Hot off the stove

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on January 16, 2018
Cinema amma: Wholesome and healthy, never wanton or sensual; actors Savitri and a young Kamal Hassan in a still from Padha Kanikai.

Cinema amma: Wholesome and healthy, never wanton or sensual; actors Savitri and a young Kamal Hassan in a still from Padha Kanikai.

Spice it up: Kamal Hassan showed the leading man could cook and keep his Tamil masculinity intact

Spice it up: Kamal Hassan showed the leading man could cook and keep his Tamil masculinity intact

On the 25th anniversary of Tamil classic Michael Madana Kama Rajan, food-porn and other idli-vadai matters

Remember Raghu the Bawarchi (cook) in the eponymous Hrishikesh Mukherjee film? He was mysterious, sappy, clever and much more than a cook. And Rajesh Khanna’s acting, in the title role, effortlessly brought this out. As a bawarchi, Khanna the superstar was sexy.

Now the Tamil screen mother who cooks, with whom I was more familiar than with her Hindi counterpart in Hrishi da’s film, was a different creature. If she was poor and sacrificial, she would emerge from the clay stoves with soot in her hair but a brave smile on her lips for her son, a tubby Tamil matinee idol. And boy! did she cook?

If it was gruel in a clay pot, the hero would say that it tasted better than nectar. If it was an all-plugs-out banana leaf spread, the hero would slurp away as she cooed indulgently for him to eat up.

I grew up with a mother who was fiercely territorial about the kitchen, irritable and fussy about how we ate or conducted ourselves in her kitchen. It then only seemed natural that I had a secret fantasy love-life with all the mothers in the Tamil movies. On-screen ammas were seldom prickly about stainless steel vessels, lids and ladles. They never forced Viva or Bournvita down their lactose-intolerant children to collect those “beautiful bottles” to up-cycle them into condiment holders. They did not turn apoplectic over said bottle lids not being screwed on right. They would either swing a ladle before the camera as they lovingly chide the hero to “wash up and come to eat” or fret that city-life had weakened our chubby hero and he needed fattening up.

The only time cooking or food came close to a blatant sexual innuendo was when Sivaji Ganesan lip-smackingly demanded of the heroine, playing a waitress, “ Rendu idli oru vadai kidaikuma? (Can I have two idlis and a vada?)” in the now-forgotten Lorry Driver Rajakannu (1981).

The big change was marked 25 years ago when one of Tamil Nadu’s sexiest stars, Kamal Hassan, played a cook. That too a Palakkadu cook (the best, as they claim to be), no less. Michael Madana Kama Rajan remains a cult classic. His bumbling lovableness and benign comic interludes have easily marked Kameswaran as one of Tamil cinema’s beloved characters. And Hassan made his point: the leading man could cook and the Tamil masculinity was not threatened by a job that did not allow him to swagger and roar.

In cookdom, though, the masculine rules are in place. The top chefs of Chennai for large community events like weddings are always men. A wedding cook from Palakkadu was good (“Hopefully the boy’s people will be pleased as they are from south, no?); a cook from that snooty Thanjavur belt who knew the sambar from their former Maratha rulers was a surefire showpiece in the wedding log. Even today, from ‘Arusuvai’ Nataraja Iyer to the newly opened Pattappa’s Thaligai in Luz, the celebrity chef is always male in Madras. Whoever got a maami (brahmin woman) to lead the kitchen at a wedding has not been spotted yet by Chennai’s newshounds.

Tamil women have had their places marked in the domestic ambit, their fame relegated to writing cookbooks. Check out the big names: Samaithu Paar by Meenakshi Ammal, released in the 1950s, has a cult following. Chandra Padmanabhan, author of Dakshin: Vegetarian Cuisine From South India, in the 1990s. Chettinad cuisine cookbooks by Meiyammai Murugappan and Vishalakshi Ramaswamy or Alamelu Vairavan, among others. Sabita Radhakrishna continues to write interesting cookbooks on heritage cuisines of various communities of Tamil Nadu (her latest, Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine from Tamil Nadu).

Hassan may have played sexy in a song, spicing up the image of the male Tamil cook on screen in MMKR, but the matrons of Madras have exhibited prim sobriety and concentrated on food alone in their cookbooks.

The most popular were grannies like Meenakshi Ammal, and their approach to food remains like that of the Tamil movie amma: wholesome and healthy, never wanton or sensual.

But Hassan has finally found a match off screen in gastro-porn queen and Top Chef hostess, Padma Lakshmi, Madras’s export to Manhattan. And the long line of mother figure cookbook writers has now been broken by Lakshmi, who gives the idea of a nice Iyer girl serving food-porn a whole new twist.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on October 28, 2016

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