9 June 2014

By hook or by cook

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

Unlike most male cooks, in real life and reel, Aman Sachdeva's Kuku Mathur doesn't cook only to impress.

By the time you read this column, Kuku Mathur and his small-time problems would have disappeared off the few cinema screens they were allowed onto last week. Which is kind of sad. Because Aman Sachdeva's small-time film had a big heart. And not just that: Kuku could cook. 

Producer Ekta Kapoor apparently handpicked Siddharth Gupta for Kuku's role after watching him in a play at Prithvi, and it's a perfect casting. I have no idea why she then saddled him with a film title that most people think is something obscene. It isn't. 'Jhand ho gayi' is just a Delhi expression for someone being humiliated, or stuck in a bad situation. 

Kuku Mathur is stuck in a series of bad situations. He's just finished his 12th boards, he's even managed an unexpected 90 per cent -- but he can't get into any colleges in Delhi. Not even on Sports Quota. His mother is dead, his father thinks he's an ass, and he's screwed up his chance with Mitali from Seema Didi's Tuition Centre. Meanwhile, his bumchum Ronnie Gulati (Ashish Juneja) doesn't need to go to college at all. His grandfather, who has a sari shop, has gifted Ronnie a Matching Centre - a shop selling material for sari blouses. Ronnie's life looks set, while Kuku's is coming unscrewed. To top it all, Ronnie doesn't even have time for Kuku any more.  

Aman Sachdeva's film, naturally, must solve Kuku's problems. But how it does so is not really the subject of this column. The subject of this column is Kuku -- and all Kuku really has going for him is that he can cook. While the film insists on giving us some pointless shots of the let's-swish-around-the-gleaming-veggies variety, what's great about Kuku's cooking is that it isn't an event. Unlike almost all of the few men I know who cook, Kuku's cooking is not meant to impress people. We don't hear very much about what he cooks, but from what we see, it seems like regular ghar ka khana - and not even the chicken-mutton parts of it that male home cooks seem to inevitably gravitate towards. The only big deal about Kuku's cooking is that he likes doing it. And remarkably for a teenaged boy in a regular Dilli macho world, he doesn't seem the slightest bit affected by Mrs. Pasricha or anyone else telling him that he is "the mahila of his house". 

For a country of self-declared gluttons, our cinema is starved for films about food or cooking. On the other hand, since a woman cooking is no news, what exists of the genre is stuffed with men. The Hindustani chef-as-hero first appeared in Salaam Namaste (2005), with Saif Ali Khan playing his standard party animal role, and then came of age, literally, with Amitabh Bachchan in the May-December romance Cheeni Kum (2007). The figure had another youthful outing as Imran Khan's Abhay in Break ke Baad (2010). Of course, lest their mardaangi be threatened by their interest in such terribly female things as food, all three heroes had to channel their interest into restaurants rather than homes -- and those, too, in London or Australia. A restaurant here in India was still too low on the coolness quotient. 

In fact, none of these three films I just mentioned are really about the food at all. The idea of a chef has somehow acquired a cachet: a cool sounding new-agey job that somehow fits into the film industry's imagined sense of hat-ke-ness, without showing us any of the labour that goes into it. We've come a very long way from the homegrown pleasures of Bawarchi, in which Hrishikesh Mukherjee cast the biggest superstar of the moment - Rajesh Khanna - as the mysteriously adept domestic help who turns out to have remedies to all the household's ills. Bawarchi treats food as it should be treated, as the basis of our sense of wellbeing. And while never less than supremely entertaining, the film does not achieve this by shying away from labour. Food is an opportunity for the hero to display his skill-set, sure -- but that skill-set doesn't only include chopping vegetables at eye-popping speed. The khaki-shorts-clad Raghu scours filthy floors (also at eye-popping speed), while offering up bon mots about the joy of doing the work of others. He anticipates the desires of old men and young women alike. And he turns the ultimate budget housewife trick, too, making feasts out of what seems like nothing. 

Bawarchi certainly has moments when you know that the modern Indian housewife is being gently (and not so gently) chided for refusing to be the perfect drudge she once was. Every time the family patriarch wants to praise Raghu, he says Raghu reminds him of his wife. But by making his hero a servant, Mukherjee achieves an interesting class dimension. Rather than some nasty infliction of male discipline, the film comes across as a paean to the dignity of labour. 

Another charming food-related film that slipped under most people's radars when it came out in late 2012 is Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. The film earned points in my book for its warm, crackpot humour, but also for having its young Punjabi hero Omi decide to learn to cook with no shosha, nor any obviously foregrounded gender reversals.  

Unlike the fashionable chefs in the other films I mentioned, both Omi and Kuku have a financial imperative for their restaurants. Omi must discover the lost secret of his grandfather's famous chicken to revive the family fortunes he's helped sink; Kuku because he knows nothing else. Both films recognize that love isn't enough to make the world go round. And yet they also seem informed of that corny but undeniable truth: whether you're male or female, food is a form of love.

PS: My review of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is here. And here's a column about the disappearance of servants in Hindi cinema in which I talk about Bawarchi, among others.

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