Peoplewatcher: The Chakravyuh of The Great Indian Kitchen

In the book “Disappearing Daughters,” Gita Aravamudan tells the story of female feticide in India. She reveals that two factors “predicted” greater acceptance of daughters in an Indian home. Not education or money. It was Working mothers or Keralite homes. None of this means that all working women or all Keralite homes are daughter-loving emancipated havens. The data just tags these two fields as predictors of more positive outcomes for female fetuses.

Being able to recognize these markers are how Buzzfeed quizzes work and you can see if you’re more of a Slytherin or less of a Phoebe. They’re not meant to be quant-perfect and replicable like pH or blood groups. They’re more intuitive. Which is precisely what makes it way more challenging to understand how certain traits in people influence certain outcomes.

Every Indian woman falls somewhere on the continuum of “traditional/conforming” to “modern/progressive.” A whopping majority of these women skew toward the traditional end of the spectrum.

In India, there is a tendency to believe “progressive” or “modern” means “drinks, smokes, wears skimpy clothes and sleeps around. Likely works and does not cook.” Many of these behaviors abound even among traditional/ conforming — even rural women. Like many beliefs about being Indian, it’s a fallacious default and is nowhere close to understanding ground realities.

The true definition of being “progressive” in this context is that a woman is able to feel, think, move and do for herself, even (especially) when it doesn’t conform to what’s prescribed for “women of her station.”

She feels a sense of freedom and isn’t shackled constantly by the fear of judgment by others. Which is why most of the women in Bombay Begums are NOT progressive while Sandya Giri from Pagglait is so, at least toward the end.

Back in 2012, when profiling working women for Van Heusen –we identified two strong factors that predicted how “progressive” a daughter would turn out.

Her father and her husband. Like a lease transfer.

Regardless of how much talk there may be about culture being a matriarchal domain or the strong bond of Indian mothers and daughters, the mindset of the father dictates the choices and options a daughter will have. Her access to education, friends, love, marriage, career are all impacted by him. When a father decides something for his daughter, there are few players who can override that call. When a mother decides something for her daughter, the father (often with a brother) can still throw a solid wrench in that capricious wheel of a daughter’s march forward. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule. That still doesn’t negate the norm.

Thanks to Darwin, not one of us can choose who our fathers are. Many Indian women also don’t have the freedom to choose their husbands. What they can do however, is choose a husband that’s less likely to shackle their choices and freedom.

Most girls are raised to know at an early age that you don’t buy mottled tomatoes, overripe okra or moldy bread. The markers for a good husband are a lot fuzzier and more arbitrary. Which is probably why it’s easier to go “like my father” or “like current trending movie star.” Neither of which guarantee the outcome of “greater freedom and choices” if that’s what a woman wants. Most paths eventually are like Chakravyuhs (hopeless, no escape situation) that lull the spirited warrior into a trap that will close in on them. For many (not all) women — marriages and the kitchen in a marital home are just that sort of Chakravyuh. That’s what Jeo Baby (director) learned from his many interviews with real women, trapped in real kitchens and undeniably real marriages.

What he lays out though is a list of markers that can tell women — the husband you pick will impact what you wear, what you do, what you cannot do, your access and your sense of self. It’s no dumbed down listicle. For women — it’s important to see this movie as more than just “the horror of patriarchy.” It is a complex feast to digest, share and be aware of how to stay away from Chakravyuh kitchens and marriages.

Indentured Servitude: Everything and the Kitchen Sink

In an interview, the director was asked about his portrayal of the kitchen as a jail and what he had to say to women who believe they love their role of homemaker, chef and nurturer. It’s clear in the response of the man that he’s no activist. He’s felt imprisoned in a kitchen at times and he heard this feeling from women who spoke to him. He goes on to say how it’s always girls who are told how to dress, how long their clothes should be, that they should not shake their legs, that they can’t go out to play etc. That chipping away at their sense of self, possibilities and freedom starts early in a girl’s life and gets worse after marriage. They’ve been groomed since fetus-hood to be chucked into the kitchen, the frying pan and the fire. And as long as that happens to be true — any of it, for any woman, he sees relevance in this story. There’s a reason women often say, “everything changes after marriage” and it’s usually devoid of positive spin. Young working girls, even today, say “I want to marry late, around 25–26 or so, I want to keep my freedom for as long as possible.” That’s an admission right there that their freedom is like a cellphone you handover before you check into prison.

The kitchen is a prison. The movie mires you in continuous labor and pervasive squalor right from the start. You don’t just see it — you also feel and smell it. The slow, repetitive pace of every deliberate act of cutting, cooking and cleaning is absolutely sanitized of any beauty or romanticizing we’ve seen in Japanese cooking videos.

The snail’s pace isn’t just a geotag of being a Malayalam movie, it’s so you too can be trapped in that vortex of disgust with her and feel the noxious, decaying pool from the sink stain your hands. Which the wife carries to bed, like a Lady Macbeth stain.

If that’s the sort of Mobius strip hell kitchen that one is headed toward, there’s very little chance there are markers of hope. If the home has a disproportionate number of mess-makers to mess-cleaners, that’s obviously going to be a problem. But if the norm is to cater to men to the extent where they leave their chewed up remnants all over the kitchen table for the women to clean after them, it’s best to look at that potential marriage the same way one would at a mottled tomato. Would you really take it home?

Sex is a duty. Like cooking. It’s on the cards when he wants it, catered to him, in the dark, sans-foreplay, predictably missionary and involves him painfully ploughing into what may as well be a blowup doll. Except blowup dolls often get more emotional connect and humanizing from their owners. The only time sex is not a duty, is when it’s weaponized to be punishment. Which in this case he withholds when she displeases him. In worse cases, it can be imposed as marital rape. The one instance where she makes a suggestion so it’s better for her — the shaming, punishment and withdrawal are swift. While this is a phenomenally reliable marker, premarital sex is the only way to check this box and not always a viable option.

Anger is a normal human emotion. Not all anger is equal. Defensive or passive aggressive, recurring anger — especially in a husband-wife equation can tell us a lot about how far south a marriage will deteriorate over time. It’s worth rewatching the film just to watch his face change when she (taking care to smile and soften the blow) remarks that he seems to have “manners” when eating in a hotel. In the sense that he did not eat like a drunk, scavenging hyena — but she never uses those words. It’s still way too much of an assault on his ego and he weaponizes the word “manners” later in the game when he finds out she dared defy him and apply for a dance teacher’s job. Not a “real” job for a man but one that would take her away from the kitchen which is not okay, because it’s “auspicious to have a woman at home.” He asks her where her manners are considering she hasn’t behaved “appropriately” and made him lose face in front of his father — making him a husband who cannot control his wife.

Anger needs to be resolved and not be a recurring decimal. Signs of the latter — are a clear “run for the hills” marker.

Women are replaceable. As laborers invariably are. Indian Men who travel abroad are expected to fend for themselves in the kitchen. The Indian system that aids keeping them out of kitchens doesn’t stretch far enough to protect them abroad. That’s until an H4 visa dependent wife is dispatched to foreign kitchens.

In India, there will always be a woman available to cater and pander to male needs and whims. A maid, an aunt, a second wife. The movie shows a revolving buffet of women who perform this service. The politically-floated idea of payment for a wife’s domestic labor is interesting — but the market rarely pays for labor that’s easily replaceable and not valued even as much as women value their maids. What women need to understand is that there will always be women available to serve their men and save the day. And the women who save the day, will take pride in the power of their momentary usefulness.

How much of you are you anymore, woman? If you are denied what you want for yourself — a job outside the home, a calling beyond serving family, the freedom to meet your own friends, have your own time, pursue your passion (which in her case is dance), express yourself on social media — how much of you remains? How much of you does the Chakravyuh consume?

The Photo Montage on the Wall. You’ll know it when you see it. You can read what you want into why Salu Thomas (camera) dwells on it for a long Malayalam film moment. It seems to tell stories of “ghosts of the past” where so many women came and served so many men and there’s that stricken face of domestic misery that seems to mark photos of old times. The one clear exception is the husband’s sister –a color photo, more natural — where she seems to have “upgraded” to a home, kitchen and husband that “allow” her an entirely different set of rules. There is no visible Chakravyuh.

The House Always Wins. The System Always Status Quos.

The Trap of Niceness: Most newly married women believe they’ll be the exception to make the complex mechanics of marriage work smoothly, beautifully — where so many of their ovarian compatriots failed. Check in with young women about to be married and they exude the optimism of giddy, prancing unicorns as they learn the ways of their new marital home and aim to “earn the approval” of their mothers-in-law.

At the start of the marriage ( first half hour of the movie) there is this treacly trap of niceness. No one is an aggressor and yet everything isn’t right. While all Indian women don’t react like they’re allergic to words like “allow you to work” or “wear that dress in Goa, not here” — it takes a lot of repeated micro and macro aggressions for women to finally realize that the marriage has been spiraling for a while . At which point it’s usually too late to do anything different — for most women.

Glorious nostalgia. Hateful modernity. The fight against modernity (no time and labor saving appliances) and nostalgia for a glorious past is usually a male fantasy and a woman’s (or lower status human) burden. While there absolutely may be mothers-in-law insisting their DILs grind chutney and wash clothes old school — The Great Indian Kitchen lays out a broad norm where “father/husband” wants something and that’s delivered by women, with resentment but without resistance.

In countless (well thousands) of interviews I’ve done, women talk about how their husbands will only eat chapati if it’s freshly kneaded and made by their hands and not the cook. This will often have to be done late at night, after they’ve had a long day — rarely do these women suggest the man get over himself or make it to his own specification. That’s simply not the status quo.

Men don’t need to be infantilized and are capable of putting on their own footwear and brushing their own teeth (movie reference) — and if women feed this sort of behavior, all they need to know is that they still are replaceable and are reinforcing the status quo.

The Male Guest Archetype: This character was a genius touch and one needs to be a newly married daughter-in-law entering Malayali terrain to know how completely identifiable the spot quiz on who random guests are and how they’re related is. While other cultures may expect you to skillfully light 6 wicks on an auspicious lamp or make a specific kitchen-poison of choice to prove your DIL creds, this genome mapping is a legit thing. This guest goes on to mock the tea she makes and gives grandiose instructions on how it should be made. Think of scenarios now where women guests tell rank stranger grooms how they should do their job. Unlikely to happen.

This man does offer to cook for the evening after barging in without announcement, but leaves in his wake a destroyed kitchen — one that the wife will have to clean up. His well honed callousness and cluelessness heighten to a crescendo at the point where when she says she needs to clean the kitchen, he mocks her with, “What work is there in the kitchen, didn’t we (men) do all the work?”

Menstruation, that Blood Bath. After the back-breaking, sense-numbing sequences of kitchen labor the wife endures — most people may begin to think, “Well those three days of rest make sense.” But over time, it becomes evident that what’s labeled as “rest” and justified as “purity” largely builds up to be an inconvenience, shaming and gradual dehumanization.

While it’s true that some women may not have a problem upholding these norms, it’s impossible to be honest and deny that this does harm way too many women. That 23 million girls drop out of school every year because of this. All to most of whom will be promptly married and likely Chakravyuhed.

The “modern” news reporter who reports on the SC judgment of the Sabarimala case deals with goons attacking her house, her sense of safety, her daughter’s sense of self and is labeled a “feminist bitch.” If you’re a woman, it’s far less important whether you see the SC judgment as acceptable or not, political or not, interfering or not. If there are women like the ones shown in this movie who suffer as a result of the dynamic, even if they choose to never set foot on the blessed Hill — where do your loyalties lie? Which axe do you take into battle?

You may not need to battle at all — so what happens if you or your daughter should ever need that kind of support in another context?

There are women who believe they’re doing fine and others need to pull their bootstraps and be strong — they are also women and that’s just that. Empathy is not an abundant resource. Though given the precision of Jeo Baby’s vision and heart in this project, it’s really important to accept that one doesn’t need women alone to tell honest stories of female pain, grief and lack of freedom. The more such stories are out there, the better.

The Arc of Redemption

To read the movie as “man bad, woman victim” is an unfair oversimplification and an injustice to a carefully crafted piece of art. There’s an entrenched system and because of the way it’s easier to preserve the status quo, especially in a place like India — most women will veer into some version of this Chakravyuh.

Some women do escape. The husband’s sister and the wife’s friend both have homes that have no “kitchen as prison” cues and seem to have husbands who don’t find it necessary to dictate their wives’ every move. If one can spend time picking the right kind of tomato and the perfect loaf of bread, a little serious thought to the kind of husband (and eventual kitchen) may well go a long way in helping young (and older) women avoid the crushing Chakravyuh.

The movie ends on an “upbeat” note with its final dance sequence and exhorts women to move beyond their grief and that they are “Slaves to no one.” But what’s also extremely clear from the ending is the clear emphasis that for husbands with kitchen Chakravyuhs at home, there isn’t much change. As a woman, you (may) have the choice to never enter it, or be a war-battered Arjun and find the way out.

Most Indian women though, tend to be some version of Abhimanyu and may course through valiantly, but will bear the brunt of a system that’s designed to flatten them. If that’s not your life story — you’ve defied serious odds. Buy a lottery ticket.

::Nima:: is a consumer insights specialist and has likely spoken to more women about their life experiences than Jeo Baby did. She has zero capability to have written and directed such a brilliant film and can only write a long-form review in appreciation for reflecting the core truth of so many untold stories. Some people have viewed this movie through the lens of politics or caste (which may explain why Amazon Prime refused to buy it earlier.) That doesn’t seem to have been the creator’s intent. It’s simply the story of many women.

Get paid to judge people. It’s okay when professionals do it.