Filmmaker Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (Mahataya Bharatiya Addukala in Malayalam) is receiving a lot of love from viewers since it released online. Even though this small budget Malayalam film dropped on a little known OTT platform called NeeStream on 15 January, thanks to the buzz created by the film on social media, the film has grabbed a lot of eyeballs and is generating tons of curiosity. Featuring actors Nimisha Sajayan and Suraj Venjaramoodu and shot in just 27 days, The Great Indian Kitchen unflinchingly looks at the hidden yet overtly visible patriarchy in our homes.
I spoke to writer and director Baby and first quizzed him about the genesis of the idea of The Great Indian Kitchen. “After my marriage I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, I did it because I wanted to share the space with my wife. When I entered the kitchen, I was practically stuck there, it was totally frustrating because there is a huge workload. It’s an endless job is what I felt at that time and I thought about all the women who are stuck in the kitchen and I felt like the kitchen is a jail for a woman’s life,” Baby tells me.
“As a man, I have a lot of other options, I can go out of the kitchen any time, but I chose to share the work with my wife. I have a lot of other options but a woman doesn’t, she can’t choose not to do it. That’s how I thought about all the women in India and how they are suffering in the kitchen.”Jeo Baby, Filmmaker
Baby decided on the idea of writing a film with this as the central theme and discussed it with his wife and sister, who shared several stories of what they had experienced in the kitchen or at home - some of which made it to the script as well.
But writing a film like The Great Indian Kitchen isn’t really commercially viable, I couldn’t imagine many producers would want to back a subject like this. So, my question to Baby was - did he believe he could get such a project bankrolled when he was writing it? “In my team, with my cinematographer and my editor, we planned to make a different kind of movie. I told them, we shouldn’t bother about the audience, don’t bother about the theatre response, we have to make something different. We have to make a personal movie. That’s when I thought of this plot and we decided that we should start raising funds for this film. We didn’t approach any production house or any producer, we had to find money for this project ourselves otherwise this film will not happen because producers can’t accept this kind of a film,” says the filmmaker.
Luckily for Baby, his college friends - Dijo Augustine, Jomon Jacob, Vishnu Rajan and Sajin S Raj bought into the idea of The Great Indian Kitchen and invested in it. Before starting on the project, Jeo had decided to not give his lead characters any names so that the audience could identify with them.
Without names Jeo believed the characters played by actors Sajayan and Venjaramoodu would have the kind of access that any and every Indian would be able see themselves in those roles.
Large portions of The Great Indian Kitchen are built on silences, there are no dialogues and all you hear is the familiar sound of kitchen work and household chores. The daily routine of the newly-wed bride is shown repeatedly to drive home the drudgery related to everyday work - the chopping, cutting, heating, cooking, grinding, cleaning, wiping is relentless and crucial to convey to the audience her building frustration. “Actually, I write an editor’s script,” explains Baby, “My screenplay contains around 200 scenes in this 1 hour 40 minutes film, that’s only because I wrote an editing screenplay. We purposefully made it like that because we wanted to get across how repetitive and endless the woman’s job is. That’s why we used lengthy shots and that’s the actual reality in the kitchen, a woman mostly is alone in the kitchen, that’s why we used that kind of a treatment in the film.”
In the film, the wife is denied her wish to take up work as a dancing teacher by her father-in-law. Much to her dismay her husband who doesn’t care either way, wants her to follow his father’s wishes. The woman’s one chance to perhaps escape the constraints of her home and kitchen even for a few hours, is taken away from her, but Baby agrees that even if she was permitted to take up a job, the responsibilities of running the kitchen would still lie squarely on her shoulders, there would be no escaping that.
“That’s what’s happening in our society, that’s whats happening all around us. In the relationship that Nimisha and Suraj have, there is no space for talking or discussion. He expects a sorry from her for bringing up his table manners. In the scene where she talks about foreplay, he insults her. Nimisha is just like kind of a machine for doing all the activities in the kitchen and the home - the cleaning, washing, cooking.”Jeo Baby, Filmmaker
Talking about the casting, Baby says that he had Nimisha in mind to play the wife’s role when he was thinking about the film, he later met her and she immediately agreed to be a part of the film after listening to the story. Suraj took a few days to think before deciding to do the film. “I realised that Suraj is a socially aware person and not just an actor. He is a guy who is committed to certain social issues as well,” observes Baby.
The filmmaker says that he’s being flooded with favourable reactions to the film and mainly from women. “It’s actually the women who made this film happen. I think the movie touched their hearts, I am getting so many messages from women on my Messenger and my Instagram, they are overwhelmed, they don’t know what to say, they are so touched. A lot of women wrote their first film reviews about The Great Indian Kitchen, there are a lot of girls who’ve written about a film for the first time. It’s they who have made it possible for this film to travel and reach where it has.”
But the release of The Great Indian Kitchen hasn’t been without its share of glitches. A handful of right wing voices have tagged the film as anti-Hindu and have alleged that it denigrates Sabarimala. However, Baby chooses to not react to them. “I am not reacting, I ignore them. I have no comments to make, I am totally ignoring them. This story is happening in any and every kind of family. This is not about any religion, this is about women all over India.”
He further goes on to explain why he chose to set the story of the film in this particular family set-up. “Why I chose this family is only because in 2018 there was the Supreme Court ordered that women can enter Sabarimala. So, the same guys who who are saying that the movie is bad and that it’s against Hindus, at that time they said that women shouldn’t enter Sabarimala. In my view that is a very positive court order and it can impact very positively in a woman’s life. At that time, the court order was treated badly by some politicians and people, that’s why I thought how do I discuss that in my film, because all these things like discrimination begin from the home.”
Given the reaction and reception that the film is getting from the Indian audience, it’s surprising that both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video chose to not acquire The Great Indian Kitchen when it was offered to them on a platter.
“After the first copy was out, our producer contacted Amazon Prime Video and they said they have to watch the whole movie and so we sent a screener link to them and after that they replied that this film is “not apt for us”, it is “not meeting our criteria”. So we replied asking what is your criteria, but there was no reply from them since then. Netflix didn’t watch our movie, and they didn’t accept it, I don’t know what is the reason,” says Baby.
Considering the popularity of The Great Indian Kitchen due to excellent word-of-mouth, the film’s release on NeeStream would have resulted in a significant jump in traffic on the OTT platform since 15 January.
However, things are looking up for Jeo Baby and his team. His previous film Kilometers and Kilometers has been picked up by Netflix and there are a lot people approaching them for the other language rights of The Great Indian Kitchen. “We are going through the offers and working on it,” signs off Baby triumphantly.