What a Kerala robot, the Bombay High Court and French and Indian films tell us about domestic work

Recently, a 17-year-old living in Kerala created a robot to help his mother with household chores. His mother struggled with household chores, so the caring young boy created the robot especially for this task. The act made visible what we reject in our daily lives – the series of unrecognized tasks that make up housework. And yet, the choice to create the robot in the form of a human being, and more specifically of a woman, gives us the opportunity to reflect on our deep-seated prejudices about household chores.

Released over 40 years ago in 1975, French director Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels also noticed the repetition of household chores and made it visible — by capturing it on film. Akerman called his film’s imagery “the lowest in the hierarchy of images”, otherwise considered too insignificant to film. Through long, uninterrupted takes, the 3 hour 20 minute film sees its protagonist perform these tasks in near real time in front of us. The takes seem too long because we are bored with her. And just like that, our relationship with what we see around us all the time, but don’t really witness, changes. We are starting to notice it.

Recently, Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen, released last year, has also highlighted the drudgery of household chores. Its female protagonist has discovered the horrors of housework, cleaning up after insensitive men whose investment in the home is minimal. Curiously though, in making its point about women’s unequal burden, the film chose to demean the work itself. Housework is disgusting, the movie seemed to say. In contrast, the feminist critique, formulated after many struggles, is that household chores should be shared and respected. It may be tedious, but we need to find ways to lighten its burdens. The shape of the robot could have been gender neutral.

Degrading manual labor is the product of a caste-based society where there is a hierarchy within household chores, the unpleasant parts of which are outsourced to others – ask domestic workers who trade their labor for wages misery, with no days off, unless deceptively taken. A recent case taken up by the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court underscored this when a plaintiff described the harassment she faced at her husband’s home as “treated like a servant”. The judgment, in response, argued that work performed for the “purpose of the family” cannot be equated with work “generally performed by a servant.” He then listed that work – washing utensils, washing clothes and sweeping. The language used by both parties suggests that exploitation of the domestic worker is acceptable. This exploitation is financial but also emotional – imagine the burden of doing a job where you are required to remain invisible. The least we can do is get her respected and paid properly. To be known.

What Jeanne Dielman does, making it a feminist classic you can watch over and over again, is notice the chores carefully. We discover not only the monotony, but the complexity of it. How the little things that make up this work must have been refined over the years by those who took care of the house, who then passed on the know-how from one generation to the next. The respect given to hacks made by generations of anonymous women – colloquially captured in the phrase “dadima ke nuskhe”, when it comes to food and health – could also extend to the day-to-day tasks of managing a home. Someone’s work and attention has gone into determining what works best. And so rejecting this work is not good policy – noticing it is. With that attention comes love, and with love comes attention. And sometimes, as the 17-year-old discovered, innovation.

Aakshi Magazine, a writer based in delhi, teaches film studies at Ashoka University and recently co-edited ReFocus: The Films of Zoya Akhtar. The views expressed above are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of Ashoka University

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