Being Bengali and having moved out of Kolkata a few years ago, there are very few days that go without an uncontrollable craving that Mumbai's food culture could never satiate. But as both a foodie and a cinephile, a good food drama does come close. Now, most of us think of Julie and Julia (2009) and Ratatouille (2007) - unarguably brilliant films - when we hear the word 'food film'; but this is a criminally underrated genre. And if we go beyond the mainstream, we'll discover a treasure chest, waiting to be unearthed.
On World Food Day (16 October), here's a list of 8 lesser-known food films, attempting to provide something for every category of fellow film buffs and foodies.
1. East Side Sushi (2015)
Anthony Lucero's feature film debut, East Side Sushi is a deftly-told story of a Mexican-American chef striving to prove her worth in a sushi restaurant. Diana Elizabeth Torres shows masterful restraint in her role as a dreamer and single mom, Juana. The film gently highlights the misogyny and racism Juana faces in her day-to-day life as a Mexican-American woman trying to carve a niche for herself in a Japanese, male-dominated restaurant.
Martin Rosenberg's cinematography is the reason behind every delectable shot of the indulgent Japanese delicacy. Senior film critic at Variety Magazine, Justin Chang rightfully called it a "cross-cultural foodie fable" because Torres creates a mystique around Juana's journey from a Mexican chef, struggling to take a bite of raw fish, to whipping out sushi with flawless knifework.
You can watch this mouth-watering and insightful film for free on Plex.
2. Axone (2019)
Nicholas Kharkongor's Axone is a fine blend of a food drama marinaded in the personal politics of being a North-Eastern millennial in India's capital city. Revolving around a group of friends with a mission to cook Axone or Akhuni - an ingredient used in Naga delicacies with an odour so pungent that a Punjabi landlady and an African-American tenant both use the dish as an excuse to hurl racist comments at the protagonists. Strong performances by Lin Laishram, Tenzin Dalha and Lanaukum Ao overshadow the odd inclusion of Sayani Gupta - an actor with no North-Eastern origin, trying too hard to play a Nepali character.
With Adil Hussain in a delightful cameo, Parasher Baruah's deft camerawork and Rajendra Hegde's sound design brilliantly come together to make this film a compelling watch. As The Quint's Tanisha Bagchi writes in her review of the film, "Axone asks a simple question - why does the right to cook and eat whatever one wants have to bear with it a tag of privilege? Why do certain communities in the country have to beg, cry and run from pillar to post to enjoy a hearty meal made from authentic spices?"
You can watch this poignant film on Netflix.
3. Maacher Jhol / The Fish Curry (2017)
For short-film enthusiasts, this film is unmissable. Abhishek Verma's 12-minute sepia-toned short is a tender glance at a gay man carefully cooking maacher jhol or the quintessential Bengali fish curry for his father - who he's about to come out to. Though the dialogues sound a tad bit forced, the writing is succinct and show more than they tell.
Drenched in nostalgic Hindi music, the signature hand-drawn animation and sound design paint a restrained and intimate picture of the roles food, music and culture play in expressing one's queerness.
You can watch this sublime short on Mubi.
4. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
If food and non-fiction narratives are your thing, you will thoroughly enjoy David Gelb's documentary about Jiro Ono - an 85-year-old Japanese chef who runs a wildly popular Michelin-starred sushi restaurant. He believes that his calling in life is making sushi everyday. The film explores a perfectionist's obsession with his passion or what the Japanese call shokunin - a person who is so devoted to their craft that they are unable to see anything beyond.
Gelb's mouthwatering frames never fail to make me pine for sushi. The sound design, mostly consisting of Western classical music, succeeds in enhancing the experience of watching Japanese culinary art on screen. The inclusion of Jiro's sons and the narrative surrounding their relationships not only makes the film more three-dimensional but also humanizes this mystical man.
You can watch this deftly crafted documentary on Mubi.
5. No Reservations (2007)
For the ones who miss the light-hearted charm of Hollywood romantic comedies in the 2000s, Scott Hicks' No Reservations will draw you in. Revolving around an uptight chef struggling to raise her niece on her own, the film entirely shifts when she meets her new subordinate chef, who makes her insecure about her authority in the kitchen. It's a tale of two stubborn and passionate people tangled in a swoony and slow-burn romance.
Catherine Zeta Jones, Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin put up indomitable performances. Beyond the dreamy romance and delicious shots of myriad delicacies, the film also highlights the tricky balance of parenthood and work, never pushing the envelope too far into the unrealistic.
To watch No Reservations, you can either rent or purchase the film on YouTube.
6. Aamis / Ravening (2019)
Halfway into Bhaskar Hazarika's Assamese film, PHD scholar Suman comments, "the definition of normal isn’t universal." This sows the seeds for what's to come: a captivating and disturbing look at the extents of human desire.
The plot ostensibly revolves around a researcher and a doctor bonding over their fascination for meat, but the film goes beyond; blurring countless boundaries and transmogrifying into a biting glimpse of hunger.
Meat in Aamis holds myriad symbolism - from taboo to love - the strongest, however, is its commentary on the complex politics of food and culture in India. Lima Das and Arghadeep Baruah's performances, coupled with Riju Das' luscious frames make the film an uncomfortable yet unforgettable one.
Aamis is exclusively streaming on SonyLIV.
7. Food, Inc. (2008)
If you don't care for the rose-tinted lens and are more into the gritty complexities of the world, this documentary is a must-watch. Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. provides an unflattering and eye-opening look into the corporate giants that have penetrated the American food culture and monopolized the industry. The film poses a host of questions to the viewers; challenging the ethics and morality of these conglomerates and the consequences of their actions.
The frames are indulgent but what stands out is the background score and its steady rise from light and flirty to haunting and intense. At a time when child obesity and organic food cultivation are both at an all-time high, Food, Inc. is emblematic for holding up an intricate reflection of food and urbanization.
Food, Inc. is available for free on YouTube.
8. Chef (2014)
Hailed as Jon Favreau's return to his "indie roots", Chef is a celebration of fatherhood, food and finding joy. Also starring Favreau as a hot-headed, freshly fired chef and distant father, the film charts his passion for food and his relationship with his family. Thanks to Kramer Morgenthau's indulgent camerawork, it's always a challenge trying not to salivate while watching Chef.
The plot might lack an edge or two, but the film makes it up by being all heart (and some heat). Add strong supporting performances by Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johannsson into the mix, and you have the perfect feel-good film to escape into.
You can watch Chef on Amazon Prime.