In search for identity, pleasure and good memories: Food and cinema

“The Indians are the Italians of Asia”, Didier pronounced with a sage mischievous grin. “It can be said, certainly, with equal justice, that Italians are Indians of Europe, but you do understand me, I think. There is so much Italian in the Indians, and so much Indian in the Italians. They are both people of the Madonna – they demand a goddess, even if the religion does not provide one. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is music inside the body, and music is food inside the heart. […]” (Gregory David Roberts, 2003, Shantaram, p. 543)

Screen shot from the movie ‘Duplicate.’ Here, the mother of the hero, who is a hotel chef, adds some Indian spices to the Japanese food prepared by her son.

Indians are very proud of their unique cuisine, considering it to be the best in the world. This pride can be clearly seen in many films about food and cooking: although, this is palpable not only in such movies, but it appears sometimes in films which present a completely different story. It should suffice to mention a scene from Duplicate (1998, dir. Mahesh Bhatt), in which the mother of the hero, who is a hotel chef, adds some Indian spices to the Japanese food prepared by her son. The hero is worried about the new taste, but since he has no time to prepare anything new, the specific Indo-Japanese dishes are served to Japanese guests, who are enchanted by the new flavour. The similarity between India and Italy, mentioned in the quotation above, can be also noticed in the funny scene of the film Queen (2014, dir. Vikas Bahl), in which the Indian heroine visits an Italian restaurant in Amsterdam and argues about the food with the owner, and unintentionally offends him by adding some Indian spices to her meal to make it tastier.  

Most films about the Indian passion for food appeared after 2000, and are still being made, with the last one released a month ago. As already mentioned, there are also quite often single scenes in those movies, which present a different story, and all that shows how much India is proud of its food, and how important part of Indian culture food is. However, what is similar in most of these screen stories is not the cuisine itself. Food shown in most of films and the very art of cooking is similar to magic, being a very powerful skill, which helps people to do much more than just end somebody’s hunger. These are skills which are not common, and cannot be possessed by everybody, because to gain them it is not only important to have some basic knowledge about cooking, but also to think, and feel in a specific way. The art of cooking lies not just in following the recipe, and the really skilful cook, at least the one which is shown on the screen, not only shares the passion with others by giving them a delicious meal, but often help them to forget about their problems.

Poster of the movie ‘Bawarchi.’ (1972, dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee).

The classical  Bawarchi (1972, dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee) introduced the archetypical figure of a cook, who comes from nowhere not only to work on the new job, to help in running the household, or to earn some money, but foremost to heal the others with his cooking. In Bawarchi this therapeutic role of food and eating is perhaps not so visible, since the hero of the film, whose name is Raghu, constantly mediates between different members of the huge family in many matters, bringing peace, and helping them to understand each other. Instead of cooking, Raghu explains and encourages, becoming a figure of a sadhu. As an alternative to being the cook, he can then do something different, and the story would stay the same. It seems however that making the hero a cook was not a coincidence here. As seen in later movies about food, even if they came after a long time, cooking and eating are not only a necessity or pleasure but most importantly they become the therapy which is necessary for the family members to understand and accept each other.

‘Today’s Special’ movie poster. (2009, dir. David Kaplan). Samir, the hero, wants to become a great chef, and a specialist of Western cuisine.

Other film protagonists inspired by Raghu, like for example Akbar from Today’s Special (2009, dir. David Kaplan) or Ramji, the hero of Ramji Londonwaley (2005, dir. Sanjay Dayma) become magicians, who make impossible possible by operating only with their cooking skills. The character which resembles the hero of Bawarchi the most is Akbar, who, just like Raghu, is a very mysterious figure. The viewer doesn’t know much about him, except the fact that Akbar used to work in many places, and as we can guess, helped many people and changed their lives forever. Akbar and Raghu are then more a kind of good spirits, or angels, who come to the Earth and help those who are in need to discover what the most important thing in life is. Ramji, however, is a bit different, but in the same way, he remains a good soul, who has the power of changing people’s lives for the better, which is visible for example in his relation to a small, disabled boy. Thanks to Ramji’s love, kindness, care and food the child makes great progress. The other hero, who is very much similar to Ramji, is Tariq from Daawat-e-Ishq (2014, Habib Faisal). Tariq, however, concentrates only on his beloved, who first wants to cheat and rob him, but who later understands her mistake thanks to the goodness of the young man and, of course, to his delicious food. The similarity between them lies in the fact that both men, Ramji and Tariq win the hearts of those women, who seemed to be completely unreachable for them, being better educated and sophisticated. They are successful only thanks to their unique characters, which yet seem to belong only to those who truly understand the art of cooking.

‘English Vinglish’ poster. (2012, dir. Gauri Shinde).

Of course, the cooking screen heroes are not only men. What is however interesting, women who possess those unique skills, are presented in a very different way that the masculine cooking masters and the process of making food means something else to them too. One of these heroines is Shashi from English Vinglish (2012, dir. Gauri Shinde), who is unusually similar to the other recent film character, Rani from the above-mentioned film Queen, which was made two years after English Vinglish. Both women are disappointed, and heartbroken by their closest people. Shashi has to face everyday teasing from her husband and daughter, mainly for the fact that she does not speak English, but not only for that. Shashi makes and sells laddu, being very popular among her customers, but her profession is not prestigious enough in the eyes of her husband and daughter to gain her any respect. Rani is left by her fiancé just before their wedding, but even before, the man, like the husband of Shashi had no respect for Rani’s interest in cooking, treating it not as passion, or an extraordinary skill, but rather like a natural phenomenon, or not much ambitious preparation to become a good housewife. Both heroines go abroad, and their travels become a turning point for them. Unlike many older Indian films, which willingly show the West in a form of a deprived and valueless place being in clear opposition to the spiritual East – the most famous of such films are for example Purab aur Paschim (1970, dir. Manoj Kumar), Pardes (1997, dir. Subhash Ghai), or even Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001, dir. Karan Johar) – English Vinglish and Queen show the Western world as a completely different place. It is the Western openness which brings out the real self from these shy and oppressed women, and helps them to appreciate themselves. And again, it is not a coincidence here that Shashi and Rani can cook, putting their whole hearts to this art. Unappreciated in their country, in which cooking, even the most advanced one is still seen as a less prestigious occupation, and a simple duty, when it is done by women, Rani and Shashi are appreciated after they go abroad. It is a shock for them to discover that something which is less appreciated in India, can be perceived in a different way, and that in fact, they have a great talent, which is esteemed by an Italian and French chef, who are unquestionable authorities in this field. Undoubtedly, it is the free spirit of the above-mentioned women, which is so important to be a talented cook, and which helps them to open quickly, and without a problem to the new culture. Only an artist or an extraordinary and sensitive person can absorb those elements of different culture which can enrich him. It is then clear that if Shashi and Rani were those women as they seem to be, they would never gain so much from their travel. There must be the same reason lying behind the decision of another great cook, Ila from The Lunchbox (2013, dir. Ritesh Batra), who decided to listen to her heart and leave her unloving husband, who had kept her unhappy. She is ready then to break one of the strongest taboos of Indian cinema, which is a broken marriage.

Unlike heroines, for whom staying in the West helps to believe in themselves, and understand who they really are, heroes very often lose their identity there, and they need to stay close to Indian culture, represented by food, in order to gain back their roots. They go to India, or find someone who helps them to open their hearts to India while they are far away. It has been proved many times, that to be a skilful cook, it is necessary to feel more than to think. The hero of the above-mentioned Today’s Special, Samir wants to become a great chef, and a specialist of Western cuisine. Difficult family situation forces him, however, to take care of the nearly bankrupt Indian restaurant owned by his father. Samir can’t and doesn’t want to cook Indian food but he meets a mysterious culinary genius, Akbar who helps him not only to believe in own skills, but to look differently on his own culture and its values. The story of the other film hero, Hassan from The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014, dir. Lasse Hallström) is one similar to that of Samir. Hassan wants to be appreciated in the Western world as a cook. Indeed, Hassan has a rare gift and can enchant people with his dishes, staying in contrast to Samir, who steadily sticks to recipes, and cooks without a soul. But they both achieve true success only when they are able to awake the “Indianness” in themselves, which was previously hidden in their minds. Samir learns to cook with his heart, or maybe it should be said here that he cooks with the Indian heart, because he could cook before, and just needs to open himself to India, and to the Indian way of cooking in which feeling is more important than strictly following the recipe. Hassan however, who has never closed down on India, and who enriches Western dishes with Indian spices, just like the above-mentioned mother of the hero of Duplicate, has to return to India, and “Indianness” with his soul, and only then he begins to enjoy a life in which he has lost love and his Indian family

Screenshot from the movie ‘Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana.’ (2012, dir. Sameer Sharma).

at some point. Yet another, but still a similar story is presented in the film Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (2012, dir. Sameer Sharma). The protagonist of the film, Omi lives abroad just like Hassan and Samir, but this hero is not a chef, and he does not have anything to do with cooking, at least at the beginning. Chased by gangsters, to whom he owes money, Omi returns to his hometown in India, where, just like Samir, he is forced to take care of his family’s old restaurant. Searching for the mysterious ingredient of the legendary recipe for the Chicken Khurana of his grandfather in order to sell it, Omi, just like Hassan begins to understand what is the most precious value of life and then he not only stays in India, but does not sell the old restaurant, and the great recipe. Unfortunately, a similar plot of the movie Chef (2017, dir. Raja Menon) differs, in fact, a lot from the previous ones. As with all other mentioned screen stories, the protagonist of Chef, Roshan lives in the West, values it and its food more than India, and suddenly returns to his home country- all this is not due to food. This time the passion for cooking is clearly missing in the story in which food should be the most important. It is then rather difficult to say what the Chef is really about. Roshan is similar to Samir, but at the same time he remains the old Samir, who was able to make tasteless dishes, without the passion, heart and “Indianness.” Inspired by Jon Favreau’s film of the same title, the Indian version of Chef turns out to be completely devoid of the expressive flavour which is so much felt in the other works about Indian cuisine. And although, as I have mentioned, certain elements of the story, such as the return to India and the opening up to the homeland, are repeated here, being somehow typical for this type of films, and retelling some tropes, the movie is not convincing.

With the discovery of their own identity, the heroes of the food films reveal their own secrets, or find out what the other members of the family are hiding, because, what is also important is that movies about Indian food and cooking often break social taboos. The sister of Ramji from Ramji Londonwaley escapes from her husband and stays with her former love, Ila from The Lunchbox decides to leave her husband as well, and Rani from Queen does not return to her fiancé. On the contrary, she thanks him for leaving her and giving her a chance to open her eyes to certain matters. The protagonist of Cheeni Kum (2007, dir. R. Balki), Buddhadev Gupta, an elderly and bitter chef, enthralled with a certain biryani, decides to marry a woman who is a thirty years younger than him, and Samir from Today’s Special chooses an American girl with an illegitimate child for his partner. Also, Hassan from The Hundred-Foot Journey, like his father, decides to stay with a woman from abroad, and the theme of a forbidden relationship hidden from the family appears in Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana as well, but this time it does not refer to the main character. All these secrets are revealed at the climax, of course, but without disturbing anyone, since the splendour of wonderful food seems to open even the most conservative hearts. Forbidden love exceeds not only the barriers of age or race; in Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006, dir. Pratibha Parmar), there is even a theme of homosexuality accepted again without any problem by the family. The film’s protagonist, Nina returns to her hometown, and just like Samir and Omi, she decides to sell the family’s restaurant. However, before selling it she wants to participate in a culinary competition, but she is unable to create the ideal dish. Nina is able to succeed after she acknowledges to the family and herself her feelings for another woman. The film of Pratibha Parmar is a work of an exceptional density of secrets that come to light and taboos which are broken. Almost every hero of the movie has something to hide, but as in the previous films, the family accepts even the most shocking news, while enjoying life and a wonderful feast.

The celebration of life is yet another important element of every film about food, being perhaps the most important one, which is often emphasized by the presence of death. It appears in almost all the above mentioned works, often coming unexpectedly and tormenting over the years, but again invariably being an element of life and just another necessary stage of it. Contrasted with death, food appears here primarily as one of life’s essential necessities and something that cannot be avoided to keep everybody alive. Still, the pleasure that it provides and the joy it creates during the feast both lead the characters to appreciate every precious moment together, reminding one constantly that everything in life is extremely fleeting. At the same time, it also shows that certain people like Omi’s grandfather, Hassan’s mother, Nina’s father and so on are able to survive in their own dishes. The power of cooking given to their successors keeps them alive and helps to arouse pleasant memories. Food films can then also or maybe, first of all, be treated as extremely nostalgic works, which are however longing in a positive way. Death is present but, at the same time food, films are usually devoid of the element of passing, even when the person who died was not the one who could cook. People leave, but the food which was created by them or consumed together brings to life the pleasant, painless memories of the wonderful family feasts.



About the Writer

Dr. Tatiana Szurlej is a graduate of Indian philology and film studies at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland. She is interested mainly in Indian popular culture, especially cinema. She is the author of essays on Indian popular cinema, written in Polish, English and Hindi.