Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is the latest addition to a slim volume of food movies from India. We love to eat and have a staggering variety of meat-based and vegetarian cuisines, but we don’t make too many movies about our eating habits. This could be because food is one part of the trinity of essential needs called roti, kapda aur makaan and therefore not worth fussing about. Food sequences are also expensive and messy to shoot, and need a great deal of planning to get them right.
For the gourmands among us, a well-designed and beautifully shot spread of food can be as arousing as people having sex. Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is designed to create just the opposite effect. Revulsion is the order of the day in the experimental British filmmaker’s movie, which tosses together ideas of greed, excess, the spread of haute cuisine culture and the British class system. Michael Gambon is a hell-raising gangster who takes over a French restaurant, while his long-suffering wife, played by Helen Mirren, has an affair with a regular patron. The stylised formalism of the story, and the distancing effect created by watching the actors perform on a series of boldly coloured sets, cannot prevent the shudders that follow the inevitable punishment meted out to characters who overstep their boundaries and have more than their heart’s fill.
Food is anything but a simple necessity in Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987). Stephane Audran plays Babette, a housekeeper who moves from Paris to a remote, grey-toned village that worships at the altar of austerity. A lottery ticket that could have also been Babette’s ticket out of the village gives her a chance to repay the goodness of the villagers and teach them the delights of feasting over fasting. Based on the Isak Dinesen short story and set in the nineteenth century in Jutland in Denmark, the film gently and humourously makes the point that the Christian body and the soul should not be denied the pleasure of a good meal.
We do have movies about the struggle to put food on the table by debt-ridden urban Indians or drought-affected rural Indians. Shekhar Kapur’s supremely entertaining Mr India (1987) has two such great scenes that are emotional without being exploitative. Sridevi’s boarder, who claims to hate children and has running battles with the orphaned tots that her landlord has sheltered, finally melts when she sees the kids wilting from hunger. Her landlord, played by Anil Kapoor, has run out of money and food, so Sridevi buys chips, pastries and samosas for her diminutive enemies.
In the other great scene, Kapoor’s invisible vigilante ruins the crook Teja’s dinner date, forcing him to abandon his meal and instead chomp on the stones with which he has been adulterating food grains.
We might have had one more food-themed movie had Bangalore theatre personality Arjun Sajnani’s official adaptation of Eat Drink Man Woman taken off. Acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee’s drama works nicely for India. An emotionally reserved elderly chef prepares elaborate dinners on Sundays to communicate with his three unmarried daughters. The women hate the idea, but the father takes silent pride in the weekly ritual since it’s the only time the family gets together.
Sajnani’s version of the movie was supposed to star Amitabh Bachchan. The actor did eventually play a chef in R Balki’s debut feature Cheeni Kum (2007). The inveterate bachelor meets his match in a pernickety patron who tells him that his restaurant’s zaffrani pulao isn’t as good as he thinks it is.
Of course he falls for her – she is played by Tabu.
Another food-themed movie that could have been adapted for India is Alfonse Arau Like Water For Chocolate , a magic realist romance about the transformative power of food. The misfortune-struck Tita pours her emotions into her culinary preparations. When she weeps into her meals, everybody who eats them weeps too. When she fantasises about the object of her attention, her lust gets mingled into the quail in rose petal sauce she is making, which in turn prompts one of its consumers to run off into the distance and makes love to a soldier. Based on Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate could nicely be transported here, just as can be James M Cain’s melodrama Mildred Pierce, about a Depression Era housewife who reinvents herself as a restaurateur. How about the story of the wife of a cotton mill worker in central Mumbai who sets up a catering business during the textile strike of the 1980s?
(This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)