“People confuse me,” wrote chef and author Anthony Bourdain in his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000), “Food doesn’t.” The assertion being that food is somehow comprehensible, people less so. In all likelihood, Bourdain was referring to the relative simplicity of food, the idea that as a chef he knew and understood food, even relied on it to restore a sense of meaning and purpose in an otherwise chaotic universe. And he was not alone in his assertion.
Our relationship to food is a visceral one—not only do we need it for survival but food also serves as a vital source of connection with ourselves, and the world. Writers and filmmakers have long relied on this connection to create characters that seem immediately relatable, instantly human.
The relationship that women have with food, however, is a particularly complex one. Food is about more than survival, more than just pleasure or sustenance; with women, the question of food also gets tied to domestic labour. Scriptwriters have attempted to explore this idea by literally “freeing” women from the chore of cooking as being the way they find liberation in the outside world, the world just outside the kitchen.
Take the example of Shashi Godbole (Sridevi) in Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish (2012). Godbole is portrayed as a homemaker and a small business owner, who sells laddoos out of her home. Godbole is a good cook, but as a homemaker, it is also seen as her domestic duty, and so her skill soon grows to define her, eventually becoming a source of her oppression. It is not until Godbole steps outside the kitchen and into a classroom—ostensibly to learn English—that she finds true liberation. "You were born to make laddoos," her husband announces in front of the family in an attempt to extol her virtues, but making her feel belittled, instead. It is telling that the same place that she returns to, to provide sustenance for her family, is the place where she feels most isolated. The kitchen then is not where her art comes alive, but a cage.
In The Lunchbox, the 2013 film directed by Ritesh Batra, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) wakes early every day to ensure that her husband gets a home-cooked meal sent to his office through the dabbawalla service. One day, however, the lunchbox that she has sent for her husband is delivered to Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a soon-to-retire accountant, instead. Ila sends a note to Saajan to address the mix-up. Over time, the two strike up a friendship and become a source of comfort and solace for the other. Ila cooks to be visible and valued by her husband, but her labour goes unrecognised by him. A happenstance results in her forging a connection with another man, a widower, who appreciates the food she prepares, which leads her to believe that she is, in fact, appreciated, valued. This appreciation helps her find a connection to herself, leading to her own liberation from an unhappy marriage. A woman cooking to win a man’s heart may not be a novel idea in Hindi cinema, but the fact that the man she ends up cooking for is not her husband is what makes the plot novel. But how many Bollywood movies can you remember have men turning to cooking as a way to win over the woman? Can you think of a single instance where a man, who is not living on his own, cooks to show his affection and devotion to a woman, without being thought of as “progressive”? And no, Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Cheeni Kum doesn’t count because he is a professional chef.
Rani Mehra (Kangana Ranaut) in Queen (2014) is the quintessential “good Indian girl”, raised to fit in and meet societal expectations of her life. Food and Rani’s relationship to it become vital in developing and communicating this idea. Take, for example, the scene in which she informs the chef that she finds the pasta bland.
The specific instructions that she provides him with reveal that she knows her way around a kitchen. This is crucial in developing the character’s backstory, as well as for setting the stage for another key incident to develop. The writer taps into our classist and gendered assumptions tied to cooking and domesticity: ‘all good girls from a particular class will know how to cook, because they must.’ In Queen, Rani must liberate herself from the oppressive beliefs of her society, which she does quite literally by going outside of it (abroad), and winning what else but a cook-off in which she prepares pani-puri, not pasta, mind you.
(2015), directed by Shoojit Sircar, we easily identify the eponymous character played by Deepika Padukone as a modern woman. Why? Because she has a career that takes her outside the home, specifically, outside of the kitchen. Piku is more likely to eat a sandwich on the run than she is to slave over a hot stove.
Chanda Sahay (Swara Bhaskar) is a domestic worker who longs for her daughter, Apeksha (Riya Shukla), to lead a life different from hers. In this case, food is used to portray the unconventional relationship shared between the single mother and her daughter in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut film, Nil Battey Sannata (2015). So, when Apeksha complains to her mother about why she didn’t make aloo (potato) instead of the boring baingan ki sabzi (cooked brinjal), we understand the dynamic shared between the two. Underlying Apeksha’s criticism of her mother’s choice of sabzi (vegetable) is also a disdain for her mother’s life choices, and by extension her own future. Chanda will have to go back to school herself to seek her liberation.
Why don’t we see women cooking for themselves—be it for survival or pleasure—rather than for someone else? Women’s relationship with food can be complex, conditioned, nuanced, beautiful, convenient, terrifying or sometimes, plain uninteresting. Perhaps, one day soon, we will be able to see other sides to our collective ties to food.
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