So the latest buzz is that award-winning actor Aishwarya Rajesh will play Nimisha Sajayan's character in the Tamil remake of The Great Indian Kitchen that has become a pan-India rage since it dropped on Neestream in January.
Virtually nil promotions in an era of hyper-marketing; a release on a brand-new Malayalam-only OTT platform in the age of multi-language, trans-national giants Netflix and Amazon; a Malayalam film in a country where so-called 'national' newspapers and TV news persist with their pro-Hindi, pro-Bollywood bias; a story indicting patriarchy in the majority community at a time when Hindutva forces are on a rampage " these factors might have been hurdles for any other film, but for The Great Indian Kitchen they have become measures of the extent to which a significant number of Indians will embrace cinema in any language and on any accessible space, so long as the theme and quality appeal to them.
In this interview, 38-year-old writer-director Jeo Baby speaks, among other matters, of the self-awareness that The Great Indian Kitchen brought him. Excerpts from the English translation of a conversation conducted largely in Malayalam:
Your wife Beena Jeo is credited as the creative head of The Great Indian Kitchen. You have also listed a bunch of women's names for creative contribution. How much of the accuracy in this film's observations about women's lives is a result of the fact that a woman, your wife, is the creative head of the project?
I spoke to a lot of women to make this film. I spoke to every woman who is open with me. I have given some of their names in the credits. Some asked me not to give their names.
To be honest, while studying women's lives, I have sometimes been startled. In the process of making this film, I myself have changed. I have realised what a jerk I have sometimes been, and during this two-year journey I got to a state when I felt I had entered the woman's mind.
As for my wife, in addition to sharing her inner feelings as a woman with me, she helped me understand the restrictions in a Hindu home because she is from a Hindu family. Whenever I had a doubt I would immediately call her.
Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan in The Great Indian Kitchen.
So that's how The Great Indian Kitchen makes such acute observations about the experience of being a woman?
Yes. In addition, I have spent a lot of time doing housework myself, so I have observed the goings on. My situation was the same as Nimisha's, I have gotten stuck in the kitchen as if I had lost my freedom. That is when I felt like doing a film like this.
Men don't usually get stuck in the kitchen. What do you mean by that?
Before I got married, I decided I want equality in the kitchen and that my wife should not be the only one doing kitchen work. As a result, I have ended up spending the entire day in the kitchen. The cleaning, the waste management was all very complicated for me.
But you were not in an exploitative situation. This film is not about how complicated kitchen work is, it is about exploitation and the rest of the family's indifference...
True. I, my wife, my DoP and my editor have been having discussions about making this movie since 2017. I've also been thinking a lot about women's lives, about how women are bound to the kitchen or the inside of the house, how even working women are expected to come home after work and do all the housework. I've understood how dreadful this makes women's lives. In the meantime, the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on Sabarimala. This court order that is important to women's lives was opposed by some people without reason. That is not how it should be in a progressive society. All this is linked to the house and the kitchen. What these fellows are saying is that women should just stay at home. So that is what I have used in my film.
It's great that your film takes a stand against those who think menstruating women are impure and should not enter the kitchen. But many women have extreme period pain or bleeding and need rest during that time, which is why period leave in workplaces is being discussed. Could you have brought that nuance into the film?
In the same country which is saying there should be period leave, there are also people who want to keep women at a distance during their periods " not just in Kerala but across India. We are a country of such contrasts. It is only in nuclear families that this doesn't happen, only because if for 4-5 days in the month women were to be segregated, then there would be no one to make food for these fellows.
But when the household help asks Nimisha's character to rest during her periods, she shrugs it off. She wants to work and can, because she has no pain or excess bleeding. For women who do, the only way they get rest in conservative families is because they are forced to stay away from the kitchen since they're deemed impure.
(He pauses) It's true that when a woman is forced to stay apart, she gets rest, but the reason she is made to stay away is not to give her rest, but because she is considered impure and unhygienic. How can people who think that way be caring?
I'm not saying these families are caring. I'm saying, there is so much detail in your film so could you not have brought in this additional dimension to the discussion on periods?
That is what I'm saying " women are kept apart not for rest but because they are not allowed in the kitchen. Why can't they go to the temple? Not to rest. That is why I didn't discuss this. The issue here is not allowing women near you, but not out of concern for them.
I have been able to bring some points in and not some others. Sorry.
Oh no, why are you saying "sorry"? Are you upset?
No, I've never seen the point you mentioned, Anna. These people don't consider that women need rest, and I only looked at it from the angle that they see menstruating women as impure.
Okay. Unlike The Great Indian Kitchen, mainstream Malayalam films tend to normalise domestic violence. In Aadya Rathri, Biju Menon's character speaks jokingly of marital rape. Ayyappanum Koshiyum is a nice film marred by that scene in which Prithviraj's character casually slaps his wife. Why is this happening?
That's because in Malayalam cinema, like in all cinema, if domestic violence is shown then the man will reform by the film's end if he's the hero. Reforming him is the responsibility of the heroine and those around him. I decided to move away from the kind of cinema with villainous characters who beat up, threaten, rape and yet are in a sense accepted, which is the way our cinema is going. If you ask why, the truth is, this is how our society is " the politics in our homes, our schools, our society is all wrong. Cinema emerging from such a society will of course be like this.
You said usually a film shows domestic violence to show the person improving in the end, but that is not how it is in most Malayalam films that normalise domestic violence.
Perhaps when the hero hits his wife, the audience sitting in the theatre is a social group that will clap. Why? No one knows. Prithviraj too does not know. That was such a terrible scene (in Ayyappanum Koshiyum). When there was so much else that was good about that film, I find it hard to understand what the director intended with that scene. Imagine instead if in that scene the wife had hit him back? But if you show something like that it will create huge problems here. So if you ask why, the answer is that our social circumstances are like this.
Netflix and Amazon rejected The Great Indian Kitchen though it is in the same league as the sort of Malayalam film being done by Fahadh Faasil, Parvathy, Dileesh Pothan, that has in the past decade got national attention. Is this a problem Malayalam cinema is facing " that theatres and streaming platforms have not evolved at the same speed as audiences?
Yes. What happened for Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Maheshinte Prathikaram and Kumbalangi Nights is happening for The Great Indian Kitchen. We are getting an audience and reviews from outside Kerala and outside India. But keep in mind, such Malayalam films don't happen routinely, so the revenue from Kerala alone is not great for streaming platforms. Hindi has a presence across India and Tamil Nadu is a large state, so a large number of people subscribe to these platforms specifically for Hindi and Tamil films, but Malayalam is spoken in a small state so they do not get that many subscribers coming to them for Malayalam films alone.
Piracy makes things worse. I was shocked to discover that within the first week of The Great Indian Kitchen's release, although it was being talked about across India, only 1.5 lakh people had paid money and watched it on Neestream whereas I heard that about 18 lakh people had actually watched it by then " the 18 lakh figure must be true, otherwise it could not have become a talking point across India in the way it had by then. Clearly those who didn't watch it on Neestream watched pirated downloads on places like Telegram. This is what is killing the industry. We are unable to break this and the government is doing nothing.
When a film comes on any platform, whether Amazon or Netflix, if it is premiered at 10 a.m. and finishes at 12, then at 12 a print of the same quality is on a platform like Telegram. Then who will see it on the streaming platform? We have employed blockers, but a 1,000 new links come up by the time they block 100 links.
But piracy is a problem for all Indian film industries, not Malayalam alone¦
True, but it makes things more difficult for a small industry like Malayalam. If it weren't for illegal platforms, OTT platforms would do better, their purchasing power would increase, they could buy more films.
Doesn't the fact that Netflix and Amazon Prime rejected The Great Indian Kitchen show a lack of instinct for the sort of Malayalam film that tends to get pan-India traction?
Yes it does. And certainly there are discussions happening internally I think about why they rejected this movie. I'm not blaming anyone, but one channel that I approached told me: 'The film's script is not fine. Next time when you are making a film, first show us the script " we will correct it and give it back to you.' What is one to say to people who say such things?
Who said this? Netflix or Amazon?
(He laughs) Zee Keralam.
Did they say this officially or unofficially?
Over the phone. Netflix and Amazon did not give any reason " they simply said the film does not meet their criteria. When we mailed asking what their criteria were, they did not reply.
Is it possible that Amazon Prime and Netflix didn't pick up the film due to its stand on menstruation and the Sabarimala shrine because right-wing Hindutva forces in north India have become pretty aggressive?
I can't say anything about that, Anna, because only Amazon saw the film and rejected it. Netflix rejected it without seeing it. And neither of them gave us their reason. But the big Malayalam channels did say they cannot take the film because of this (Sabarimala) issue.
Officially or unofficially?
Over the phone. They won't do these things on email.
Could you explain the significance of the songs accompanying the opening and closing credits of The Great Indian Kitchen?
In our film, the household help sings these songs. The first one is linked to her life, it is her cultural song, a song from her community, her caste. It is a song of the Parayar people.
The Dalit caste, right?
Yes. You know the trick she uses in her life? Even when she has periods, she enters this forbidden kitchen and works " that is what the first song is about. (Note: the household help does not inform her employers when she is menstruating because she cannot afford to stop earning on those days of the month.) And the second song is the one we have also kept in the end. Remember the sequence in which Nimisha and Suraj's characters speak about foreplay, and he says when he sees her he does not feel like doing any foreplay? Then the household help is singing about a woman's beauty, her body, her hair.
I understood those words as describing society's expectations of women " she must be a perfect beauty, perfect in kitchen work. In addition to speaking of her hair and her beauty, the lyrics speaks of how well she cooks tapioca.
There are two ways of looking at it. Your interpretation is fine too, Anna. But the way I used it, it's about a kind of love between two women, not with any other meaning but a friendship from which is coming her saying, 'How beautiful your body is. The man who lies with you doesn't realise that.' And at the end of the song the meaning is that at the time of your periods, instead of being prim and proper and sitting in one place¦ Don't we say "therichcha penna"? It is a song about that kind of woman. We are saying through our film that our girls should be like that.
"Therichcha penna", meaning?
Now how do I say it in English? For example you know some celebrity women who are progressive thinkers? You can think of it as a girl who climbs trees and does things that are not considered socially acceptable. Some people don't like women who ride a Bullet or Royal Enfield " about such women they say, she is a "therichcha penna".
You mean rebellious? I remember as a child visiting Kerala and hearing people say, "she is a maramkaiyari" (literally: she climbs trees).
Exactly! That is the exact translation. And our film is telling maramkaiyari girls to climb trees, live your life as you wish.
Considering the censorship and right-wing attacks on Hindi shows like Tandav and Mirzapur, is a film like yours that openly discusses Sabarimala possible in another language, especially Hindi? Does Malayalam cinema have freedom that filmmakers in other states do not have?
But in Malayalam too now we have Censor problems. Recently, Varthamanam did not get a Censor clearance at first and had to go to a review committee. Honestly, I was tense about The Great Indian Kitchen. Fortunately, the Censor screening committee had two to three women and was headed by a woman, so I knew they would understand it at a personal level far more than any man.
But isn't the experience of Varthamanam unusual in Kerala?
Yes it is. But we cannot say Kerala is safe anymore. Trance did not get a Censor clearance at first. So such things are happening here too.
You said we can't say Kerala is safe anymore. In north India those words have a different connotation because artists here are facing violence, threats, legal action, even arrests. With regard to Kerala, you were only talking about Censorship, is that right?
Yes. And Censorship has a national identity, it comes under the Central government, the state does not have a particular role in it. So I was very scared that The Great Indian Kitchen will not easily get a Censor clearance, but I was wonder-struck and excited and thankful to the Censor Board because they passed my film without a single cut or mute.
Even in most women-centric films, the final shot is often of a man or a man and woman together, but The Great Indian Kitchen's first and last shot focus on Nimisha Sajayan, and you have given her a low-angle shot of the sort that male heroes get in very commercial films.
Our films have been a certain way so far, so we wanted to make an emphatic shift with The Great Indian Kitchen. (Spoilers in the next sentence) As you say, without saying Suraj's character changes and that Nimisha and Suraj lived together happily, we showed a woman leaving and we get to a point where she's happy. (Spoiler alert ends) The film begins and ends with a dance practice. We wanted to end on a moment of happiness for Nimisha. The clap she gives is a clap for herself. We wanted to end on that, which is why we shot it that way.