Never in the history of Malayalam cinema has a small film caught the attention of an entire State, and beyond. And probably no other film has made many of its male viewers this uncomfortable. Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen presents the obvious, but then the obvious in all its horror – the daily drudgery inside a middle-class Malayali kitchen, of grinding, cooking, doing the dishes, cleaning and then cooking again, entrusted completely to the women of the household, while the menfolk wait to be served, occasionally passing suggestions about the preparation of the dishes.

Jeo Baby has directed done three films previously – Randu Penkuttikal, Kunjudaivam and Kilometres and Kilometres, all of which had different themes. But The Great Indian Kitchen was rejected by all mainstream OTT platforms and the team had to finally release it on Neestream, leading to thousands scrambling to sign up at the then little-known platform.

As we speak to the director, his toddler daughter ‘Katha’ babbles loudly in the background. “It’s so difficult to take care of children alongside housework,” says Jeo, while trying to pacify the little one. Soon after his marriage, Jeo had decided that he would be taking over the kitchen at their house, but it was only after he started that he realised ‘’the horror’’ of it, he says. But the experience eventually led to this movie, which continues to be the talking point more than a month after its release. Excerpts of our conversation with Jeo Baby…

How did the idea of making a movie surrounding a kitchen originate?
The experiences of the woman protagonist in the movie are my own, I did not have to look for inspiration elsewhere. When your own experiences are this intense, there arise possibilities of them turning into good works of art, I believe.

However, I am not someone who has done housework all my life. It was after I got married that I said I would take up work in our kitchen. However, I had the freedom to take a break when I felt like it or ask someone else to step in. I started thinking of the millions of women who did not even have that privilege.

I came to the conclusion that men actually live in luxury when it comes to this aspect of life. I mean, one person is doing all the work while the other sits there just to eat! For the privileged male, his house gets cleaned, his bed gets made and his bathrooms get cleaned. As far as I am concerned it’s a luxury to have someone bring a cup of tea to me.

I found it disturbing that women have to deal with such discrimination in their own houses, even in families considered progressive, and thus the movie. My wife, Beena, encouraged me. I also spoke to people in my family, my sister and other women with children. I had also come across writings and Facebook posts on the subject by several women, all of which became helpful.

You realised the faults of the system and changed, personally. Why, in your opinion, don’t a lot of men change similarly? Also, aren’t men who believe in equal rights often branded as weak?
Our societal climate is such that we have lived this way all our lives. We believe this is right. Rather we got used to it that the wrong became sort of right over time. At times we are unaware it’s wrong. But even a man who realises it’s wrong wouldn’t want to correct himself because then he’ll have to do a lot of work. In fact, the majority of the women too feel it’s their duty to cook for the whole household. I see even girls of the new generation imbibing all this. It’s part of the system and the patriarchy but it’s something to be changed, I believe.

And yes, I myself have been subject to such taunts. Women are not spared either. There’s a friend of mine who does all the work in his house. His wife is made to feel guilty about it by her own friends and family.

Do you think the gender issue is worse in Kerala? There is also a view that Kerala dishes are the most time-consuming to cook. Would a simplifying of the process of cooking be the eventual solution to the problem?
Recently the BBC did an article on my film. There were comments under that article by women from different countries, saying their lives are no better. So I don’t think Kerala is any better or worse in this regard. It’s a global issue, varying only in degrees.

There’s a scene in the film where the husband’s sister who has a progressive-minded husband, takes out a slice of cheese from the refrigerator, makes a sandwich and finishes her breakfast over a short call. Meanwhile, at the husband’s home, they are cutting a jackfruit. It’s a gargantuan task to turn jackfruit into a dish. So yes, it’s true Kerala dishes are time-consuming but it’s not easy to change our food habits. One has to eat healthy as well.

The only solution to the problem is for the menfolk to just get inside the kitchen and start doing the work. Acknowledging the wife is not a step, neither is minor help. All that is just hoodwinking.

At the end of the day, it took a man to make this movie, not a woman…

Well, it’s true and I’ve wondered why. Madhavikutty has written a story based on the kitchen, I’ve heard. But other than that, there hasn’t been a mainstream work of art with the theme, I think. The reasons could be many. Things are a lot more difficult for a woman whatever the genre. It’s especially difficult in the film field, especially such a film for which you will never get a producer.

Almost every Malayali in and outside Kerala has watched this movie or heard of it. How does that make you feel as its director?
Well, it’s exciting, we never expected this kind of response. I’m getting a lot of messages, mostly from women viewers saying they’re left speechless after watching it, and that they see themselves on screen. There are also people asking me to make a movie on something else they wish to be addressed.

Did any man say they are going to do the housework from now on? Do you feel this film will bring about a change in gender discrimination in household chores?
There were a few but I don’t know how much they will in real. Perhaps there will be a change in some five houses. But that’s not how it should happen. Change should start from the school, from the conditioning of children. They should be taught that the kitchen is not just one person’s responsibility. I sincerely hope we will change over time even if slowly.

Have you thought about the next film? Where do you plan to release it?
The Great Indian Kitchen was rejected by mainstream OTT platforms as well as channels. It was the public who made it a success and it is only after the neestream release that the satellite rights were sold. I haven’t decided what my next film is going to be about but I wish to release it in a theatre. And if I have the choice, which I hope I will, I would definitely want to release it in neestream itself later on.

— By Asha Prakash