Kitchen As A Gendered And Filmic Space In Indian Cinema

Food has been colonized and commercialized by various formats of electronic media throughout the years, and the recent boom in viewing “food as content” that took place was because of the pandemic. The kitchen as a filmic space has been used in cinemas for quite some time. When we talk about using the kitchen as a space, it includes not only the mise-en-scene but also the cultural reflection through its elements. While we talk about “filmic space,” by definition, it means the camera gains autonomy over the space where it is being shot; the perspective could be that of the director or the character. Space, time, and narrative are equally important in the realization of a coherently positioned space. The mobility of the camera helps us examine the space in the frame and hold within limits, as well as the space “out of frame.” This frame space sets up the narrative space where one element leads to another.


With the understanding of filmic space, for instance, if we take the film “It’s Complicated,” directed by Nancy Meyers, we see the importance of the kitchen in its entirety. The character portrayed by Meryl Streep and her journey after getting divorced completely revolved around the concept of kitchens and getting her “dream” kitchen someday. Behind the concept of the “dream kitchen,” Meyers tries to explore the independence and self-growth of the character of Meryl Streep after going through her divorce and all its complications.

In the understanding of the Indian kitchen, we are looking into the films which represent the architecture and aesthetics of our daily kitchen. As our country is an amalgamation of various different communities and ethnicities, the design and architecture of the space also vary from place to place. In films, like the system existing in society, the presence of women is portrayed as a secondary addition to the narrative, as a support to the hero, and when it comes to food, her social roles are also limited to the kitchen space or the preparation and serving of food to the man she is supposed to support. In a sequence from the film “Goynar Baksho” (2013), directed by Aparna Sen, Konkona Sen Sharma’s character is seen to be cursed by the ghost of a widowed “Pishi,” played by Mousumi Chatterjee; the ghost, while casually talking with Sen Sharma, keeps telling her to add salt to the meat preparations in an attempt to ruin the dish without Sen Sharma’s knowledge. If the woman of the house could prepare good food and turned out to be a good cook, she was given a separate identity as the “cook” of the house, which was also her pride. In the mentioned scene, the ghost of the widow’s purpose was to malign her reputation as the good cook of the house, thus hurting her pride. Again, women’s worth is being judged by the quality of the food that they prepare, and that has become their sole identity.


The film is about a woman’s struggle to get from the private and the public space. In one sequence of the film, meat is cooked, and Sen Sharma, the new wife of the house, is given the responsibility of making meat for dinner. Her character is portrayed as the perfect new wife of the house, who is a good cook as well, which works in her favor. The ghost of “Pishi,” a young widow who was sexually deprived throughout her puberty and not allowed to have any good, non-vegetarian food all through her life, is shown to be jealous of Sen Sharma’s position in the house. For this context, we have to understand how widows were treated in society and observe the relationship that existed between these two women. 

Relationships between food and women are complicated. The scenario for widows was different than this; widowed women who were very young in age weren’t even allowed to be inside the kitchen as their presence would ruin food items, especially the ones that weren’t allowed to them. Widows had to eat vegetarian food and were deprived of all the luxurious exotic items made in the kitchen as their punishment for becoming widows early. The widows of Bengal were not allowed to cook or prepare any food; their meals used to be disagreeable, which we get to know from another sequence of the mentioned film. In one sequence of the film, Sen Sharma is shown serving Pishi panta bhaat (fermented rice in water) as her lunch. Through this, we can analyze that the condition of widows in a household is powerless; her existence is completely ignored, just an extra member of the family. But in this film, the character of Pishi is shown to have a box of heavy jewelry, which indicates a woman’s relationship with jewelry as well.


The kitchen space in the film is big, clean, and well-lit; it was located in the suburbs, so city life had not particularly influenced the old customs and traditions that went into building a kitchen. The women of the house are also seen to be well-informed about their economic conditions, whereas the men dwell on the nostalgic past and are determined to carry forward the zamindari tradition by not earning through labor. The new wife (played by Sen Sharma) is seen to be taking matters into her hand and exerting the power that she had by establishing herself as a good wife and a good cook of the house, convincing her husband to become a businessman. This is another example of how women in the twentieth century worked or stepped into the public sphere despite of being staying indoors, spending their major time in the kitchen, and performing their duties adequately. Through this film, Sen explores the complicated condition of women through preparation and in the context of food. Food is gendered, which is explored and established through the film with nuance, and that is the brilliance of Sen’s filmic approach.

Position Of Female Characters In Mass Commercial Films

The year 2022 is being blessed with great films, blurring the line between arthouse and mass films, making it one of the best years for audiences. Commercial Indian films like “RRR,” “KGF 2,” “Brahmastra,” “Kantara,” and others have been commercially successful in the global market. All the mentioned films have the male protagonists playing the same old concept of “man-child,” and the female characters are to be supportive of them. Some of the films which are mentioned come under the new term called ‘Pan Indian’ cinema. And this group of films follows the same narrative of a hyper-masculine lead role with supporting characters played by women. In the film “RRR,” Alia Bhatt’s character is in the film only for half an hour at max in a three-hour long film. 


“Brahmastra” is a magnum opus with a lot of experimentation in filmmaking done in contemporary Bollywood, yet the narrative falls short of a well-established female role. The character of Alia Bhatt was there as a constant support for the male lead in his quest to finish a mission. The character is fragile and submissive to the man; she is a trope for men to fulfill the man’s desires and wishes. This submissive portrayal of women has been dominating Bollywood narratives throughout; and the characters written for women are insignificant to that of male leads. In “Brahmastra” as well, Alia Bhatt’s character is a trope to unleash the superpower of Ranbir Kapoor, who was unaware of the mentioned talent.

Keeping aside Bollywood, if we further delve into Indian cinema, films like “Pushpa,” “Kantara,” “RRR,” and others, the characteristics of female protagonists in the film are very similar. The women characters are kept in the background, with no depth and development that would add to the narrative but mere tropes. The male characters in films are entitled to work without any interference, but it becomes completely opposite when it comes to women. In the film Pushpa, we witness a celebration of toxic masculinity through a progressive lens. In one sequence, the female lead, Rashmika Mandana, was threatened with rape by Pushpa’s (Allu Arjun’s) employer in exchange for her father’s freedom. The main protagonist stalked the woman throughout. It is accepted for men to do whatever they can, but the same tends to fail for women.


Similarly, “RRR” and “Kantara” are both films that are very different from each other.  but come together when it comes to the portrayal of women in cinema. In “RRR,” the female character had very little screen space, time, and dialogue; her counterpart abandoned her in the village and went on a journey to fulfill his father’s last wishes. The “sacrifice” of Sita was romanticized throughout; it was expected of her to let go of her husband, which cost her the abandonment of her beloved. She abided by and accepted her husband’s choices and wishes, which was applauded by the audience. In “Kantara,” the main protagonist is a “man-child” who is “the guy” of the village, fighting, partying, and everything; the character has a girlfriend whom he keeps stalking and talking to even when she feels uncomfortable. In one sequence, the character of Rishabh Shetty pinches the woman, which clearly caters to the male gaze of the audience.

All the mentioned films are vastly different in storytelling, but they are united in their understanding and portrayal of women. Women characters in these films are mere tropes, an added element to the background and their participation in singing-dancing. Even though this portrayal of women is changing through films, in the case of these major blockbusters, it is still the same. Men always get what they want, and the women cater themselves to their services as an assertion of their existence.


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Mouparna Guha
Mouparna Guha
Mouparna is a budding film and gender scholar with a degree in media and film studies.

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