13 December 2016

Food for Thought

My Mirror column:

Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi reminded me of the role of food in her English- Vinglish.

I didn't go into Dear Zindagi expecting to find connections with English-Vinglish. But the more I saw of Alia Bhatt's Kaira, the more I began to feel that Gauri Shinde had channelled one of the primary concerns of her 2012 debut into her 2016 film as well — our relationships with our mothers. In English-Vinglish, Shinde kept the focus on the mother – Sridevi as the shy, smiling housewife Shashi, whose endless supply of delicious food provides both real sustenance and metaphorical weight to the thankless business of keeping the family together. 

The 2012 film was interested in Shashi's fears and insecurities, but most of these came to us filtered through her relationship with her tween daughter. So when the self-centred little girl cringed with embarrassment at her mother's inability to converse with her classmate's obliviously English-speaking mother or went into a long sulk merely because Shashi had enthusiastically conducted a conversation in Hindi with her Malayali Christian teacher, we found ourselves reluctantly identifying with her – only to later feel joyfully empowered when the film finally allowed us to cheer Shashi on, instead of just being her unseeing, drag-her-down detractors.

In Dear Zindagi, the perspective is reversed. It is the daughter – Alia Bhatt's Kaira alias Koko – through whose eyes we are meant to view the world, and although Kaira is a lovely twenty-something rather than a plump tween, her attitude to her mother does indeed seem quite similar to the one we saw in English-Vinglish. Four times out of five, when her middle-aged mother calls her, Kaira can't be bothered to take the call. When she does take it, she is almost always bored or annoyed, and sometimes downright rude.

And food, again, is key to this fraught mother-daughter relationship. “Always khana, khana, kya pakana hai... what do you like to eat? Either woh meri asli ma nahi hai, ya apni yaaddasht kho chuki hai! [It's always food, food, what should I cook, what do you like... either she isn't my real mother, or she's lost her memory],” Kaira cribs loudly to her gang of friends.

There is a definite resonance between the taken-for-granted-ness of Shashi in English-Vinglish and that of Kaira's mother here. But since it is Kaira that Shinde wishes us to feel for, the script goes on to more than justify her irritation with her mother. It turns out that being asked what she would like to eat irritates Kaira not so much because she doesn't have preferences but because she does – but she expects her mother to know them.

Food gets several more references in Shinde's script. When we meet Kaira, she has a stable, sweet, loving boyfriend whom the more exciting Kunal Kapoor mocks (with only barely suppressed jealousy) as “the bawarchi”. It turns out that the man in question (Angad Bedi) is a restauranteur – a metaphor for something real and sustaining and solid? And though the film doesn't stress this, the one time we see him, he has laid out what appears to be a grand meal of several courses for his beloved. Kaira, however, only really drinks a bit of the fancy wine before making an awkward confession that ends up in her having to leave both the man and the meal midway.

Almost immediately after, we see her wolfing down a plate of streetside chow mein from a cart that announces itself as Taj Chinese. Bhatt is very effective here, conveying a sense of being not hungry so much as desperate, as if the food is meant to fill some internal vacuum. The wholesome and proper meal has also been replaced by something unhealthy, attractive precisely for its unwholesomeness, echoing her character's almost-deliberate jilting of the 'marriage material' guy for an impulsive dalliance with a much less predictable commodity.

But even as one thinks that thought, a little beggar boy has appeared on the scene, and the half-eaten plate of greasy noodles has been passed on to him.

Food is not the only consumable that plays a role in Shinde's script. A rather in-your-face product placement for eBay is incorporated into the graph of Alia's character – even as she distances herself from emotional investment, we see her purchasing complicated items of clothing with a click on her phone that combines distractedness with a strange and absolute focus.

In a moment meant to invoke laughter, she responds to her friend Jackie's recognising the jacket she's wearing as being something she had in school by saying with savage irony: “I can also have a long-term relationship!”

Still later, we listen as Shah Rukh Khan – perfectly cast as a charming and unconventional therapist with an air of infectious amusement – conjures up the most marvellous metaphor for trying out relationships in order to decide which person is right for you: choosing a chair. “I have a new kursi,” announces Kaira a couple of sessions later. “Comfortable?” asks SRK.

It is a powerful metaphor, one that successfully rids romantic/sexual relationships of the moral baggage that most young women find themselves lugging around. But I am left with the niggling feeling that comparing people to objects cannot quite be the innocuous thing that Shinde's advertising-shaped brain wishes us to see it as. Maybe that ought to be the subject of Mr Khan's next therapy session.

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