Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Eating scenes in films embody conflict or cooperation between the characters, inform or assign an individual or family’s place in society

I ASKED A friend who is a film buff if she could think of a film in India where food is the hero.

“What do you mean?” she asked

“Well, think of Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, or Babette’s Feast, or La Grande Bouffe, or the Mexican one, Like Water for Chocolate. Or Meryl Streep who portrayed Julia Child in Julia and Julia. A film where the focus is on preparing a feast and through this, memories and emotions are evoked. Do we have something like that in India?”

Bawarchi, Cheeni Kum, Lunch Box, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, English Vinglish, Queen, Stanley ka Dabba, Ramji Londonwaley , and Daawat-e-Ishq,” she replied, a day later.

Very slim pickings indeed. Where is the poetic revenge of the wife in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, who has her murdered lover roasted whole to perfection— crispy skin and all—before force-feeding him to her gangster husband, who had ordered his killing. Or the scrumptiously laden table with the cailles en sarcophage (entombed quail) in an iconic homage to french culinary culture in Babette’s Feast?

It got me thinking about the different ways films portray food in a starring role, and what it says about the way filmmakers perceive their own societies or a particular culture. For instance, in American films, food is viewed in two ways.

First, as a window to other cultures—The Wedding Banquet where a Taiwanese gay man who is living with his White American partner is afraid to tell his parents about his sexual orientation. To deflect suspicion and to help his female Chinese tenant get a green card, he marries her. The parents land up for the wedding and insist on a sumptuous reception, and the complications revolve around the preparations of a traditional Chinese banquet. Food is the vehicle through which the two cultures collide and later reconcile.

Similarly, George Tillman’s Soul Food, as James Keller points out in Food, Film and Culture, celebrates two cliches of African- American families—heritage and duality. The Sunday dinner hosted by the matriarch (who in this case is ill and dies, throwing that tradition into turmoil) is an opportunity to not only enjoy home cooking and the company of family but is also a lesson in the efforts to retain connections to the past which not only shaped the family’s prosperity but also their tribulations at the hands of a hostile White culture. Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman is a similar exercise set in Taiwan where the father, a chef and widower, seeks to keep his family together by insisting that his three daughters consume a multi-course dinner cooked by him every Sunday.

A second way in which American films deal with food is as a profession. In Chef, a chef who quits his restaurant after a critical review by a food critic starts a food truck and creates dishes that sing to his soul while also piecing back together his shattered personal life (an estranged wife and son). The film is about the reclamation of the American Dream: if you work hard and are determined to achieve your goal, you will.

Early cinema, particularly films by Charlie Chaplin, saw the movement of food from being a prop for slapstick comedy to becoming an essential and expressive element highlighting the workings of human nature. Jan Boyer, for instance, highlights five comic sequences in A Dog’s Life (1918) that deal with hunger, stealing food and eating food. Chaplin’s own early experience with poverty and hunger were instrumental in this metamorphosis of food’s role on the silver screen. Later, Alfred Hitchcock skilfully translated his own obsession with food and wine to his films such as The Paradine Case and Rebecca, where he linked food with the seedier side of humanity. We see a similar translation occur in Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket set in 1943 famine-struck Bengal, which is about a Brahmin who manages to survive for a while by exchanging his services for food.

Food, in these films, is far from being a prop. Eating scenes in films embody conflict or cooperation between the characters, inform or assign an individual or family’s place in society, and also express the personal identity. In Hindi films, ‘Maa’s alu ka paratha with ghee’ is an indicator of motherly love. Take the characters in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1972 film, Bawarchi, with the then superstar Rajesh Khanna as the newly hired cook in the ‘difficult’ Sharma household. The bawarchi’s culinary skills bring back family values and harmony to the home of the warring Sharmas. In Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, the main character hunts for the secret ingredient (which later turns out to be a herbal narcotic) that makes chicken a la Khurana family restaurant so special. Against this backdrop, social norms are tested, and broken, and later accepted by the family. In Cheeni Kum, a 64-year-old irascible chef falls in love with a woman 30 years younger, and the fly in the ointment is, of course, the girl’s father, who forbids the match. The chef’s profession provides a strong backdrop to the romance. Lunch Box too is about the unlikely romance between a young housewife and an insurance agent on the verge of retirement, as they build a fantasy world through the exchange of notes in a tiffin box. The way in which food is depicted in these films is more akin to that of early cinema—where the dishes evoke tender emotions.

THE EUROPEANS, MEXICANS and the Japanese too have taken the concept of food much further, and closer to the ethos of early cinema. Chocolat, where a woman and her daughter open a chocolate shop in a small, insular, morally uptight French village, is about how their craving for chocolate stirs their emotions and humanises the villagers. La Grande Bouffe (a French-Italian film) is about four friends—a pilot, a cook, a TV star and a judge—who decide to feast unto death. Bouffer is French slang for excessive eating. And Babette’s Feast (written by Isak Dinesen) is about a Parisian chef who escapes the civil war but loses her husband and son to it. She arrives at the doorstep of two elderly sisters in a remote seaside conservative Danish village and works as a cook. Fourteen years pass, and the sisters make plans to celebrate the centenary of their father’s birth. Babette wins 10,000 francs in a lottery, and she uses it to recreate a ‘real French dinner’ for her employers and their guests. The feast renews friendships, restores love and harmony in the community. In a paean to cooking, the Mexican Like Water for Chocolate, highlights how one can infuse emotions into food.

Food thus is a brilliant way to represent and formulate national and ethnic identity within movies. For instance, the 1985 Japanese film, Tampopo, is about the image of ‘Japanness’ created by the director, Itami Juzo. The film examines the recreation of the character’s (Tampopo) noodle restaurant, and in doing so highlights the traditional and modern elements of Japan.

When we see the transcendent qualities that a skilful use of flavours and dishes can evoke, it is less satisfying to view scenes where food is used simply as a prop. Sitcoms are notorious for it. Think of The Big Bang Theory; depending on the day of the week, the characters usually have plates of Thai/Indian/Italian food balanced on their knees, except Raj who being the Indian in the pack, sits cross-legged on the floor with the plate on the coffee table. Or of the countless films where characters cut bread, eat salad or scrounge for leftovers from the fridge while delivering their dialogues. The filmmakers are probably following the dictum: make your characters do things that create an aura of normalcy. Eating does just that. But eating is more than just putting fuel in one’s body.

These days, we are seeing a movement back to a more evocative use of food, perhaps in part prodded by the popularity of cooking shows on television. The Harry Potter films have highlighted the way in which food can be used to punish (Harry’s uncle withholds food), or celebrate (think of the long table at Hogwarts school groaning under the weight of pumpkin pies, drumsticks and other delicacies). Or take Ratatouille, whose message is everyone can cook, including a rat who has a passion for French cooking.

The actors who play chefs have to now take classes in culinary school before embarking on their roles. The Hundred-Foot Journey is about a young Indian chef whose family moves to the south of France to start an Indian restaurant much to the dismay of the french restaurateur played by Helen Mirren. The actor who plays the Indian chef had to attend classes in a Paris culinary school. Jon Favreau who played the lead role in Chef spent hours peeling shrimp in Wolfgang Puck’s prep kitchen.

If this is an indicator of food being taken seriously, we have much to look forward to. All it will require to complete the circle is for an app to be created that will translate the sounds and sights of cooking on screen into an aroma. Then we will truly be in food heaven.