Midway through the recently released movie “The Great Indian Kitchen” (TGIK), we see the protagonist and her husband eating at a restaurant. She observes him devour chicken, carefully placing the bones and waste into another plate without spilling. Then in humour, she asks him a rhetorical question — “So you have table manners when you’re outdoors, is it?”
For about 45 minutes before this scene, viewers painfully watch as the protagonist cleans the dining table each night. The surface is always littered with half-chewed meat bones and food waste left behind by her husband and father-in-law. The cleaning comes after she has spent an entire day in the kitchen while the two able-bodied men refuse to even wash their own tea glasses. This story repeats itself everyday.
So when the protagonist jokes about her husband’s manners, he doesn’t apologize for treating her with indignity. Instead he loses his temper, admonishes her and walks away from the table. Later in the night, he tells her “If you think how you behaved with me was wrong, then apologize to me.” She apologizes and her husband ‘forgives’ her, only to nickname her “Mrs. Manners” the next second.
That is the beauty of movies like TGIK. They slowly unspool the daily frustrations of patriarchy, each day getting more infuriating than the one before. They accurately reflect how each microaggression adds up in a situation where women aren’t allowed to have a voice.
Malayalam cinema has a stellar record in producing some of the most nuanced and best acclaimed Indian films. While large parts of the mainstream film industry contribute to sexism on and off-screen, or at best limit ‘female-centric movies’ to stories of sexual trauma, the last few years have given the audience some gems.
In Madhu C Narayan’s “Kumbalangi Nights,” renowned actor Fahadh Faasil plays Shammy, a chauvinist who lives with his wife, her sister and mother. In one of the opening scenes, Shammy looks at his reflection and remarks “Raymond, the complete man,” the iconic tagline from the clothing brand.
Shammy, much like the husband in TGIK, is depicted as the ‘ideal man.’ Both have a stable job and they are the sole breadwinners. They want what they think is the best for their family but only as long as it conforms to society’s standards.
“Kumbalangi Nights” proceeds to show Shammy’s sister-in-law falling in love with a man he objects to. When the young couple decide to get married anyway, Shammy beats and ties up his wife, sister-in-law and mother-in-law. Similarly, when the protagonist in TGIK finally stands up for herself, her husband rushes in rage to strike her, only for her to deflect and get away.
What agitates one the most is how true-to-life these films are.
Other recent movies like Khalid Rahman’s “Love” and Sameer Thahir’s “Kali” explore the consequences of toxic masculinity and rage, especially the ways in which it impacts the women in the movies. We watch with withering patience as the women — wives or family members — spend large parts of their lives cleaning up after these men, facing the consequences of their egotistic actions, trapped in their roles of making the men’s lives easier even at the grave personal cost of losing their identities and voices.
What agitates one the most is how true-to-life these films are. TGIK and “Kumbalangi Nights” bring to screen the reality of an average, upper-caste Malayalee family. One that takes pride in upholding its most regressive and sexist traditions under the garb of culture. While the display of these traditions are not new in Malayalam cinema, this is the first time they are being shown as toxic and harmful. Especially in the 21st century. These movies masterfully depict the fault in patriarchy as a system and show how men defend and bolster it. This is refreshing in a time where we still overuse the age-old trope of individuals being villains with no context of what shaped them.
While film industries like Bollywood still bank on misogyny and sexist ‘jokes’ for their humor quotient, Malayalam cinema is leading the way and raising the bar by showcasing all that is wrong with our society today.