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Food on film: Now serving, at the movies

With Saif Ali Khan-starrer ‘Chef’ out this weekend and a number of films centred on food being made in India, we are seeing more food on the big screen than ever before. Lounge looks at the delight and symbolism of culinary imagery on celluloid

Saif Ali Khan in ‘Chef’.
Saif Ali Khan in ‘Chef’. (Saif Ali Khan in ‘Chef’.)

Working for Chef, which stars Saif Ali Khan and released in theatres on Friday, was a different kind of challenge for food stylist and consultant Sandhya S. Kumar. Until then, she had worked in commercials, where she only had to worry about making the food look good—chicken roast would be glazed with a coating of shoe polish and soya sauce, and puris stuffed with tissue paper to make them look fluffy. In the film, however, she also had to make it taste good.

Take, for instance, the “rotzza"—a pizza made out of two rotis, with meat and mozzarella cheese stuffing. It’s the dish Roshan Kalra (played by Khan), a Michelin-star chef, rustles up for his son Armaan on his return from New York. The food soothes Armaan and reduces his animosity towards Roshan, who has a strained relationship with his wife and son.

For the scene to work, it was important that the food worked. Cooking from a back-end makeshift kitchen, away from the scene of action, Kumar remembers making at least 50 rotzzas. Only one of them, which was browned just right and had the right kind of stringiness in the cheese, was used.

Other food items featured in Chef, a remake of Jon Favreau’s Hollywood film of the same name, are Kerala fish curry, Goan rawa fried fish and chhole bhature.

“It helps if the food is delicious," says Khan, referring to the act of eating on screen.

Khan (or Chef Ali Khan, joked Twitter, the day the trailer was launched) says that a lot of the cooking he has done in the film is for real. He trained under two chefs from the JW Marriott in Juhu, Mumbai. Ranjit Thomas, executive sous chef, says they instructed Khan on everything, from making fresh pasta to getting the chef lingo right.

Ritwick Chakraborty in ‘Maachher Jhol’.
Ritwick Chakraborty in ‘Maachher Jhol’.

From the sookhi roti that was out of the reach of the poor in Mehboob Khan’s Roti (1942) to the cheese-burst rotzza served from a food truck in Chef, food in Indian films has come a long way. There have been glorious moments in old films, such as the grand feast which appears out of thin air for the wandering musician duo in Satyajit Ray’s fantasy classic Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). But they have been few and far between. We are seeing a lot more focus on food on the big screen today, and not only because of the rise of a subgenre of food films in the recent past. Contemporary films that don’t necessarily centre on food take it as seriously as they do their costumes and sets, using it as rich details of everyday life. The showcasing of food on celluloid, as one of life’s basic needs as well as sensuous pleasures, by film-makers of different styles and cultures, has resulted in new and varied cinematic experiences.

Also Read: Cinema gets tasteful

The most popular trope is that of food as a familial glue. It goes back to Bawarchi (1972), a remake of the Bengali film Golpo Holeo Sotti (1966). Some of the more recent ones involve the foreign-returned hero. In Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (2012), the key to Omi (Kunal Kapoor) running away from a gang of criminals in London and turning a new leaf is in rediscovering the secret recipe of a chicken dish that can revive the fortunes of their fledgling family dhaba business in Punjab. With his grandfather, the only person who knows the recipe, turning senile, it could be lost forever (it’s another thing that the secret ingredient turns out to be marijuana). In the Malayalam film Ustad Hotel (2012), Feyzee (Dulquer Salmaan), trained in hotel management in Switzerland, defies his conservative Dubai-based businessman father to return to his grandfather’s modest restaurant in Kozhikode. There, by helping his grandfather cook the famous Kozhikode chicken biryani and sipping Sulaimani black tea on its beaches on moonlit nights, he finds himself. And in the Bengali film Maachher Jhol, which released in August, celebrity chef Dev D., who returns from Paris to attend to his ailing mother, struggles to make a simple fish curry, his mother’s dying wish.

“Food is constantly attached to memories, and, usually, good memories," says Pratim D. Gupta, director of Maachher Jhol. “You remember your dead grandmother for the payesh she used to make on your birthday and the classmate who is no longer a friend, for the tiffin he used to share with you during the lunch break."

A scene from ‘Angamaly Diaries’, which shows the meat-eating culture of the small town in Kerala.
A scene from ‘Angamaly Diaries’, which shows the meat-eating culture of the small town in Kerala.

The essence of home

Using food to portray the idea of home is universal. In Big Night (1996), for instance, two Italian brothers cook and fight but stick to each other till the end, as they struggle to keep afloat their restaurant business serving authentic Italian fare in New York. The Oscar-winning Babette’s Feast (1987) is the story of two sisters who try to keep their father’s spirit alive by living a life of frugality in a 19th century religious community in Denmark. A grand sensual feast at the end, featuring exquisite dishes such as quails in puff pastry and turtle soup, brings home the point that fine cooking can lead to spiritual experiences. In the Japanese film Tampopo (1985), the title character, a widow and single mother, takes charge of her husband’s noodle shop. She is a mediocre cook who learns the art of making soulful noodles from two truck drivers who take a liking to her. Chinese director Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) is the story of an elderly chef who has lost his appetite—for food, for life; he lives in Taipei with his three daughters, who will soon be leaving home to start their own lives.

Also Read: Film Review: Chef

Food, in fact, tends to play an important role in many Asian films even if they are not about food. For instance, in Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000), the bland white noodles can be seen as a metaphor for the joyless lives of the protagonists—Mrs Chan’s walk down the alley to buy noodles from the stall, filmed with sad elegance, has become one of the most stunning, and celebrated, sequences in cinema.

Food finds a similar purpose in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013), where it begins reflecting the relationship between two lonely people who have never met but fall in love after tiffin dabbas get mixed up. The rich, creamy and spicy vegetarian food Ila (Nimrat Kaur) packs for her husband in the initial stages is designed to impress. But as she starts cooking for Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) and gets to know his tastes better, through written notes sent along with the lunch boxes, it gets decidedly simpler, homier. “Since the characters never see each other, the only tactile relationship they have is through food," says Batra on the phone from the US. “It becomes an important way to awaken each other’s senses."

Irrfan Khan in ‘The Lunchbox’.
Irrfan Khan in ‘The Lunchbox’.

Nice and real

Good-looking food isn’t necessarily appetizing. In Mythologies, his seminal 1957 book of essays on pop culture and semiotics, French philosopher Roland Barthes is disparaging of the “petit bourgeoisie" in the chapter “Ornamental Cookery". “…Cooking"—he writes about the excessive ornamentation of food pictures in Elle magazine, “according to Elle is meant for the eye alone, since sight is a genteel sense…a cookery which is based on coatings and alibis, and is forever trying to extenuate and even disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs, the brutality of meat or the abruptness of sea-food."

This year’s Malayalam sleeper hit Angamaly Diaries, which stars pork and has cameos from rabbit and python meat and a variety of fish, might have been more to Barthes’ taste. The meat-eating culture of Angamaly, a small town in Kerala, in which gangs of bearded, swaggering men clad in mundus and checked shirts wage war in toddy shops over a plate of rabbit meat, almost becomes a metaphor for man’s primal instinct for hunting, as the director indicates. “We didn’t want to glamorize the food at any point," says the director Lijo Jose Pellissery, who grew up close to Angamaly. “We shot it in the way it looked, nice and real. The film was dealing with a place known for its pork culture and experimentations with food, and one of the best ways to establish it was by its food habits."

Although a vastly different film from Angamaly, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s arthouse indie, Asha Jaoar Majhe, possesses a similar anti-food-porn aesthetic. A lyrical portrait of a Bengali working-class couple, it takes the viewer through the life cycle of a fish curry. From the last moments of the fish, before it is picked up by the vendor to be cut and sold, to it being eaten, and scraps being fed to the stray cat: It could well be the longest food sequence in Indian cinema. The cooking is shown later. The man (Ritwick Chakraborty) does the fish shopping, the wife (Basabdutta Chatterjee) cooks. Every day they meet for a few minutes in the early hours of the dawn.

The cooking sequence, especially when watched on the big screen, is a thing to marvel at: droplets of water in the saucepan sizzle and evaporate over the stove, the golden mustard oil is poured in, the fish is fried and the vegetables are put in. If food can lose two of its primary elements—taste and smell—in cinema, Sengupta’s wordless black and white film evokes these by making optimum use of sound and image. “It has a lot of childhood memories," says Sengupta. “There are certain smells that make you recall certain situations, and similarly, certain situations and environments, which in this case meant deciding up to what degree the kitchen wall should look oily (to) help you imagine a smell." It helped that the fish curry, light and robust, the kind of comfort food you crave when sick, was cooked by his mother.

Food stylist Sandhya S. Kumar with ‘Chef’ director Raja Menon at JW Marriott, Juhu. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Food stylist Sandhya S. Kumar with ‘Chef’ director Raja Menon at JW Marriott, Juhu. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Global Fusion

Indian cinema’s romance with food is a more recent phenomenon compared to American and European films. Today, we’ve come a long way to being a MasterChef-watching, Foodstagram-savvy culture, where it’s difficult to get a seat in a Japanese restaurant on a Saturday evening. The average Indian is more interested, and informed, about food than ever before. “My chef and restaurant-owner friends say they’ve never been approached by so many people coming up to them to tell that a certain sauce needed to be reduced a bit," says Chef director Raja Menon. In a scene in Maachher Jhol, the chef faces a similar situation. Gupta agrees, adding that one of the things that drove him to make the film is that “people today look at food more than they eat".

That some of the protagonists of these films experiment with fusion food also mirrors our growing intimacy with global cuisine. While Roshan Kalra creates the rotzza, Maachher Jhol’s Dev D. succeeds in revitalizing his mother’s senses by inventing a new preparation: the Komola Katla fish curry made with orange juice, which combines his haute cuisine knowledge with his basic cooking skills.

Food Stylist Sandhya S Kumar at work. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury
Food Stylist Sandhya S Kumar at work. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury

New visual language

Madhuja Mukherjee, associate professor of film studies at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, says food has been providing powerful imagery since the paintings of the European Renaissance. “Most of these images, which would have a lot of meat and fruits on the table, would convey opulence, excess and greed," she says. Although there isn’t a similar precedent in Indian art, Indian cinema has used it for “images loaded with values".

“While eating meat would take religious overtones, wasting food would be shown as something bad that the rich people do." This, she argues, comes from the memory of famine and poverty and is reflected in the symbolic value of the roti in the films of Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor.

Contemporary Indian films, she theorizes along the same lines as Menon, cater to an audience used to watching travel and living shows, where the dominant imagery is that of “masala being put into the kadhai (wok) in slow motion". “There is a lot of exotic value to it. It’s a new kind of visual culture about the details of everyday life, which is also connected to contemporary media content," she says.

And yet, despite its deconstruction as a sociocultural device, there seems to be an element of mystery, a visceral quality, in how we experience food in films. As with smoking or eroticism, cinema has a way of making the forbidden seductive. It’s hard to forget the appeal of the Big Kahuna Burger and $5 milkshake in Pulp Fiction (1994). In his book, Food, Film And Culture: A Genre Study, James R. Keller, a former professor at the Mississippi University for Women, US, compares food in cinema “to the arousal of the libido through romantic and sexual imagery, accessing the full sensory experience of the actor and, subsequently and vicariously, of the audience."

The heart of food on film, then, lies in how people on screen engage with it. Otherwise, food stylists such as Kumar could have done the same job in Chef they do in commercials, making puris stuffed with tissue paper instead of serving them hot, fresh and real.

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