moms, and back then it was not a comedown to be called a housewife.
In the largely middle-class building with nuclear families, all the homes had domestic help, and some had cooks, so the women were not slogging in the kitchen all day long—they read, napped, went visiting friends and relatives, watched television. They were all educated, but career options were limited then, so they looked after the home and did not need to apologise for it. In some families, the men did the ‘outside’ work, like shopping for provisions, banking, dealing with handymen and serving on the society’s managing committee.
As far as I know, none of the women were unhappy, frustrated, angry or depressed with their situation. It was an age-old division of labour in a marriage—the men were breadwinners, the women had been raised to be homemakers. Most of them were terrific cooks, and could sew, knit, crochet. Their daughters were taught these skills, but also not discouraged from pursuing careers—and all but one did. My mother would jokingly say, “Learn to make round chapatis or what will your future mother-in-law think?” We would laugh at this hoary line; I never bothered to cook, though I can sew as well as I can fix broken objects and leaking pipes.
Again, as far as I remember, except in one TamBrahm and one Jain home (just a statement of fact, no judgment intended), the segregation of menstruating women was not followed. And during those days, the husbands would cook and wash. Of course, back then, people would snigger at men doing housework, the metrosexual New Man had not yet been invented. However, most men could make tea and basic subsistence food in an emergency, and even they made fun of the men who boasted that they never lifted a finger around the house.
Strangely, the women prided themselves on having husbands and sons totally dependent on them. I remember one wife claiming that if her husband returned at 2am, he would expect her to make hot food for him, because he only liked meals cooked by her! It never occurred to her that the husband was being inconsiderate.
Marital horror story
These thoughts ran through the mind on watching Jeo Baby’s Malayalam film, The Great Indian Kitchen, which could be called a marital horror story. It is being hailed as a critique of patriarchy, but if in 2021, a film like that needs to be made, it is as much a shame for men as it is for women, who do not just cage themselves for the sake of marital stability, they trap other women too.
The unnamed woman (played by Nimisha Sajayan), in the film is the daughter of a well-off Gulf returnee, educated, a dance student, conversant with social media, but dumb enough to submit to an arranged marriage, after one brief meeting with the prospective groom, without asking him a single pertinent question.
She goes into a large home as a new bride, and it is clear to the viewer, if not to her, that she has entered a world of domestic slavery. Her mother-in-law informs her that the father-in-law will eat only freshly hand-ground chutney. He lounges around scrolling on his phone, while the wife fetches his toothbrush and paste; when he goes out, she brings out his shoes and places them at his feet.
The bride is told by the old man that he wants rice made on a wood fire, not in a pressure cooker, and his clothes washed by hand, because a machine wears them out. Strangely, the household has no domestic help, the wives have to cook (the food preparations look luscious), clean, sweep, mop and then silently submit to the husbands’ sexual demands. It is the sheer lack of respect for women's work-- forced labour would be more apt-- that is aggravating for the viewer.
The young unnamed husband (Suraj Venjaramood), has obviously imbibed the worst of this patriarchal behaviour from his father. He does yoga while his wife serves him and his father hand and foot. The mother-in-law is called away to help with her daughter’s delivery, leaving the household to the new bride, before she has even properly settled in.
She finds to her disgust, that the men leave a mess of food waste on the table, which the wives have to clean. The women are supposed to serve the men first and eat their leftovers. The kitchen sink gets clogged, and the husband doesn’t bother to call a plumber for weeks on end. Both men turn down her request to take up a job—a woman’s place is in the home, she is firmly told by the father-in-law; though you wonder when she would find the time or energy to work outside the home.
The wife discovers how regressive the family is, when she gets her period. Only for those days a domestic helper is called, and later a female relative, who insists the wife sleep on the floor in a tiny, dingy storeroom, bathe in the river, not touch any vessels, or place the lamp at the tulsi plant, because she is ‘impure’.
Then the two men decide to undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage, which puts more restrictions on the wife, as the men have to follow certain purification rituals. (Playing on the screens in the film, is the real-life controversy in Kerala over the entry of women into the Ayyappa Temple.)
The wife does seem unrealistically passive, and had she voiced her displeasure a bit more, maybe the men would have heard—there are small indications of it. Like the father-in-law going back in to get his own shoes and grumpily accepting the chutney ground in a mixer. She could have called a plumber herself, or placed bowls on the dining table for the men to put the waste. Their boorishness and the stinking drain become a symbol of the woman’s oppression.
The director wants to pile on so much indignity on her—including the husband cruelly telling her she is no good in bed—that the worm-turns trope comes into play. But, does a woman this submissive, overnight acquire the creds for a job and the ability to live by herself, since her parents refuse to support her? Is it all that easy for a single woman to get by in a conservative society, just so that the film can get a feel-good ending? Worse, the husband learns no lesson, and quickly acquires another slave/wife. Unless the error of their ways is pointed out to the men and acknowledged by them, no amount of women’s emancipation slogans are going to have any impact. A film needs to convey this, rather than offer a drastic and simplistic solution.
In real life, the wheat of the caring husband from the chaff of the macho lout has been separated during the pandemic and the resultant lockdown at least in urban areas. How many men helped their wives with domestic chores, how many marriages felt the strain of the increased burden of housework, and how many wives walked out on their unequal marriages? No clear answers.
The film has generated a storm of discussion on social media and though many of us have been brought up in progressive families, the general opinion is that it is an exaggerated but true picture of marriage in large parts of Indian society. And that is the Great Indian Tragedy.
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.