“The definition of normal isn’t universal,” one of the characters in Aamis explains when meat-eating traditions of people across the world were being criticised. Interestingly, food catches the fancy of many filmmakers. Aamis and Axone, two films screened at MAMI this year, put food at their centre to weave in tales about desire, prejudice and politics. Let’s satiate our hunger with some films that use cuisine to dish out fascinating and layered narratives.
(This article includes spoilers for Aamis, Axone, Photograph and The Lunchbox)
Food and Desire in Aamis
Bhaskar Hazarika’s unusual love story blooms in the quiet town of Guwahati. On a sleepy Sunday morning, a paediatrician Nirmili Saikia (Lima Das) is summoned by a young guy, Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah), to treat his friend writhing in pain. The problem? Indigestion. The friend had tasted meat for the first time and couldn’t stop eating. Meat is not the problem, gluttony is, Nirmali tells Sumon.
A PhD scholar, Sumon is researching on various meat-eating traditions of the North-East and he is also a founder of a ‘Meat Eaters Club,’ where everyone takes their meat very seriously - it has to be fresh and cooked the right way. Intrigued, Nirmali asks Sumon to treat her to a dish from the club, and thus begins a friendship between the duo. Sumon introduces her to various types of meat - catfish with colocasia, bat meat, wild rabbits - and Nirmali discovers a newfound love for the flesThere’s a sequence where Sumon narrates an incident from his childhood. “My father gave me a rooster to take care of. It was beautiful. I kept tending to it till one day he asked me to slaughter the creature so that we can eat it.” “You didn’t feel bad?,” asked Nirmali, to which Sumon replied. “I did, but succumbed to the hunger.” The same hunger thatconsumes Nirmali and her “lover.” So much is her craving that the otherwise dainty doctor who requests for a spoon and fork even at a dhaba devours a cold, chicken leg from the fridge as her bewildered husband looks on.
Meat in Aamis is symbolic for desire, and it is also a commentary on the food politics of our country.
As Sumon’s obsession with Nirmali crosses its limits, he devises a way to share physical intimacy with her - by feeding her his own flesh. He takes help from his veterinary friend and whips up dishes for Nirmali to relish. Sometimes cushioned in eggs, sometimes deep fried, the doctor’s craving grows with each dish till she confesses the dark truth.
Meat in Aamis is symbolic for desire, and it is also a commentary on the food politics of our country. Donning an academics hat, Sumon tries to explain to Nirmali’s husband Dilip and his friends that the definition of normal isn’t universal. “The creatures we consider disgusting, people savour them in different parts of the world. What is normal for us might be abnormal for others.” Hazarika leaves us pondering with questions about Nirmali’s choice and the relationship and turns the lens on the viewer who’s free to give wings to his/her imagination and conjure visceral images.
Axone & Prejudice
This traditional North-Eastern dish becomes the focal point of the story set in the heart of Delhi. A group of women from the North East are busy preparing for their friend Miram’s wedding in their apartment. Her favourite dish is axone, the main ingredients of which are pork and fermented soybean. However, the apartment needs to be vacated the moment this special stew is put to boil. Why? Because the dish sends off an almighty stench.
Things go as per Upasana (Sayani Gupta) and Chanbi’s (Lin Lashram) plan, but every plan has its own share of problems. The grumpy landlady finds out and she is not the one to take too kindly to the tastes of “outsiders.” “I have no idea what kind of things these people eat,” she shouts and the other tenants nod in unison, even saying that they should be thrown out. They are also oblivious to the fact that Chanbi suffered a panic attack recalling a terrible incident that her boyfriend had to face because of the deep-rooted prejudice towards natives from North East.
Miram’s friends run from pillar to post, requesting people to let them cook the axone. Sometimes they are politely declined, sometimes met with disdain. Whether they manage to fulfil Miram’s wish is for you to find out, but what the film tries to convey here is a conditioning that we are still not being able to get rid of.
Axone is a commentary on the injustice meted out to people who don’t fit into the societal definition of “Indian.”
“Your eyes are so small, can you even see the entire wall,” is one of the “curious” questions thrown at Chanbi’s friend. Not to forget the eve-teasing that she has had to endure.
Axone is a commentary on the injustice meted out to people who don’t fit into the societal definition of ‘Indian’. In metropolitan cities, they are denied apartments, brutally beaten up, abused and even molested. It’s a voice that urges everyone to discard the garb of demarcation and embrace each other with love.
Memories and Hope in The Lunchbox and Photograph
In both Photograph and The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra intelligently uses food as a metaphor for relationships, memories and feelings. Photograph opens with a street-side photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who works at the Gateway of India, trying to capture the numerous stories of tourists within his small frames. Rafi has one habit - savouring a kulfi on the last day of every month.
In Photograph, Ritesh Batra makes it clear that fancy colas or ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ softies, with their glitzy packaging, can never bring back the taste of happiness.
Rafi does get to tell his story to someone he meets in an otherwise ordinary day, only to share a most extraordinary relationship. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a shy, sheltered Gujarati girl who is silently drowning in the expectations of her parents. She finds solace in meeting Rafi and doing things that are guided by her choices. One rainy evening, as two drenched souls sit in a small restaurant sipping tea, Rafi tells her his ‘kulfi’ tale. “My abba used to get us kulfi on the last day of every month. Since then, I don’t like having it any other day.”
Miloni also opens up about her choice to not have any cola. “When I was a child, my grandfather used to buy me a Campa Cola every day and I loved them. After Campa Cola shut shop, no other cola has tasted the same,” she says. Batra makes it clear that fancy colas or ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ softies, with their glitzy packaging, can never bring back the taste of happiness.
In The Lunchbox, too, we see food opening up a conversation between two strangers struggling to deal with a deep void in their lives. While Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a government employee on the verge of retirement, feels claustrophobic in a life devoid of a partner, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife, is frayed by neglect from her husband. Everyday, she tries out a new dish in the hope that one special masala will remove the staleness from her life and make her husband a little more interactive.
Instead, a stranger becomes her critic when the dabba meant for Ila’s husband mistakenly lands on his desk. A camaraderie forms. “Ila, the food was very salty today” writes Saajan when Ila sends him her husband’s favourite paneer. “Ila, the salt was fine today.” Another note, another hope.
Food connects and separates people. It also brings with it a ray of hope. All these films offer food for thought. It’s just how we want to perceive them.