Food in Film: The Gulf Between
Necessity and Self-Actualization
Food is an unstable terrain. It has the capacity to nourish, but also to corrupt our bodily systems. In the same vein, cooking a dish can be a healing endeavor, a necessity to be fulfilled, or a steady game of imprisonment.
The positioning of this pendulum can be visualized through the lens of control: who controls the labour involved in kitchen work, but who ends up with a veto on the menu? What kind of work is taken for granted and what kind garners legitimacy, earns one respect, and enables agency? In recent decades, Indian cinema has stepped up its game, and allowed us to grasp this uneasy relation; to see the outlets for emancipation behind a life skill that has been gendered and distorted.
When talking of freeriding women’s labour, can we forget to mention Gauri Shinde’s heartwarming classic, English Vinglish, that hit the screens in 2012 and hasn’t left our hearts since? Sridevi as Shashi Godbole was a stunning reminder of the eternal and thankless job of being a homemaker. My wife was born to make laddoos, her smug husband says, by way of complimenting his wife. Dictums and disguised insults, that are mostly humbly accepted by women, owing to the power of internalized misogyny, are all too common in reel and real life.
An unmissable study in examining the bone-deep drudgery of never-ending household work is Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2021). The Malayalam drama, that ensues with a marriage between a sociology teacher and a Bharatnatayam dancer, lays bare the daily toil that goes unseen and unheard. The silences in the film are phenomenal; the lack of dialogues only adding to the real background score: kitchen work. Cookers timed to whistle. The cyclical clatter of utensils. A drone-like buzz of cutting, chopping, washing, dusting. The family runs like a well-oiled machine, supported by an invisible force.
We see glimpses of inspiration from Chantal Akerman’s arthouse classic, ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ which similarly brings to screen montages of the strikingly soul-numbing reality of deadening routines. The static camera shots force you to viscerally accompany Delphine Seyrig’s character in her long and tedious journey of endless repetition. The Belgian film, which came out in 1975, ends in an absurdism that evokes the violent undercurrent that lies below the layers of intergenerational repression and self-denial. Writing in 1977 for Jump Cut, Jayne Loader noted: “The static camera traps us as completely as Jeanne's static life traps her, and studying that world, we become a part of it. The contrast between the average viewer's boredom with Jeanne's life or voyeuristic obsession with its stasis in contrast to Jeanne's glacial calm is striking. We are forced to experience Jeanne's life and wonder how she stands living it.”
Moving onto the homemaker-turned-entrepreneur genre, Piyush Goel’s stab at a biopic of India’s foremost bestselling food writer of her time, the late Tarla Dalal, almost seems like an affront to food lovers. Tarla (2023), which stars Huma Qureshi, doesn’t even begin to capture the sway the celebrity chef and cookbook expert held in Indian homes in the 1990s. There isn’t one shot that makes your appetite kick in; food itself is near-absent in a supposed food movie. The focus is disproportionately on the mundane, the comedic, her work-life balance; hardly ever shining a light upon her talents. The disappointing camera work is matched only by uninspired acting.
While the film explores the character’s purpose-finding journey, it does that without accounting for the societal structure that instills in women low-esteem and a platter of curated options being sold as low-stakes freedom. Another movie that made much noise, Mission Mangal (2019) has a scene where Tara Shinde (Vidya Balan), ISRO’s Project Director, can be found explaining to ISRO officials and veteran scientists the fuel capacity of a PSLV rocket by… frying pooris. Let us put aside the mind boggling presence of a gas cylinder and potentially inflammable rocket equipment worth billions in the same room. Perhaps Indian melodrama has lost its reins or we can convince ourselves to arrive at the conclusion that the only analogy a hyper educated woman can think of in her workplace, is pooris and their long association with aerospace engineering. The fossilized idea of home science as ‘traditional wisdom’ embeds a triviality to the whole endeavour of sending a satellite to Mars.
“The way you make an omelet reveals your character” - Anthony Bourdaine.
The cinematic genre of the male chef with a razor-sharp focus on his craft has heated up in recent decades, with some serious critical acclaim (Jeremy Allen White in FX’s The Bear) coming its way. A man’s culinary ambitions have acquired an aesthetic that oozes leadership, authority, tenaciousness, and is decidedly sexy.
Their struggles are more tangential, their beginnings rooted in personhood, personas crafted with care towards individuality rather than raising a slogan for a cause. Running a kitchen in a high-tension setting that requires risk-taking and a commanding persona is fitting for the male species. Afterall, they are naturally bestowed with these qualities without an ounce of social conditioning. Looking back at the romantic-drama, Cheeni Kum (2007), we see the ego-centric chef played by Bacchhan possessed with a singular passion. This widespread characterization that enmeshes career worship and self-actualization is a luxurious peculiarity afforded only to men, who can delightfully unstring themselves from pre-ordained obligations set in stone. A similar generosity can be seen in Chef (2017), the Saif Ali Khan starrer that follows his downfall, redemption and a renewed familial bonding that isn’t decoupled from his personal ambitions.
Winner of three National Film Awards, Ustad Hotel (2012), shows the story of Faizal (played by Dulquer Salmaan), who defies his father to go to Switzerland and train to be a Michelin Star chef. His character is developed with careful detail, as he straddles between honing his skills at his grandfather’s beachside restaurant in Kozhikode, after his dreams of becoming a sous chef in London are momentarily dashed. The film is loaded with references to Malabari cuisine, patient sequences with the sizzle of ingredients, fusion food, the legendary Suleimani tea, and a whole world which helps the audience identify with his passion.
Malayalam movies have time and again done a splendid job in using the kitchen space as a way to reflect family dynamics and local cultures. Food is fuel for life, it can also be an art, a cathartic outlet, an expression of your selfhood; but it also occupies a space that entrenches patriarchy in society. These films help us weave our collective stories together to find a way to explore the micro-realities of life, the deferred dreams and the unequal burdens we bear.
Gender partitioning runs deep enough to disrupt even the lives of its benefactors. In Ustad Hotel, when a marriage is being contemplated with Shahana, Faizal’s occupation becomes a dealbreaker. Notions of servitude being ‘feminine’ intertwine with the class bias against a ‘degrading’ occupation of a ‘cook’ - a skillset reserved for women.
This is in opposition to the wholesome Rajesh Khanna starrer that gave food a starring role for the first time in Hindi cinema. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1972), in signature style, is about celebrating life, and it uses food as a channel for harmony. Raghu, with his bossy but endearing personality manages to reunite the squabbling family residing in Shanti Nivas. He cooks without hassle, cleans and irons with delight, occasionally spouts philosophical rants, plays saviour to the family alcoholic - earning due appreciation and a growing autonomy in the family space. This portrayal does collide with the hypocrisy around the naturalization of domestic care by the figure of the housewife. Even decades back, men doing what women have done since time immemorial, is shown as worthy of acknowledgement, is given what all labour should be granted: dignity.
Art takes from life and life is inspired by art – in this cyclical style we locate our future. It’s hard to see how we are still stuck in a place where movies that feature men's relation with cooking carry with them a panoramic view of the human carnival: pathos, drama, tragedy, self-discovery, crushing failure, obliterating success. When it comes to women, it’s mostly a prison sentence in the form of a thankless job that doesn’t come with guaranteed leaves, where holiday seasons only double the workload, where the only remuneration for being good at work is some more work. In films, and in life, women deserve so much more.
Yusra Khan is a writer and digital policy enthusiast based between Lucknow and Delhi. Her interests are versatile, but she is particularly fascinated by the intersection of politics, labour and technology studies.
Currently, she works at Nvidia as a prompt-writing specialist, bringing human creativity to AI-generated outputs. A film addict since childhood, she is rumored to have rewatched Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na over sixty eight times till date, and doesn't plan to stop.