Kerala's Sabarimala Temple
While delivering the CEDE lecture on enhanced legal representation recently, Justice DY Chandrachud made special mention of the Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen in the context of gender equality and the Sabarimala judgment.
The film, which released in January, captures the drudgery of everyday household chores in vivid detail along with the unrealistic demands placed on a newly-wed bride in modern-day Kerala. For the average Keralite male, it would be a near impossible task to sit through the first half of the film without a sense of guilt for being beneficiaries of male privilege right from childhood in Kerala’s predominant patriarchal households.
The film throws light on the regressive practices and stigma associated with menstruation in middle-class Hindu households in Kerala, and brilliantly juxtaposes it with the Sabarimala judgment and its aftermath. Some people might wonder if such regressive notions continue to exist in a largely-cosmopolitan city-state like Kerala — make no mistake, these practices are still followed ritualistically by a large section of the Hindu ‘upper-castes’ in Kerala. Even the traditional ‘lower-castes’ have caught up with such notions of purity associated with menstruation through upward mobility.
Please read: Film review: Kitchen chronicles and adjusting to the table manners of a typical Indian household
The film holds up a mirror to the society (in Kerala) and the reflection isn’t flattering. The male characters in the movie, including the groom, are shown to be indifferent and lacking empathy to the newly-wed bride who is suddenly left to run the household on her own after her mother-in-law goes away to help her daughter who is expecting a child. The bride tries to get herself a job to break the monotony of her everyday struggle doing household chores that begins early in the morning as she prepares breakfast and ends with a pile of dishes at night with a kitchen sink that inevitably gets clogged. But she is discouraged to pursue a job by her disapproving father-in-law even as her indifferent husband tries prevaricating.
A high literacy rate and exposure to the world has not only threatened patriarchy but has also often challenged the fragile ego of the average Keralite male. The restaurant scene where the wife ‘praises’ the husband’s table manners (which is missing at home), and the bedroom scene where the wife suggests foreplay to break the monotony of passionless sexual intercourse pricks the husband’s ego. While in the former instance the tables are turned and the wife is made to apologise for hurting the husband’s sentiments, in the latter the husband replies with a deeply offensive retort.
These scenes show how the constructs of patriarchy invariably tilt the balance in favour of the male, and in this case in favour of the husband. To drive the irony home, the male protagonist/husband is a teacher who is shown taking classes on what constitutes a family.
The Great Indian Kitchen raises questions about the thankless jobs women in middle class households in Kerala perform — and also throws light on the cruel treatment often meted out to them. Many of them are well-qualified to work but have to drop out of the workforce after marriage to earn brownie points with her ‘new family’ who would rather not have their womenfolk working. The ‘savarna’ (upper caste) construct of a ‘kula-stree’, or the patriarchal notion of an ideal woman, has been so deeply entrenched that it has normalised such discriminations against women, where even women are ‘ready to wait’ and would not demand equality as life partners.
Recently, actor-politician Kamal Haasan mooted the proposal of recognising housework as a salaried profession, promising to pay a fixed monthly wage to homemakers in Tamil Nadu if his party were to come to power. So impressed was Congress leader Shashi Tharoor with this idea that he, as the in-charge of the manifesto committee in Kerala, got this idea incorporated in the United Democratic Front’s manifesto, promising a monthly pension of Rs 2,000 for housewives. While these are indeed noble attempts at lending dignity to the hitherto unpaid job of household labour, lawmakers perhaps need to come up with more to enable women who are willing to become a part of the workforce.
There’s a lot that is left to be desired from a society where the injustice towards women is trivialised, normalised and, even worse, unseen. As Justice DY Chandrachud said in his lecture, “even today women struggle to achieve the most basic education and the right to economic independence, as they are forced to diminish their ambitions and thanklessly toil over domestic chores and caregiving which society does not even recognise as labour that merits compensation.”