Readers Write In #365: The Great Indian Kitchen Sink

Posted on May 20, 2021

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(by Karthik Amarnath)

The most fascinating fixture in Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen is a big metal sink that sits at the end of a granite kitchen counter. Its a fixture thats constantly in action, aided by a whole posse of accessories. There’s the tap delivering water from above, a leaky pipe transferring the returns below, a white bucket underneath the pipe collecting the leaks, and an old jute sack below the bucket soaking up the spillovers. The movie spends so much time around the sink that it turns out to be a receptacle not just for the hodgepodge of household items, but also for a multitude of metaphorical musings.  

Take the undercurrent of faith that guides this traditional patriarchal household. I’m not talking about the Sabarimalai rituals in the latter part of the movie. The faith I’m referring to is less about the worship of a deity than about treating the men as resident deities.  The movie even seems to portray the men as such. We see the grand patriarch of the family mostly anchored to his recliner like he were the central idol in a Padmanabhaswamy temple. His son, the patriarch in waiting, is often shot in a serene silence immersed in Pranayama. With all that inner peace, there is little doubt that he will one day inherit the mantle from his reclining idol. And if these implicit indicators aren’t enough, through the last half hour of the movie, the men refer to themselves literally as Gods. 

The same kind of divine status isn’t accorded to the women who toil away in the kitchen like they were just priests for pots and pans. This undercurrent of faith goes all the way to the kitchen sink, where we witness the pots and pans being bathed everyday like it were the daily abhishekam performed on idols in a shrine. The leaky pipe underneath the sink drips with post-cleanse water which is collected in the white bucket much like a brass vessel might collect ambrosial bath water in a temple. And one day the collected water from the bucket is “served to devotees” making it the movie’s most metaphorical mass moment. 

great indian kitchen

The dripping pipe with the bucket below is also a running metaphor for one of the movie’s other core themes which has to do with “purity”. There’s the purity of tradition pushed by the patriarch who shuns pressure cookers, washing machines and women’s professional aspirations. The women, consigned to the kitchen sink to purify the pots and pans, are left to collect the dripping condescension for missing elaichi in black tea or serving food that is reheated. 

The purity of tradition makes way for the tradition of purity in the movie’s final stretch, which gets amplified by the Sabarimalai context. This is the tradition of purity that sends a man to a cleansing ritual just because a woman gave him a helping hand. But despite pointers to the obvious, neither the tradition nor the broken pipe, according to him, is in urgent need of repair. And so not only does the woman have to keep dumping the pipe residue onto a trough outside, but she herself ends up getting dumped in the doghouse for having a period. 

For most of the movie, the woman keeps absorbing the treatment meted out to her, much like the sack placed underneath the sink soaks up the spilling wastewater.  We see her replace the sack again and again, each time leaving the soaked ones to hang out in the sun. At some point the woman realizes the dirty sack enjoys more freedom than she does. She decides that she’s taken in enough, and we get a literal depiction of a well known kitchen sink metaphor. That makes for the movie’s most obvious mass moment.