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Feasting at the movies - the role of food in cinema

Food, crucial for sustenance, is also versatile and tempting in its appearance, aroma and ability to whet one’s appetite. On a medium as intensely monopolised by sight and sound as film, this craving takes the shape of a tantalising fantasy when scrumptious looks and mouth-watering description transform a moment into magic. It’s what makes Ranveer Singh hanker for pao bhaji after watching Rajkummar Rao’s Trapped (2017).

Secret sauce

Much of the sensory overload empowering this year’s breakout hit, Angamaly Diaries is drawn from mixing crime and chow. Anthony Varghese can barely contain his drool as he likens his love story to a hot-selling combination of egg and tapioca whilst drawing a delectable picture of his miniscule hometown’s reputation for zesty street food. In another Malayalam coming-of-age drama Ustad Hotel (2012), Dulquer Salmaan rebels against his prejudiced father to become a chef by working as an underling in his estranged grandfather’s modest eatery. As he gains on-the-ground experience in the ethics and economics of running a restaurant, he realises that the secret behind a flawless Malabari parotha and fragrant biryani is the desire to feed, not impress.

But not every chef is a picture of humility. Amitabh Bachchan’s authoritative baritone in Cheeni Kum (2007), as he rattles off the precise ingredients that go in making the world’s finest Hyderabadi zaffrani pulao, certainly don’t suggest him to be one. It’s this professional arrogance that helps him discover the one key ingredient completely missing in his personal life — romance.

Feasting at the movies - the role of food in cinema
 

Stories steeped in culinary passions, be it Chef (2014), Ratatouille (2007), Tampopo (1985), The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), Big Night (1996), Chocolat (2000), Julie & Julia (2009), Mostly Martha (2001) or, closer home Cheeni Kum and Ustad Hotel aren’t indulgent exercises in visual interest. Rather their conflict is build around or against this art form.

Culinary bonds

But food’s value lies in emotion not elitism, its reach goes beyond five-star kitchens and their elegantly plated portions. A perceptive Ritesh Batra uses it as a delicious metaphor in The Lunchbox (2013) to convey the hopes of a neglected, middle-class housewife as she affectionately packs in hot meals of bharwan karelas, paneer koftas and masala baingan intended for her indifferent spouse but relished by an empathetic stranger, following a delivery oversight. The duo’s correspondence over home-cooked goodies renders the bond a rare, rich intimacy than their platonic reality might permit.

The thing about flavour is you can rinse it off the mouth but it never quite leaves the memory. Nostalgic taste buds kick in every time someone posts pictures of a delicious looking platter. If only that plate could magically appear before me — sighs the lustful beholder. It’s the ultimate foodie fantasy delightfully realised in Satyajit Ray’s classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) when the titular pair avail one of the three wishes granted to them by the King of Ghosts. Bottom line: happiness is a thaali full of sumptuous Bengali delicacies.

In Dasari Narayana Rao’s maudlin Pyaasa Sawaan (1981), a remake of his Telugu hit, Yedanthasthula Meda (1980), Moushumi Chatterjee’s demand for “sukhe channe, desi ghee puris, aam ka aachar, kheer” is turned down to rub in the painful irony — when she had the health for an all-you-can-eat buffet, she had no money. Today she’s rich but forced to exercise a Jedi-like restraint on all things chatpata and greasy.

Feasting at the movies - the role of food in cinema
 

It’s possible that something as innocent as food can be the source of major heartburn. In one of the most poignant scenes of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning Iranian drama, The Salesman (2016), a wife lovingly prepares a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs for her husband and colleague’s kid. Still recovering from a harrowing episode that’s scarred their psyche and personal life, it’s the most peaceful dinner they’ve had in a while when the husband discovers the pasta was purchased from money that belongs to the unidentified attacker.Without as much as a second thought or consideration for his significant other’s fallen face, he dumps the contents of all three plates in the garbage can.

Cinematic device

On the desi turf, usually a peeved parent of the black sheep in the family starts hurling insults just as their offspring is about to put a morsel in his mouth. Luckily for Aamir Khan, he’s got a resourceful friend in Ayesha Jhulka who sneaks away some roti-sabzi right under her disapproving father’s nose in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). As opposed to Big B’s exit with a grumpy, growling stomach in Mukul Anand’s Agneepath (1990), the 2010 remake shows a melodramatic Hrithik Roshan refusing to let his mother’s criticism of his criminal ways come in the way of enjoying ma ke haath ka khana.

Food as comedic device dates back to Laurel and Hardy’s legendary pie fight in Battle of the Century (1927). One of the most iconic scenes in the epic Telugu fantasy Mayabazar (1957) depicts S V Ranga Rao’s droll Ghatotkacha sabotaging a wedding by gobbling up countless ladoos and polishing off a feast worthy of gods.

Feasting at the movies - the role of food in cinema
 

In the cult comedy Andaz Apna Apna (1994), Aamir and Salman Khan deploy it as a weapon to overthrow competition and win the hand of an heiress. If one puts the other on a revolting diet of adrak ka halwa and kali mirch ke ladoo, the latter exacts revenge by mixing julab in his rival’s lavish lunch spread of paya, chicken and kebab.

Love and lust

Mostly though, food is symbolic of cinematic affection that is little more than the one item that’s never off Bollywood’s menu — gajar ka halwa. Durga Khote sees the lad she treats like her own son after a long gap in Abhimaan (1973) but hasn’t forgotten what he likes to eat. Just a whiff of the meal she has in mind — baingan ka bhurta, kamal kakdi ke vade and besan ki roti (yeh moti moti) is enough to make him (and us) salivate and underscore the warmth they share.

Bawaarchi (1972), another Hrishikesh Mukherjee creation like Abhimaan, notes the wonders of gastronomy with fascination as well as to assert the wizardry of a multitasking domestic help. Anyone who can whip up exotic fare like yam kebabs and raw banana dum pukht in a jiffy has to be grabbed for keeps.

Not everyone is cut out to be a kitchen goddess as Parveen Babi hilariously demonstrates around an egg in Kaalia (1981), a shtick that’s actually not all that funny when you see through its thinly-veiled ‘a woman’s place is in the rasoi’ mindset. As is the notion that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach — a view Jolly LLB 2 (2017) casually subverts in Akshay Kumar’s roti-rolling pati.

The sensual side of food, often known to possess aphrodisiac properties, is the starting point of many a candlelight dinners. If Sanjay Dutt and Raveena Tandon give into hunger pangs in Aatish (1994) to recreate a coy version of Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger’s blindfolded food test in 91/2 Weeks (1986), Yash Chopra’s superhit Chandni (1989) employs the same trick without a hint of sexuality to design romantic mischief. Here, Sridevi convinces her fiancé Rishi Kapoor to guess all the edible items of an assorted box that includes a fiery green chilli.

Where ‘mirchi’ is a sign of the Chandni pair’s potent chemistry it acts as a means of self-inflicted torture in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Dear Zindagi (2016). Both Aishwarya Rai and Alia Bhatt are punishing themselves for missteps they don’t wish to acknowledge openly.

Feasting at the movies - the role of food in cinema
 

Even in the most practical sense, the presence of food in a frame lends to a film’s narrative more than it gets credit for. Wake Up Sid’s (2009) Ranbir Kapoor comes of age when he learns to make the perfect omelette but his ingenuity lies in assembling a layered cake in two minutes from two ingredients – bread and jam.

Keeping it real

Dangal (2016) plays on the food taboos borne out of religious beliefs, the kind a father is willing to forgo to build his daughters’ career in sports but a mother just won’t concede. Another vegetarian’s plight, this time in a foreign country, is comically conveyed by Kangana Ranaut in Queen (2014) when she inadvertently orders fish simply because tomato is the only thing she understands in a strictly French menu.

In Satte Pe Satta (1982), family dinners go from unruly to gracious to mark the advent of civilisation in a household previously occupied by oafs. It does the job of a handshake; an icebreaker in Mr India (1987) where Sridevi treats the famished orphans of the house she sublets, to boxes of pastries and snacks. Ditto for Amar Prem (1971) where Rajesh Khanna’s ever ready pattal of samosas, heeng kachoris and emartees is the only comfort food he and his loved ones need.

The sizzling sound of chowmein tossed in a wok at the street stall Irrfan Khan frequents in Talvar (2015), a grand wedding banquet of sweets and savouries laid out for guests to devour in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994), the early morning hustle bustle of domestic life as a steaming hot puttu slides out of a steel mould in Drishyam (2013) contribute to a scene’s authentic ambience.

As an audience, we react to food not just with our eyes or stomach but the familiarity it holds, the emotions it unravels. It’s also the time when characters on celluloid are most tactile, relatable, unguarded, human and hungry.


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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 9:28:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/feasting-at-the-movies/article19280242.ece

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