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Though food has featured in films since the birth of the cinema - the earliest one is probably Jean Lumiere's Baby's Lunch (1895) - it hasn't attracted much critical scrutiny. Scholarly literature on the role of other themes like sex or religion to convey meanings and values can be found in abundance. Not so the role of food, which also expresses a range of emotions - love and lust, anger and resentment, conviviality and alienation - even as it throws light, metaphorically or otherwise, on social mores, religious ritual, cultural conditioning and, at times, even spiritual yearning.
However, in the past few years foodie films have come to be recognised as a separate genre deserving of the same sort of attention that scholars have reserved for, say, comedies, musicals, thrillers and films noirs. My interest in it began in 1973 when Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe (The Big Feast) had its premiere in a cinema hall located in the heart of the Left Bank in Paris. The film is about four middle-aged male friends - superbly played by Marcello Mastroianni among others - who engage in an endless, frenzied bout of eating, drinking and fornication. Its sheer excess was meant to provoke the spectator to acknowledge what it was meant to be: an unabashed and withering spoof of the consumer society.
Ferreri's film was by no means the first one to connect food with sex or social decadence. In Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963), a meal in a nondescript tavern is a prelude to scenes of the most raunchy lovemaking. A memorable one shows Tom (played by Albert Finney) and Mrs Walters (played by the feisty Joyce Redman) drinking large quantities of soup, sucking lobster meat from its shell, tucking into roasted lamb shanks and, most suggestively, devouring oysters - widely believed to possess aphrodisiacal properties - with much laughter and slurping. Such feasting however was no more than a pretext to convey the dominant sentiment of lust.
Likewise, in Fellini's Satyricon one scene stood out for its depiction of utter decadence. During a banquet, the chef, who is a recent recruit in the royal kitchen, places a roasted pig on the table only to realise that he has forgotten to gut it. He proceeds to do so. To the astonishment of the guests, sausages and intestines gush forth in 'macabre glory' as one critic described it.
Twenty years after Ferreri's film another one gave food a place of pride in a way that also evoked awe and even admiration. In The Age of Innocence Martin Scorsese showed breath-taking scenes of banquets that punctuated the life of high society at the end of the 19th century and the myriad frustrations lurking beneath the surface of mirth and merriment. Along the way, in 1987, appeared Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast where food is shown not as a mere metaphor for opulence but as an affirmation of life itself, as a celebration and a heady demonstration of culinary skills.
Similarly, in Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Taiwanese director Ang Lee tells the story of a talented chef who loses his sense of taste and strains every nerve to keep alive the finest traditions of Chinese cuisine even as his three daughters, endowed with different temperaments, seek to assert their independence. It is around the dining table that family conflicts erupt, dissipate and end in reconciliation. Other films in this genre that have received much praise include Japanese director Juzo Itami's Tampopo (1987) - comic vignettes about a truck driver's successful efforts to turn a nervous, debutante cook into a master chef of noodle dishes - and Alfonso Arau's Like Water for Chocolate - which critics hailed as a 'magical, realistic romp through Mexican cuisine. ' Also noteworthy is Julie and Julia about a young American woman's obsessive efforts to spend an entire year cooking every dish contained in Julia Child's classic book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Food also has been a dominant theme in cinema of other countries with great culinary traditions, notably Spain and Iran, but it has seldom figured in a prominent way in Indian films except in a negative sense. In this anti-food genre, reference is often made to Satyajit Ray's Ashani Sanket (The Distant Thunder, 1973) set in Bengal during the famine in the early 1940s. It shows how in a caste-ridden and male-dominated society human beings bring out the worst in themselves when faced with starvation. The film derived its aesthetic power from the oozing sensuality of the lead female character, Ananga, played by the Bangladeshi actress Babita.
My all-time favourite however is Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925) where the tramp is reduced to boiling his boots to overcome his pangs of hunger. The hob-nails become bones to be sucked dry and the laces turn into spaghetti. It is hard to think of another scene in the entire history of world cinema where food - even when it is non-food - is treated with such delicacy and aplomb. Two words alone can describe this confluence of film and food, this metaphor pregnant with multiple emotions and meanings: pure genius.
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