While Ustad Hotel and The Lunchbox have food as one of the main non-living characters, the Telugu film Pelli Choopulu (2016) uses the same theme in the capacity of a supporting character to guide its leading man towards his destiny.
Whenever I think of food, the first word that springs to mind is, “yummy!” And when I watch elaborate meals being cooked, or devoured, on TV, I immediately feel hungry. I want to have what they’re having. It’s impossible — and childish even — to think so, but the heart wants what it wants. The visual medium has a power and pull of its own that we can’t deny. In spite of our inability to smell it, or taste it, the dishes we see on-screen become a model for us. We try to recreate them the same way we memorize iconic lines from cult films.
Indian cinema has had a tradition, albeit a recent one, of featuring restaurants and chefs in the central role and the lives of the protagonists purely depend on earning stars (literally and metaphorically) from outsiders and their family members. In the Malayalam film, Ustad Hotel (2012), Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan) becomes a chef against all odds. And the odds, here, are broadly headlined by parental pressures. They come from his father, who pushes him to put on a suit to run a business instead of allowing him to put on an apron to run a kitchen; he feels that men who cook aren’t respected much. Nevertheless, Faizal trundles on with the help of his grandfather, Kareem (Thilakan). And, under the keen eyes of his grandpa, Faizal learns how to whip up magic. And in a short period of time, he also understands the true meaning of passion. In many places, the words ‘love’ and ‘food’ are used in a set combination. While discussing the intricacies of cooking, Kareem says, “anyone can fill someone’s tummy. But the key is in filling their hearts with joy. That is the true purpose of cooking.” And, when Faizal, surprised by the emotions he gets acquainted with while drinking Sulaimani tea, asks what has been added to it (in another scene), Kareem explains, “I will tell you about that ingredient. But more than the ingredient, it’s your feeling that matters. A bit of love should be added in every ‘sulaimani.’ When we have that, the whole world should come to a standstill.”
It might sound kitschy, but the line works wonderfully in the movie. Similarly, in the Hindi romantic drama, The Lunchbox (2013), the principal characters, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) exchange letters to each other through lunchboxes. Due to a case of mistaken identity, the lunchbox that Ila sends, through the dabbawalas, lands up on Fernandes’ desk one day and they both begin to have conversations about the things they adore and abhor. It’s a bittersweet film that opens up slowly in measured amounts of time.
Fernandes is a middle-aged accountant who has been doing the same kind of work for three and a half decades, whereas Ila is a homemaker who feels unappreciated. The fault in their stars brings them together. Along with the near-heavenly lunches that Ila prepares every day, The Lunchbox focuses on a range of topics — from adultery to loneliness in the twilight years. One of the most important lines in the movie — and life itself — comes from Fernandes. He says, “I think, we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.” Though Ila has a husband, a kid, a neighbor, and parents to talk to regularly, she enjoys the company that Fernandes’ letters provide more than anything else. Likewise, for a widower and a person, who doesn’t have many friends like Fernandes, the letters are the little things that bring a smile to his face.
While Ustad Hotel and The Lunchbox have food as one of the main non-living characters, the Telugu film Pelli Choopulu (2016) uses the same theme in the capacity of a supporting character to guide its leading man, Prashant (Vijay Deverakonda), towards his destiny. When Chitra (Ritu Varma) ropes him in as the chef for a food truck she purchases, the two of them bond over shared interests. Although their professional goals are as different as day and night, they find a middle ground and sing happy songs.
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The delectable and funky American film, Ratatouille (2007), which features a talking rat that doubles up as a chef, carries the message: “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” That’s a line taken from a newspaper article that a food critic pens after being floored by a dish made by a rat. It’s indeed a bizarre film, but a largely likeable one at that.
In the Taiwanese family drama, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), a master chef (played by Sihung Lung) is seen preparing several dishes throughout the course of the day for his three daughters. If you’re a non-vegetarian, and a seafood lover, like me, the scenes involving the numerous varieties of fish and chicken will put you in a trance. The film’s funniest scene involves the chef taking lunch to his neighbor’s daughter and saying, “I didn’t have much time to make you more than a few small dishes,” and opening almost half a dozen boxes that contain, “Spare Ribs, Crab with Vegetables, Shrimp with Green Peas, Bean Sprouts, Sliced Chicken, and Bitter Melon Soup.”
Imagine the shock and delight that the primary school-going girl must have felt upon letting her eyes feast on this festive meal!
And in the Japanese film, Tampopo (1985), there’s a three-minute scene where an old man tells a twenty-something fellow about how to eat noodles. He says, “first, observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt. Savour the aromas; jewels of fat glittering on the surface; shinachiku roots shining; seaweed slowly sinking; spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay mostly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips to express affection! Then poke the pork… gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying: see you soon.”
I have removed the interjecting questions and comments that arise from the character of the young man to give you a short, yet detailed, account of what transpires between them. As the old man shares his wisdom, the camera moves between his contented mien to his bowl. As I have stated earlier, whenever I watch elaborate meals being cooked, or devoured, on TV, I immediately feel hungry. Now that I’ve written a piece on it, I’m going to go grab something to eat. I hope you do, too!