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Reel under food

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on November 02, 2018

Go fish: It took a while for the Bengali’s fondness for fish — and fish curry — to get the lead role in a feature film. A still from Maacher Jhol (2017)

The Great Indian Appetite is finally finding a place in cinema

Dev D is a Paris-based chef, back home after years in exile. He is in Kolkata to see his ailing mother. And, to keep her happy and engaged, he wants to prepare for her the fish curry he fed her long years ago.

It took a while for the Bengali’s fondness for fish — and fish curry — to get the lead role in a feature film. But it finally did: Pratim D Gupta’s Bengali film Maacher Jhol (2018) is all about the elusive fish curry that Chef Dev has to cook. He fries the traditional masalas for the curry, but it is not the same. He adds chopped tomatoes, but his mother wrinkles her nose. He pours some orange juice into the gravy. Clearly, with the right flavours, he seeks to hold on to his mother.

 

The film has earned rave reviews. And it is among a growing band of films in India celebrating food. While food has been the focus of Hollywood for a while now — think Ratatouille, Chocolat,The Hundred-Foot Journey and Julie & Julia — it played a bit role in Indian cinema.

But that’s clearly changing. In Hindi films, as well as films in other languages, it has begun to play a pivotal role. And while there have been a host of films where food appears in good measure — in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, for instance, the two heroes conjure up food from thin air — two films have done their bit in putting food on the high table in Bollywood. The stories of Stanley ka Dabba and The Lunchbox are told through food. The first is about a schoolboy who cannot carry food from home and is secretly fed by his friends (to prevent a greedy teacher from grabbing the contents of their tiffin boxes or dabbas); the latter is about the relationship between soon-to-retire Sajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) and homemaker Ila (Nimrat Kaur). Fernandes’s life takes a turn for the better when, instead of greasy aloo gobhi from the neighbourhood eatery, he starts getting paneer kofta, soft rotis and baingan ka bharta — cooked by Ila for her husband but which by mistake land up in his steel tiffin box. What further whets Fernandes’s appetite are the letters that Ila packs in with as much care as the rotis. He reciprocates by writing back, revealing his fears, loneliness and, at times, his philosophy of life.

Other recent films have revolved around food, too. Take the 2017 film Chef. Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan) fails to impress his teenage son upon his return to Kochi after being fired from a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. He starts his own mobile kitchen, and the story unfurls. Earlier still, in Cheeni Kum, London’s most popular Indian restaurant’s owner-chef (Amitabh Bachchan) loses out to the appeal of kebabs from Delhi’s Nizamuddin area. The prospective father-in-law (Paresh Rawal) dismisses Buddhadev Gupta’s innovative vegetarian fare as “ghaas phoos” fit for the uninitiated. Acceptance finally comes with two special passes to a cricket match at Lord’s. And the knowledge that food has as many moods and nuances as human emotions. Also, there is no one way to get it right.

What’s for dinner: In Cheeni Kum, a vegetarian celebrity chef from London struggles to win the approval of his prospective father-in-law

 

Says Taran Adarsh, film trade analyst and critic, “India and food go hand in hand. And the bonding that builds over food is filled with emotion and warmth. If I were to pick a mainstream film that was full of food moments, I would say Hum Aapke Hain Koun! — the story was full of family functions and there were songs and food throughout.” Brought up in a joint family, Adarsh says it was easy for him to relate to the constant banter around the dining tables as shown in the film. He disagrees with the notion that the young, urban Indian — mostly a product of nuclear families — would not connect with the noisiness around family meals. “There is still a strong market for tradition,” he says, adding that the calorie-conscious millennial is open to the idea of bingeing through the eye.

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Of course, if there is one item that has found itself playing a role in Hindi films, it is the humble laddoo. Many an impoverished widow in the black-and-white cinema of the ’50s and ’60s has been moulding laddoos for her rebellious or unemployed son. The sweet made quite a return in the 2012 film English Vinglish.

Let’s have some more: In English Vinglish, Shashi Godbole’s classmates admire her for her food

 

“These are the best laddoos you will ever have and my wife was born to make laddoos,” Shashi Godbole’s (Sridevi) husband Satish (Adil Hussain) announces this to a room full of wide-eyed, eager-mouthed Americans in New York. The listeners respond by grabbing laddoos from a platter on the centre table while the gloating husband surveys the favourable impression his homemaker wife’s cooking has left on the gathering. The cook in question, however, smiles reluctantly at this exhibition of spousal pride. She knows that her husband thinks she can do very little or nothing besides rolling laddoos and beating eggs for omelettes.

Shashi’s humble skills at laddoo-making, however, help her sign up for an English class in upscale Manhattan. The home chef’s saving of $400 ensures that she goes back to India — to her middle-class household in Pune — a confident, enlivened person. The vowels and the verbs do her as much good as her teacher and fellow students’ admiration for her food and enthusiasm for learning.

Shashi’s parathas and idlis move her classmates to tears — the chillies, though, are a great support staff. Her eyes, “like two drops of coffee in a cloud of milk”, stoke feelings in French chef Laurent’s heart. When she leaves New York after a month or so, she wears the tag of an entrepreneur with pride and ease. Along the way, she learns the difference between French and Italian cuisines and can ask for “double cheese sandwich café latte and ice water” without fumbling for words.

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Sometimes, food is indeed a metaphor. Like Shashi, it helps Rani Mehra (Kangna Ranaut in Queen, 2014), from Rajouri in west Delhi, come into her own. She is on a solo “honeymoon” trip to Paris and Amsterdam, after having been ditched by her fiancé Vijay. It is while she is moping all by herself in her Paris hotel room that a nondescript cheese-tomato sandwich, made with the quintessential French baguette, pops up and endears her to the new Vijay — hotel staff Vijaylakshmi — in her life. This Vijay encourages her to enjoy wine, dance to Bollywood remix in a packed nightclub and explore Amsterdam, where Rani cooks French toast to befriend her three male roommates. She sprinkles chilli powder and salt at a dishy Italian chef’s claims of serving the best pasta in town. She also steals hearts and her first “lip to lip” kiss with the help of the golgappas she makes for a carnival.

As cinema in India takes new turns, so does the depiction of food. Food is not always celebratory. In Neeraj Ghaywan’s 2018 short film Juice, Manju Singh (Shefali Shah) sweats in a dimly-lit, ill-ventilated kitchen while her husband and friends enjoy homemade fries, whisky and cigarettes in the cool living room. Manju’s anger begins to simmer as she, along with the women who have accompanied their spouses to the Singh household, struggles to make a rusty table fan work. When a young girl is asked to serve food to her male siblings before she has her dinner, the mother in Manju revolts at the idea of her son getting accustomed to sexism in everyday life. She leaves the masala chicken to burn in the kadhai and goes straight for a jug of orange juice in the refrigerator. She helps herself to a glassful, seated before the cooler in the living room. Her frosty gaze silences everyone in the house.

This is us: A still from the Malayalam film Ustad Hotel, in which a grandson and grandfather bond over a family-run restaurant in Kozhikode

 

Far from the boxy apartment in Juice, young Faizi (Dulquer Salmaan in Ustad Hotel, 2012) finds himself in a family-run restaurant in Kozhikode. Without his passport — his father has confiscated it — the trained chef cannot fly to the UK for a new job. He bides time in the restaurant his grandfather Karim had started. Film critic and author Anna MM Vetticad calls the film “one of Indian cinema’s best ever portrayals of food as a central theme”. The grandfather and the grandson bond so beautifully that the latter abandons his plans of working abroad. He stays back to take his grandfather’s legacy forward. “The film’s rootedness in the culture of the place where it is set comes across in its profound understanding of the local cuisine, and the manner in which the two men emotionally connect over food,” says Vetticad.

Made five years after Ustad Hotel, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s black comedy Angamaly Diaries paints a vivid picture of Kochi’s northernmost suburb. “Food is referenced throughout the story, and one of hero’s romantic relationships is even equated with a ‘hit combination’ from a local eatery. The film’s brilliant cooking shots make it nothing short of a romance with food,” says Vetticad.

The trick lies in getting a good script and the eye for making food look appetising, says Adarsh. “The camera should be able to make the food talk. Food is not just about consuming; its making deserves equal importance,” he adds. Come to think of it, the making of a good food film is a bit like creating a recipe. There is no one — or right — way for it.

Published on November 02, 2018

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