Ten minutes into the conversation with Jeo Baby and I am completely floored. He is talking in detail about the time he spends in the kitchen, about the endless process of making a meal, cleaning and tidying, feeding children, about avoiding dinner invitations by friends, simply at the thought of women slaving in the kitchens and advising nieces about the patriarchal traps awaiting them in a marriage and I feel like I am talking to a woman friend or as if I am hearing excerpts from a conversation I had with a woman friend. It’s uncanny how deeply and profoundly this man has understood and empathised with women.
What you are hearing is not a pretentious, pedantic observation of a newly baptized woke man, but that of someone who has lived and experienced the drudgery of domesticity, like a woman. By choice, of course. That’s exactly why he was able to make a film like The Great Indian Kitchen with such nuance. And why a large number of women are writing heartfelt essays about the film which they feel are a mirror to their lives. The film is about Indian families’ worst kept secret that has also kept it alive for centuries. The amount of unrewarded physical labour undertaken by a woman to keep the household together and the thankless 24/7 slogging she has been assigned to by men in the family with the sole purpose of serving them. It talks about patriarchy, male entitlement and the manipulative social structure called marriages. Currently the most discussed film on social media, Director Jeo Baby talks at length about his fourth film, after Randu Penkuttikal, the critically acclaimed Kunju Deivam and Kilometres and Kilometres.
You said the motivation was your own experience. That, Nimisha Sajayan’s difficulties were something you had experienced in the kitchen. How did it evolve into this story of everyday women?
When I made the decision to share the kitchen responsibilities with my wife, I wasn’t aware of the rocky path ahead. That was an eye-opener—cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and it had come to a stage when I was dreading the prospect of having to do this all my life. That made me think of the women who were trapped in these kitchens. At least I have the option to make excuses and walk out and no one would question me because of my gender. When I told my wife about making a film on this, she told me a lot of things, as did my sister and other female friends. I think what has been said in the film should be only a fraction of what they have endured in real life. I am in awe of women.
What did they tell you were some of the most common gripes?
It was the time when they retire for the night and are often required to agree for sex even when they are bone tired with smelly hands and their mind already on next day’s work. I remember not being able to write and constantly thinking about the dust around me. Only women can multitask. I remember feeling angry at my own kids for messing the house. Men usually never think about such things. When we get invited for dinner, I would be more concerned about the workload of the women and try to avoid it. Be it women staying at home or office, the load remains the same.
What was the other homework you did?
I started reading writings by women and often got such overwhelming stories that further inspired me. In fact, my wife thought I had turned into a woman and only kept talking about them. I remember getting into an argument with one of my associates for marrying as he wanted someone to take care of his mother. I advised him to get a home nurse instead. Even between me and my wife, we would often talk about the lack of freedom since marriage, despite all that progressiveness.
There is a segment in Adaminte Variyellu. Did that inspire?
Interestingly I saw KG George’s Adaminte Variyellu 20 days before the shoot. I was watching Ee Kanni Koodi and was blown away. Till then I was only aware of his Panchavadi Palam and Yavanika. I followed it up with Irakal, Mattoral and Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback. While Adaminte Variyellu, we realized that he had already done a lot of things we were planning to incorporate. For example, Suhasini’s kitchen was shown in a long take and we were planning that. There are lives of three women in that and even our cinema was that. Nimisha’s life was the core but in between we thought of peeking into other homes—her friend’s (a govt office) and a teacher (her kitchen). But after this we were wondering if we should do a film at all. In a way it is good that we saw the film or would have been accused of being like the film. First draft had a shot of Nimisha in the mental asylum after her outburst. Having said that I know my film only stands below KG George. Sreevidya is advised to go back to her husband’s home and that’s what Nimisha’s mom tells her. We are not moving away from Nimisha. The detailing around the kitchen came through our observations and detailing and that’s perhaps what women found very touching.
Were the actors difficult to convince?
Initially, Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan weren’t on my mind. 15 days before the shoot it was my producer who advised me to speak to Suraj. When I detailed the scenes, he was curious to know if his character changes in the end. I explained my reasons and he asked for a few days and then agreed. I think he was being socially responsible.
I am told he has contributed to the scenes…
Suraj’s character is very gentle and I even told him he can be aggressive in that scene where he pushes her when falls from the scooter and the one where he tells her not to apply for a job. But he was very subtle and that was very effective. Dialogues weren’t written for any scene. My mind had certain key dialogues and the actor’s contribution is there. That first night scene where he asks whether he can switch off the lights was his suggestion. Suraj would suggest dialogues for co-actors too. He prepares a lot, questions a lot about the characters and took a lot of time to dub for the character. The whole unit was an excellent creative exchange of ideas.
She only wanted the scene order correctly and complied to how we wanted her character to perform. She cooks at home and some of the stuff in the kitchen was made by her. She is a switch on and switch off actor. Different acting processes but both produce the same effect.
A few felt the menstruation portions were a bit stretched from reality.
My wife is a Hindu and I am a Christian. When I visited my wife’s house, they would talk about inauspicious days. I have seen this young Engineer who won’t pluck curry leaves or Tulsi leaves on inauspicious days. Women who aren’t very religious find this Sabarimala restrictions rather harrowing. They can’t even see their husbands. And it’s a practice even today. I think it wasn’t present in Nuclear families simply because the men didn’t want to make food and therefore kept these rigid rules aside.
You said women were emotional lovers while men go after physical love…
I think women aren’t loved enough by their men. It’s when they are emotionally ignored that they get into extra-marital affairs and look for the same emotional solace, unlike men who look for sex. I know a lot of women who have gone through this emotional trauma.
I am told initially you had planned to keep a Muslim backdrop…
We did a few discussions. But the menstruation taboo is not there in Christian or Muslim households. We wanted to tell a story which covered a lot of women’s issues. That’s why we shifted to the Hindu household. Having said that a lot of Muslim women have asked us to make a film about them. About early marriage, pregnancy, elaborate feasting.
Men largely are disturbed by this film…
Yes, men are overwrought with guilt and it’s the social media ire which is forcing many to write flattering things about the film. Though I have read posts where men have openly expressed their guilt.
I kept wondering her plight if she got pregnant…
That was deliberately avoided. Just the thought of her character going through it suffocated me.
And the celluloid women who inspired you?
All I can think of are all the KG George celluloid women.