Screen bites

  • The List
  • 30 October 2008
Screen bites

Ghazala Butt charts the enduring importance of food in Bollywood cinema

When a 1970s Indian journalist labelled populist Bollywood films as 'masala movies' - a dollop of drama, pinch of comedy, stirred in with some song and dance - Indian cinema's association with food became firmly established. While the masala movies evoke a spicy mixture of everything in the traditional bollywood blockbuster, food has become a diverse metaphor in Bollywood cinema: symbolising culture, tradition, family values, and the significance of female gender roles.

In the post-independence 50s and 60s food was a metaphor for liberty, self-sacrifice, and community. Who can forget the desperate, iconic Nargis in Mother India telling the defiant seven-year-old Birju to throw away his roti, reclaimed from the mud. After a few hungry bites Birju agrees, thereby rejecting help from the moneylender. Nargis and her sons strive for independence, cultivating the land with their own hands, sowing the seeds of self-sufficiency.

By the 70s, providing food for the family was an excuse for all manner of gangsta/gunda types, as impoverished street urchins grew up into wealthy ganglords. The anti-heroes of Deewar, Khoon Pasina, and Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, were 'forced' into crime, initially to provide rations for their ailing family, as was the courtesan/cabaret dancer: a glamorous, yet chaste female lead, selling her charms to feed a long lost family/relative (Rekha in Suhaag).

In the 80s food became a metaphor for social success, sophistication and social climbing as witnessed in Satte Pe Satta. In a pivotal scene, Hema prepares a lavish feast for her brothers-in-law who leap upon the dishes in a savage manner. Hema scoldds them as they are 'not worthy' and unfit for 'polite society'.

More recently, the masala formula has made way for more eclectic, international Bollywood movies. Food brings India home to 'NRIs' (non-resident Indians) and the wider international market. In Kal Ho Naa Ho Shahrukh Khan charms his way into the family through the kitchen, by teaching Jaya Bachchan's Jenny how to prepare 'proper authentic' food. By returning to her desi masala roots, Jenny's ailing New York restaurant become a success. Jenny becomes a 'proper' mother, who can now cook Indian food correctly, thus highlighting the importance of culture, tradition and 'home'.

Food enters the male terrain in Cheeni Kum. Amitabh Bachchan's egotistical London chef is brought down to earth when Tabu suggests he add a little less sugar to his speciality biryani dish ('cheeni kum next time please'). She is the first woman to question his expertise, and consequently challenge his masculinity. Soon his irritation turns to affection, providing a backdrop for a cross-generational love story, which sees them return to India.

In the historical drama of Jodhaa Akbar, Jodhaa's loyalty to King Akbar is challenged in the lavish feast she prepares. The key scene with Aishwarya Rai tests her social status, purity and role as devoted wife - is she poisoning him or showing off her culinary skills? Of course, ultimately, she is stunning, loyal and obviously a brilliant cook.

Food in Bollywood movies doesn't just provide sustenance; it signifies financial success, aspirations, and what it means to be an accomplished mother/wife for female leads. A heady, exhilarating, and often pungent combination, enough to satisfy the appetite of any Bollywood fan.

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