Food in Cinema (Old articles published in Cine Blitz)

My mother’s family is from Mangalore. My mother’s sisters talk about food ALL the time. What I cooked for lunch, the price of bangda, the best way to cook meen pulli munchi, what I will cook for dinner. So if I love foodie-films, how can I be blamed? I grew up, much like Tita from “Like Water for Chocolate”, nurtured by the sounds, sights and smells of many kitchens. My grandmother’s soups fragrant with ginger and chopped coriander, the smell of jeera being roasted for the rasam, crushed garlic and mustard seed crackling in hot oil, cinnamon, clove and cardamom infusing my very dreams. Yes, that’s right - I am totally controlled by the women in my family. And how do they do it? Duh, through their culinary skills of course.

So something in me leaps at the idea of celluloid food.

Food as the ultimate aggressor – that’s what this article is about. Think about it, Mickey Rourke popping a Habanero chilli into the blindfolded Kim Basinger’s mouth in “9 ½ Weeks”. Or Hannibal Lecter gourmandizing on his victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Or the father cooking a spectacular and guilt inducing Sunday lunch for his daughters in Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” … you get the drift?!

Truly delectable foodie films actually influence what you want to eat. It’s been documented. When we were kids reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, we absolutely craved scones and potted shrimp. Same thing, different medium. So if you are feeling gluttonous, here’s a celluloid menu to die for:

1.“Like Water for Chocolate” (Mexican) - Cream fritters, Mole, Quail, Tequila

2. “Babette’s Feast” (French) Turtle soup, Blinis Demidoff, Quail, Clos de Vougeot 1845

“Like Water for Chocolate” is based on the novel by Laura Esquivel and was directed by her ex-husband Alfonso Arau. “Babette’s Feast” is based on a story by Isak Denison (author of Out of Africa) and was directed by Gabriel Axel. In both films, one character uses food to control another or to stir things up. Tita keeps her brother-in-law Pedro well and truly seduced with her cooking. Her emotions infuse her food with all the beauty of magic realism. When she is sad because Pedro is marrying her sister Rosaura, her tears fall into the wedding cake batter making wedding guest weep profusely when they eat the cake.

In both LWFC as well as Babette’s Feast, a parent prevents her or his progeny from marrying, thus causing passion to take on other forms. In the former, Tita’s ardour enter her food. In the latter, Babette with her decadent French style that involves wine, live produce, fresh fruit and herbs shakes the foundations of the puritanical spinster sisters, Martina and Phillipa.

Quails figure largely in both films as a symbol of hedonism. Tita makes a marmalade of rose petals from the flowers that Pedro has given her. She then smothers her roasted quails in this most amorous of marmalades which in turn makes everyone who eats this want to run out and make love! When Babette’s provisions arrive by boat, we have a hint of what is to come when she gleefully collects her cage of live quails. It is hilarious watching a bunch of people, who have been previously subjected to a diet of cruel-gruel and broth, now faced with such epicurean wonders! And when one of them pithily declares, albeit while gorging on quail, “Like the Wedding at Cana, the food is of no importance” you know you are watching a very subversive little film.

There are enough overt associations of food with evil. Women cooking, on celluloid, look like the archetypical witch in Hell’s Kitchen. What with the pots, vapours, bubbling stock and sweaty foreheads. It’s all a bit orgiastic. Tita’s mother, Mama Ellena, asks her if she put an emetic in the cake that has made the guest so sick with longing. Martina and Phillipa speak in hushed whispers about “exposure to dangerous, even evil powers.”

Another great food film is Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman”. The scenes of cooking are a work of love. Cutting shallots, throwing ingredients into a hot wok, chopsticks flying about, the greens and yellows of Bok Choy. How lovely that the cook in this case is a man. Although he is a bit of a Mangy mum, with his incessant need to cook and feed his daughters. Why, he could be related to me!

I’ve been wondering if there are any Hindi films where food plays a central character. Did “Pakeezah” feature a scene where Meena Kumari dips her fingers into a bowl of almond covered phirnee? Did Jai and Veeru ever cook a meal over a fire? Some rotis and a chicken smothered in ginger, garlic, curd and turmeric, perhaps? Green chilli and raw onion on the side. Do write and tell me of food scenes you remember.

I certainly fancy watching a film with Shahrukh Khan stirring up an urbane Coq au Vin. Button mushrooms…..a tad of thyme…a quartered chicken and some fine Merlot. Or maybe Ajay Devgan cooking a Yakhni biriyani. Or Viveik Oberoi doing some Red Beans and Rice while singing Pastime Paradise. Or Saif Ali Khan making crepes with strawberries…Or Abhishek flipping a masala dosai….. Oh the mind boggles!

- Kirtana Kumar in Cine Blitz

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