When she is not being the bane of her seven-year-old's existence, Aneela works on gender, popular culture and Pakistan's religio-military nexus. Her upcoming book, titled We Are All Revolutionaries Here, is being published by Yoda/Sage Press. (Photo credit: Archita Chanda Ray)
Eating the Big Screen
For me, my personal memory ghost resides in the smell of a plate of stale food in an air conditioned room where we have just pulled an all-nighter watching Amitabh Bachchan movies back to back. Mine is a unique generation, our relationship with popular culture and viewing habits pulls an arc, reaching out to the times of borrowing a VCR and a stack of videos that you had to go through in the next twenty-four hours to the waves of Netflix and Chill leaving us marooned on our couches. The smell of microwave popcorn wafts from the kitchen.
I exorcise my memory ghosts of a 70 MM appetite here.
Movies have always been teaching us about love and leisure through appetites: ‘Kisi achche se restaurant main ek piyali coffee,’ was a desi film pick up line. But in my case movies also offered the milestones of penury. Looking back, I am guessing I have to thank Zeba playing a hapless widow in some black and white tear jerker. Picture this: A down on luck widow and her brood sitting on the ground around a few chapatis. A child asks ‘But What Will I Eat This Chapati With?’ To which mother dips the chapati into a bowl of water and goes ‘Like This.’ Child responds, pitifully ‘Maa Hum Ghareeb Ho Gaye Hain Kya?’ Mother reaches out and hugs her child. Everyone Cries. Of course, I had to play it out at lunch the next day. Roti, water, and a plaintive ‘Hum Ghareeb Ho Gaye Hain Kya’ beats tindey kaddu, any day if you ask me.
Puberty struck and so did Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Now while we recognized the qayamat in the title, it took us many, many years to understand the Hindi svarg of the ‘Yeh Toh Svarg Hai’ line that Juhi Chawla’s Rashmi exclaims on seeing the hill top where she will play home with Aamir Khan’s Raj. ‘Svarg? Yeh Svarg Kya Hota Hai,’ we looked at each other bewildered, because for the Pakistani, jannat came with rivers of milk and honey. ‘Hogi Koi India Mein Jagah,’ we shrugged our shoulders and watched on, mesmerized. Raj and Rashmi defy parental authority (as we all aspired to), run away from home (‘hum bhi bhaagenge’) and found love before coming to a very tragic end (gulp!). But it was Rashmi’s lack of luck in the kitchen that made us very very nervous and threw a spanner in our grand plans of eloping. Her lover returns from the market with the groceries and a wish list of what he would like to eat. Rashmi burns the chapatis and has no idea what to make of the dal sabzi, considering this was 1988 and she could not be YouTube-ing Sanjeev Kapoor or going on Pinterest. She confesses to having no cooking skills and breaks down crying ‘Tum Hum Se Beyzaar Ho Jaaoge.’ As did we. Finding a boy, and a boy we could defy parents with, could wait for now. The movie was a benchmark of an auqaat alert as we realized we could now never run away from home not before we figured out this cooking business. Hindi cinema, I say now, keeping little Pakistani girls virtuous since 1988. Hormones might be going crazy, but Raj and Rashmi had just reminded Razia she better learn some ghar grihasti before she went all ritual-breaking mode, singing Akele Hai Toh Kya Gham Hai.
A decade later, in Duplicate (1998), Juhi Chawla plays Sonia Kapoor, a hotel manager who falls in love with the hotel chef. She still has zero cooking skills, but this time around she can tell a mother-in-law very confidently that she can order some really good food (Elopement plan back on, we say!).
Long before we started dreaming of Switzerland and longing for its vales as a haven for lovers (and its vaults a haven for tax defaulters), there was a Switzerland ka cake and the food laws of Thoda Khao Thoda Phenko in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) as the protagonists try to gate crash a corrupt builder’s party. Later in Hindi cinema we came across adulterators of another kind who were not content with playing around with cement and sand, but now looking forward to adding pebbles to our daily dal. Dal main kaala we might have tolerated, but in ‘Mr India,’ it was dal mein kankad as Uday Bhatia’s film blog reminded us: ‘When this film was released, it wasn’t uncommon to find stones mixed in with dal bought from ration shops. Mr India took this everyday frustration and turned it into comic revenge. An invisible Anil Kapoor forces a corrupt businessman and his date to chow down on a bowl of pebbles.’
For some of you India may live in its villages and its soul in ‘unity is diversity.’ Intercommunal harmony is what ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ was (and decades later its protagonists continue to be the template for stock images issued in public interest campaigns and election manifestos). But for me India and Hindi cinema’s soul and diversity lay in Golmaal’s (1979) Bhawani Shankar’s ‘Sirf Aloo Ka Paratha Kyun Beta’? Kalkatte ka Rajbhog khilaunga, Agre ka petha, Mathura ka Peda aur Banaras ka Kalakand. Khao Beta. Khaoge nahin to taakat kaise aayegi beta? Aur agar taakat nahin aai toh police ki maar kaise khaoge beta?’ The plate on offer, rather Shankar’s palate, served as a rich palette for India’s culinary adventures as far as I was concerned—from cholesterol to constabulary and all the sojourns in between.
But! Cut to what we see now: We are now witness to the mystery of the shrinking plate. What happened, that as the stories changed, our narrators’ appetites withdrew? I joked how when a protagonist in Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001) goes a-wooing to a party where his beloved is already betrothed, the ubiquitous Taj Mahal (that would usually splinter into a hundred pieces) is replaced by a wine bottle and a bunch of native flowers. And very soon we were all BYOB-ing at parties and giving the gulab and red balloon a diss. ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ also brought about eating angrezo ka salad with a knife and fork in fashion with nary a derisive ‘haaye dekho Malhotra ka khandaan aur ghaans phoons!’
Meanwhile Farhan’s sibling Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) may have well brought tomatoes back to the headlines—a spot they may have missed since we fell out of love with sundried tomatoes—but she disappoints with the Good Earth chapati in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) as South Mumbai sits down to a stuffy dinner with flat chapati and flatter enthusiasm towards what lies on the table. Dil Dhadakne Do yes, I want to tell her, but thoda chulha bhi jalne do.
An aunt would call out ‘Yeh Sab Ketchup Hai’ the moment a hero buckled down in pain, a gaping wound on his chest, his head bloodied. Same aunt was also sure that the cups in those ‘ek-piyali’ coffee dates were empty and that the hostess on screen was scraping the spoon in a bowl with nary the chicken curry that everyone was pretending to eat.
Those were the days of grand dreams but humble budgets, when you added some more water in the tea concoction so everyone could pretend it’s whiskey.
But alas in days when resources spilleth over—today!—we do not seem to be eating.
We see all these fantastic antlers and horns as headgear and masks in Mohenjo Daro (2016) but, excuse me, Where is the Meat?! There is no venison, no mutton, and no—let me just say it out loud—beef. There are these fantastic plumes and shells but then just tandoori chicken and papaya on the table. (At this stage I would have been OK with some quail and Amritisari fish tikka too, really). Turns out this is not Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), where the appetite of the carnivore can be whetted with a ‘De Kitchen Se Aawaaz Chicken Kukdu-Ku. Teri Bhookh ka Ilaaj Chicken Kukdu-ku.’ We could see Kabir Bedi and Arunoday Singh’s doley-sholey in ‘Mohenjo Daro.’ Hell, we even saw Orientalism Redux in Early Afridi Savage Man—they didn’t strike me as the sort of people who wanted to eat papaya for the fiber or would walk around with a ‘I Don’t Eat Non Veg But May I Spoon Some Of The Curry From The Side’ stance.
Which just leads me to believe that the Indus civilization got crushed under a huge pile of undiscovered putrid meat.
Now I might have just moaned on how the dharam bhrasht lascivious bordering-on-wanton display of food has fast disappeared and how the sex of the Cocktail (2012) and long fluted glasses of wine and champagne have buried the sanskar of Old Monk, Black Dog and Sharaabi (1984). However, when the resident seven-year-old in my home (who like the naya naya mullah is going dohra in his love for celluloid) overheard me, he was pretty indignant that I had not considered the Prem from last year’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015) and the mountains of teekha and meetha it abounded with.
If kitchen politics and the evil mooli gajar (and a very lurid purple baingan) had played spoil sport in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) for a leather-jacketed Salman/Prem’s plans for an evening rendezvous with his lady love (Barjatya, circa 1989), then in 2015 Barjatya, they had become the means to pay obeisance by a visibly chastised Salman/Prem to a ‘Mehalo ki rani hai sundar sayani hai woh khandani hai jaane dil’ object of affection.
But then an essential plot point of 2015’s Prem’s food shopping excursion was to emphasise his naiveté; he is the innocent foreigner in the Machiavellian world of palace politics that his character will soon be thrust in. The food he buys is kitsch, and we treat the lovers’ closing number amongst the food carts of small town India as a fond ghar vapsi of the 90s generation.
Barjatya, I sigh, food chronicler and the keeper of our rasoi extraordinaire for generations.
However, it is not just Gujarat and food politics. The Punjabis may have given us the Kapoor khaandan and the Yug of the Yash Chopra—but they are also the culinary gods of paranthas: Gobhi, Aloo, Mooli, sigh. Sindh’s Pannu may have recognized Sassi by her beauty as the legend goes; elsewhere Sohni gained fame because of her earthen pots—but it takes for a particular kind of winsome Punjabi lass in popular culture to gain fame and love because of her paranthas. Urdu poetry speaks of the breeze bringing a lingering trace of a beloved’s perfume or the swish of a silken dupatta signaling a lover entering one’s abode for a rendezvous, but Mujhse Dosti Karoge (2002) and others of its ilk reminded us that gobhi ka parantha may work just as fine when your long distance soulmate surprises you in the office. And while Hanuman may have secreted out Ram’s ring to prove his credentials to a Sita in exile, this year’s Happy Bhaag Jaayegi (2016) had Abhay Deol’s Bilal taking Happy’s paranthas as a contemporary password for her beau Guddu across the Ravi.