27 August 2018

The Sharpshooter

My Mirror column:

Ismat Chughtai
 would have turned 107 on August 21. Who was she and why should she be the subject of a column on cinema?

The Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai (right) in a still from Shyam Benegal's 1857-set drama, Junoon (1978). Also seen: Jennifer Kendal Kapoor (left) & a very young Nafisa Ali

It was in 1942 that Ismat Chughtai wrote what still remains her most talked-about story. ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt) first came out in an Urdu journal called Adab-e-Lateef and then in a collection of Ismat’s short stories published by Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi.

In December 1944, Ismat and her literary contemporary Saadat Hasan Manto were charged with obscenity. The second and definitive hearing in the case took place in Lahore in November 1946. Here is Ismat, in her autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, recounting with not a little relish how the case fell apart in the courtroom:

The witnesses who had turned up to prove “Lihaaf” obscene were thrown into confusion by my lawyer... After a good deal of reflection one of them said: “This phrase ‘… drawing lovers’ is obscene.”

“Which word is obscene, ‘draw’ or ‘lover’?” The lawyer asked.

“Lover,” replied the witness a little hesitantly.

“My lord, the word ‘lover’ has been used by great poets most liberally. It is also used in naats, poems written in praise of the Prophet. God-fearing people have accorded it a very high status.” “But it’s objectionable for girls to draw lovers to themselves,” said the witness. “Why?” “Because… because it’s objectionable for good girls to do so.”

“And if the girls are not good, then it is not objectionable?”

“Mmm… no.”

“My client must have referred to the girls who were not good. Yes madam, do you mean here that bad girls draw lovers?”


“Well, this may not be obscene. But it is reprehensible for an educated lady from a decent family to write about them.” the witness thundered.

“Censure it as much as you want. But it does not come within the purview of law.”

The issue lost much of its steam thereafter, writes Ismat. The implied sexual relationship between an aristocratic woman and her devoted maid which made 'Lihaaf' so controversial in its time still remains a hot-button topic. Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya (2014) made a sidelong reference to Chughtai’s story while depicting the bond between Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and her maid Muniya (Huma Qureshi). A proper film adaptation by Rahat Kazmi is also in production, starring Tannishtha Chatterjee.

The division of the world into good girls and bad girls had always been of abiding interest to Ismat. The ninth of ten children, she grew up learning to ride and shoot and climb trees alongside her six brothers and three sisters. Her father, a deputy collector in places like Agra and Aligarh, was a remarkable man who gave all his children an education and the freedom to speak of anything under the sun. In a 1972 interview, Ismat attributed her early success as a writer to her frankness, and that frankness to her upbringing. “We were all frank, my father, my brothers, all of us. We never used to sit in separate groups, women in one place, men in another... We were all considered bold, rude and quarrelsome,” she told the Mahfil interviewer.

But her autobiography makes clear that her forthrightness was highly unusual for a young woman, getting her “bashed up often for telling the truth”. “Purdah had already been imposed on me, but my tongue was a naked sword,” she writes. Here is an example of Ismat’s sword, piercing through the hypocritical veil of 'decency': “The apparently shy and respectable girls... allowed themselves to be grabbed, hugged and kissed in bathrooms and in dark corners by young men who were related to their families. Such girls were considered modest.”

Ismat’s first visit to Bombay was as an inspector of municipal schools. She took the opportunity to reconnect with Shahid Latif, whom she had met in Aligarh and who worked in Bombay Talkies. Upon her urging, he took her to watch a film being shot. The lure of the cinema was a powerful one, and Ismat soon began writing scripts for films. Her first script — Ziddi — was bought by Ashok Kumar, then helping to run Bombay Talkies, for the highly impressive sum of Rs 20,000. To offer a comparison, Ismat tells us the heroine Kamini Kaushal, then already a star, was signed on for Rs 20,000, while Dev Anand — for whom this was one of his first roles — got Rs 6,000.

Between the late 1940s and late 1950s, Ismat went on to write scripts for many other films in Bombay. Of these, Aarzoo, Sheesha, Buzdil
, Fareb, Darwaza, Lal Rukh, Society and Sone ki Chidiya were all produced and directed by Shahid Latif, who was by then her husband. But while some of these (Buzdil, Aarzoo and Sone ke Chidiya) were both commercial and critical successes, it is clear that Ismat's screenplays were necessarily a toned-down version of her literary self. (Asked by the 1972 Mahfil interviewer if there was “any adverse effect on writers who get involved in film writing”, Ismat burst out, “how can I say anything against films because it's through films that we’ve been fed!”)
The one film through which one can experience the unexpurgated Ismat is MS Sathyu's Garm Hava, whose portrait of a Muslim family remains the most nuanced cinematic depiction we have of the effects of Partition.

But Ismat also wrote about the film world. Her novel Ajeeb Aadmi ('A Very Strange Man') is about the talented director-producer Dharamdev, his Bengali wife Mangala who is a talented playback singer, and his affair with the actress Zarina which ends up devastating all their lives. The central characters were entirely recognisable, embedded though they were in a sharply realised fiction that shows exactly how power works in the film industry. They remain recognisable today, even though two of the three are long dead. Perhaps some day soon, someone will make the film, and Ismat’s naked sword will again shine in use.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 Aug 2018.

21 August 2018

At what price beauty?

My Mirror column:

Women struggle to feel beautiful in an intriguing television series called Dietland, and a new comedy called I Feel Pretty.

“Apart from Steven and a few other people, I’d learnt to live deep inside myself... My body was just a thing I used to move my head around,” says Alicia ‘Plum’ Kettle early in the first season of Dietland, the ongoing television series of which she is the heroine and sometimes narrator. The thought isn’t a complicated one. But Plum’s description of her inner life as a fat person also encapsulates what seems to me to be a most universally resonant thought: a split between the body and the mind, the feeling that one’s visible outer self does not really represent one’s inner being. Based on Sarai Walker’s novel of the same name, Dietland’s aim is simple: it places a woman’s struggles with obesity at the centre of our consciousness, forcing us to engage with our prejudices and pity-parties, even — perhaps, especially — when they come couched as concerns about the fat person’s health and happiness.

As she moves hopelessly between her friend Steven’s cafe and her lonely Brooklyn apartment, her thankless weightwatchers meetings (where she is lectured by annoying thin women) and her freelance gig as ghostwriter for teen zine editor Kitty Montgomery (where, too, she is lectured by annoying thin women), Plum gets sadder and angrier. Still, she continues to suspend all her present-day desires in aid of a future Day of Fulfilment, pegging her meagre savings and oversized hopes to a gastric band surgery that promises to unveil her 
thin person within”.

So in Plum’s case, the split sense of identity is based on being fat. But Dietland makes it clear that what it’s really targeting is much larger: a world of impossibly precarious standards for what counts as female beauty, held in place by what it refers to as the “dissatisfaction industrial complex”. “They get us to tell them how broken we are and then get us to buy things to fix it,” says the wonderfully savvy Julia, manager of the so-called ‘Beauty Closet’ that’s part of Kitty Montgomery’s media empire — who also enrols Plum into a secret project to subvert it. Meanwhile, an anonymous female vigilante group by the fantastically normal name of Jennifer starts to claim responsibility for the grisly murders of rapists who have escaped the law. Their violence is effective and media-grabbing — it shuts down Fashion Week and kills off a female porn star associated with rape porn — and even as Plum is adopted by a peaceful ‘anti-diet’ philanthropist, the connections she’s making seem to lead her closer and closer to Jennifer.

A few weeks after I watched Dietland, I came upon a 2018 film that seems to engage with very similar concerns. Called I Feel Pretty, it stars the influential stand-up comic Amy Schumer. Schumer’s Renee Bennett is by no means obese, but like Plum Kettle, she struggles with insecurities about her looks. 

If Plum slaves away secretly over her laptop in her apartment, Renee leads her work life in a dank Chinatown basement. Both are wage slaves employed by insanely posh women in the youth and beauty business, who gradually start to see the value of our anonymous, non-posh heroines. Where Plum had Kitty, Renee has Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams in a memorably excessive performance), heir and CEO of a cosmetics corporation called Lily LeClaire that’s looking to branch out from high-end to mass products. Most strikingly, Renee yearns to know what it’s like to be “undeniably pretty” — which, in both Plum’s and her minds, is what will make them worthy of being desired, and thus — at least potentially — loved.

I began by being struck by how similarly Dietland and I Feel Pretty set up their scenarios. But I ended up amazed by the different routes they take to resolve them. I Feel Pretty uses the old knock-on-the-head device to create a version of amnesia: Renee wakes up from a gym accident convinced that she has been transformed into a woman of stunning attractiveness; a babe by mainstream standards. That illusion kickstarts her lifeless dating life and career, as romantic partners and snobbish bosses alike are first bemused and then charmed by her self-confidence. As feel-good comedy, this premise walks a bit of a political tightrope — because, of course, the reason everyone (including us, the audience) is so amused is because Renee’s new confidence is misplaced, incongruous, delusional. And there are moments of annoying obviousness when Renee befriends the beautiful people — her gym friend or her boss — only so that we can be told that hot people have problems, too.

What I Feel Pretty’s makers want us to concentrate on, however, is that feeling “undeniably pretty” is enough to make the life we want. If we feel it on the inside, it’ll start to show up on the outside.

Meanwhile, in Dietland, we watch Plum being treated badly, by strangers and by potential dates, because fatness has been declared not just unattractive but inferior, worthy of fetishising but not respect and love. But then we also see women with the most flawless of bodies being objectified. “They’re perfect,” says an acid attack victim with a disfigured face. “How’s that working out for them?” In fact, Dietland wants us to arrive at the same place as I Feel Pretty —just via a darker route. The most beautiful body is no guarantee of anything, if we aren’t feeling pretty on the inside.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 Aug 2018.

15 August 2018

Taking back the country

My Mirror column:

Mulk addresses the subject of Islamic terrorism with not just heart but honesty. It doesn’t shy away from the real tough questions.

Two trailers were shown in the Delhi cinema in which I watched Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk. The first was of Vishwaroop II, which marks veteran Tamil actor Kamal Haasan’s return to the tale begun in Vishwaroop I, where he played Vishwanath, a Kathak teacher in New York who turns out to be an ex-RAW agent named Visam Kashmiri.

The second trailer was of a film called
Genius, which is Gadar: Ek Prem Katha director Anil Sharma’s launch vehicle for his son Utkarsh, featuring Sharma Junior as an orphan brought up by priests in the Krishna Janmabhoomi terrain of Mathura-Vrindavan. His two passions are science and Hinduism: when he isn’t reciting Sanskrit shlokas, the IIT engineering student with a photographic memory is — yes — a RAW agent. Both films appear to be fantasies of the self generated by the same New India drug: a potent cocktail of supposed technological genius and Hindu high culture, shaken together with an aggressive patriotism.

I’m not suggesting, obviously, that Mulk was made with an awareness of these particular films. But films like Vishwaroop and Genius do represent the zeitgeist, and it’s clear that the zeitgeist has defined Muslims as the unspoken other. Haasan’s character in Vishwaroop II says such things as “Musalmaan hona gunaah nahi, lekin aap jaisa insaan hona haraam hai” and “Main mazhab nahin mulk ke liye khoon bahaata hoon”. Watching Mulk right after makes it hard not to see Rishi Kapoor’s Murad Ali Mohammad as a response.

Anubhav Sinha, who has previously made such films as
Dus (2005) and Ra.One (2011), moves into very different terrain here. A Banaras boy himself, Sinha crafts a portrait of the mixed mohalla life that feels both affectionate and authentic. Once replete with the sights and sounds of a Banaras morning —which include the ‘Ram Nam Satya Hai’ of a Hindu funeral procession as much as the azaan from the city’s mosques — we are introduced to the portly, devout and bearded Murad Ali Mohammad, addressed by his neighbours as Vakil Sahab.

Part of Murad Ali’s morning ritual is to walk back home from his morning namaaz, stopping at his neighbour Chaubey’s shop for a cup of tea. As long-time residents of the neighbourhood, Hindus and Muslims of the same age-set have warm, cordial relationships that allow for banter — even on topics that are increasingly being labelled ‘sensitive’. So at Murad Ali’s birthday celebrations, Chaubey gulps down some kababs on the sly — but must suffer in silence when Murad takes a bowl of the mutton korma tantalisingly past his nostrils, because he is still vegetarian in front of his wife. Sinha is sharp enough to allow for differential degrees of integration — one Hindu lady at the gathering is heard to say quite unselfconsciously to another: “
Naachne gaane ke liye toh thheek hai, khana nahi khate hum inke ghar par.

This particular Muslim family also has a Hindu daughter-in-law called Arti (
Taapsee Pannu), who happens to be visiting from London when events take a sudden turn into catastrophe. Murad’s nephew Shahid (Prateik Babbar) turns out have been one of the bombers involved in a terrorist attack that kills 16 passengers on a bus and is soon thereafter killed in a police shoot-out.

The rest of the film unfolds in a courtroom, in which Shahid’s father Bilal, who is Murad’s not-so-bright younger brother, is accused of having foreknowledge of the terror plot. As the media gets to the case, the whole family is tainted by association. Even Murad Ali must move from being the old lawyer defending his brother to someone who is put in the dock himself. The film shows the enormous pressure placed on inter-communal relationships in today’s India, and how easily they can break: the same Chaubey who has known Murad for decades can turn around and berate him in public as treasonous, based on his nephew’s image on TV. Friendship across religion is not the only tie that’s tested — another Muslim family abandons the Mohammads rather than take the risk of their son getting embroiled in the case.

Where Sinha scores is in creating a world in which there is not only one kind of Muslim. Murad Ali may remain standing even under pressure, insistent both on his constitutional rights as a citizen and his religious rights as a practicing Muslim. But we also meet those Muslims who meet Murad in the mosque, for whom the growing suspicion and abuse directed at the community is a reason to come together to treat Shahid’s death as a form of martyrdom. And alongside, we have the figure of police officer Danish Javed (
Rajat Kapoor, effective as always), whose response to crimes by his co-religionists is one of overcompensatory punishment. As emerges in one of the film’s slightly overwrought court scenes, Javed’s mercilessness comes from a desire to make an example of the rotten apples — before they infect the whole basket.

Mulk does not provide flawless answers, but it has the courage to ask the right questions. 
The real question is not how every Muslim is to prove her love of the country. The real question is whether punishing a whole community for the crimes of some individual members is really the way to rid us of the rot. Or is that only helping the infection spread, producing more real wounds that the country may never be able to heal from?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 Aug 2018

10 August 2018

Book review: The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian

A book review for Scroll:
Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel is a minimalist study of revenge (and features Agastya Sen’s father). 

Speaking Tiger Books, June 2018. 128 pp, Rs. 350.

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s most recent book, 
The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian, is a sharp departure from his previous work – in the best ways. His earlier predilection for excess has been pared down into something almost unrecognisable: a tautly told tale which prizes control rather than the lack of restraint, its humour confident enough to be buried below the surface instead of being perpetually paraded for laughs. At the age of 59, exactly thirty years after the publication of his first (and best-known) novel, Chatterjee might finally have stopped needing to shock.

His debut, English, August (1988) was an India book that got off on the idea of not being one. Its bored, horny young IAS officer protagonist Agastya Sen, having been forced out of his tiny Westernised urban pond into the terrifyingly unfamiliar ocean that is the Rest Of India, responds with deliberate flippancy to everything the respectable middle class world would have him take seriously. Sample dialogue: “I’d much rather act in a porn film than be a bureaucrat. But I suppose one has to live”.

Inside Agastya’s brain, everything is either sexual or scatological. So his cook’s surprise at being asked to bring milk is “as though Agastya asked for his wife’s cunt”; when asked what his name means by the District Collector, he wants to say it is Sanskrit for “one who shits only one turd every morning”, and so on. Several of Chatterjee’s later books, like The Mammaries of the Welfare State (2000), and Weight Loss: A Comedy of Sexual and Spiritual Degradation (2006), continued to cultivate this quality of deliberate affront to decorum, and circle around the world of Indian bureaucracy.

The father of principles
With The Revenge of the Non-VegetarianChatterjee returns – again – to the figure of the city-bred Indian bureaucrat posted in a remote small town. Only this time, the protagonist is not Agastya Sen but his father Madhusudan Sen, ICS. The senior Mr Sen first appeared in English, August, writing serious advice-filled letters to his dissolute, incorrigibly cynical son. In Non-Vegetarian, we meet him at at an earlier stage of his life: he is the newly appointed Sub Divisional Magistrate of Batia, in the period just after independence.
He leads the recognisably dull life of the bureaucrat in a provincial posting, surrounded by punkhahs, peons and other eavesdropping functionaries. His daily stimulation, such as it is, consists of the walk back from the magistrate’s court to his Civil Lines bungalow, followed by a glass of Cutty Sark whiskey and a single Gold Flake cigarette. Unlike his future son, however, Madhusudan Sen is the opposite of dissolute, cynical, or confused.
Chatterjee’s crisp telling cannot be accused of something so florid as nostalgia – and yet there is a lingering sense here of a finer, uncorrupted past. At this previous point in the history of the nation-state, Chatterjee seems to suggest, the very same conditions that produced an Agastya could (and did) produce the principled pillar of bureaucracy, upright and correct.

The meating point

But Sen does have desires that he is unafraid to voice. Soon after his arrival in Batia, when he learns that his official residence on Temple Road is part of an unofficial no-meat zone because of its geographical proximity to the town’s resident vegetarian deity, he devises a complex arrangement to get himself a non-veg meal every evening.
If Madhusudan Sen is “both cautious and intelligent”, a highly educated man with a commitment to justice, a servant of the people, the other figure who occupies centre-stage in this 124-page novella might be seen as his social, intellectual and moral opposite. Sadly, Basant Kumar Bal, servant to the six-member Dalvi family, is not someone whose interiority we learn much about. At one point in the book, we are told that Bal “did not wonder what was going on in the world beyond [the walls], whether anyone remembered him. He was not that kind of human being.”
Chatterjee does allow Bal one monologue that might gain him our understanding, if not our empathy – and that understanding is routed through Madhusudan Sen’s. Fittingly, it is about the eating of meat. “They always ate well,” says Bal of his late employers. “They had non-vegetarian almost every day, saab, goat or chicken or fish or egg. They ate like rakshasas themselves and always left only two pieces of meat in the pot, one each for the sister-in-law and her daughter.”
The desire for meat is all the sahib has in common with the servant, the judge with the accused. It is a delicious premise, and one that Chatterjee manages to manoeuvre perfectly towards a wicked, satisfying conclusion. Like a well-made mutton curry, this is a book whose pleasures are dependent on the attention you give it. Don’t eat while you read.
To see this review as it was first published online: see Scroll, 4 Aug 2018.

7 August 2018

Home is where the hearth is

My Mirror column:

Carrying on from last week: how the chef film appeals to our corniest instincts, bringing fathers and sons together while serving up bite-sized doses of life philosophy.

The chef movie has emerged as a popular cinematic lens on family and fatherhood. Last week, while watching Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef alongside Raja Krishna Menon’s 2017 Hindi remake of it, I thought about the fact that while male chefs might have achieved near-acceptability in the West, in the Indian middle-class setting, there is still a great deal of resistance to men choosing to cook for a living.

Menon’s adaptation tries to take this fact on board, supplementing Favreau’s nuclear father-son equation with a third generational angle that’s much more fraught with social censure. Saif Ali Khan’s Roshan Kalra, we are told, became a chef entirely against his father’s wishes. Running away from his Old Delhi home at fifteen, he went first to Amritsar — where he scraped together a living as a boy-of-all-work in a local eatery — and then to the US, where he rose to become a well-known chef at an Indian restaurant.

Roshan’s attempt to reconnect with his son Ary (Svar Kamble) also becomes a way to rebuild his own relationship with his estranged Bauji. It isn’t a bad idea per se, and Indian theatre doyen Ram Gopal Bajaj is a fascinating choice of actor to play Roshan’s embittered, lonely father. But though Roshan is supposed to be introducing Ary to the chhole bhature he grew up on, he seems as much of a tourist in 
Chandni Chowk as his son — while Bajaj’s prickly isolation hits a much deeper, harsher note than the rest of the film.

No such tonal disjuncture afflicts the similar return-to-roots narrative of Anwar Rasheed’s Ustad Hotel. A popular Malayalam drama from 2012, the film starred Dulquer Salmaan as its hero Faizi. As with Roshan in Chef, Faizi’s choice of career is not what his father Abdul (Siddique) wants for him. Having paid for Faizi’s expensive Swiss education, Abdul is shocked to learn that his only son and heir has trained not in hotel management but as a chef. Humiliated and deprived by his father of the passport he needs to take up his foreign job as a chef, Faizi goes off to stay with his grandfather Karim (Thilakan) who runs a small but famed biryani joint in Calicut.

Ustad Hotel is wonderfully comfortable with its orthodox, often patriarchal Kerala Muslim setting, in which for instance, the birth of three daughters in the effort to produce a son incites wry laughter, not external condemnation. That comfort in its own skin extends into the film’s grasp of its social milieu, which ups the believability of the father-son battle. Rather than being a simple gendered rejection of cooking as a woman’s job, it turns out that Abdul’s angst comes from his own biography. Having grown up a cook’s son, he is now a self-made businessman. The perceived social stigma of his father’s profession is not yet a distant memory — and his son’s decision seems to mock his struggle.

And yet, becoming a chef in a fancy foreign restaurant has a certain cachet. But in all these films, from Favreau’s to Menon’s to Ustad Hotel, the lure of that position threatens to distance the protagonist not just from his roots but from the very purpose of cooking: giving people joy.

That tussle between the imaginary high-status job and the down-home eatery is also at the centre of another chef-centred film featuring a father and son conflict: David Kaplan’s 2010 indie drama Today’s Special. If Faizi in Ustad Hotel finds himself waging a war against a five-star hotel to keep his grandfather’s eatery from closing down, Samir in Today’s Special becomes unexpectedly attached to his father’s dowdy old Indian restaurant in Queens.

Today’s Special isn’t a great or even a good film. But despite a by-the-numbers romance and exaggerated gesture-laden performances from the supporting cast, it’s hard to resist the charm of food-as-philosophy. Corny as it is, this is what makes both Ustad Hotel and Today’s Special so watchable. The grandfather-grandson pair in Ustad Hotel find their match in Samir’s chance encounter with a flamboyant New York cabbie called Akbar. Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah thoroughly enjoying himself) converts the over-cautious Samir (Aasif Mandvi) to spontaneous cooking with the aid of lines like “A man who measures life never knows his own measure”. And again, in both these films, snobbery is decried and labour applauded as experience. If Samir finds himself making deliveries by bicycle, grandfather Karim turns young Faizi’s ‘book knowledge’ on its head, gently but firmly nudging him to work at every level of the business, from cleaning tables to carrying rice sacks.
It isn’t as if our heroes don’t resist. A tense Samir once snaps at Akbar, “I’m a chef. I don’t need to learn how to cook from a cab driver.” But he returns quickly, shamefaced, just like Faizi in the rice bag scene. In these times of prioritising poshness, these films are lovely lessons in dressing it down.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 5 Aug 2018.

Feeding the soul

Food seems to bring out feelings. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that films about chefs are films about family and fatherhood. The first of a multi-part column.

Sometime in 2011, an award-winning Italian photographer called Alessio Mamo decided to travel through Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, taking pictures for what he called The Hunger Project.
Last Sunday, when Mamo’s pictures showed up on the World Press Photo’s Instagram page, they were met with outrage. Here were real poor, underfed people, posing before tables laden with fake food. Mamo’s explanation — that he meant to make “western people think, in a provocative way, about the waste of food” — does not excuse his bizarre insensitivity. The attempt to shock by displaying malnourished Indian bodies has led to allegations of ‘poverty porn’. But the more widespread anger is triggered by the fakeness of the food. Making hungry people dream of lavish meals with no intention of actually satisfying that longing seems deliberately cruel.

Thinking about the controversy made me think about how deeply food is wound up with our emotions. Hunger is the purest physical sensation, but it is also the strongest metaphor for a sense of deprivation -- just as the act of feeding someone is often a stand-in for love and care. Almost all over the world, almost all of the time, it is women who do that cooking and feeding. Meals are the most crucial part of the invisible, unpaid labour that keeps the household going. But of course cooking can only get its moment in the sun once it is taken out of the domestic arena, and when men who wouldn’t lift a finger in their own kitchen are willing to lay claim to it as a terrain.

Worldwide, as well as in India, any celebrated chef is invariably a man. Yet a man’s association with cooking isn’t something we can take for granted. It remains something that demands thinking through, making a big deal about. Further, being associated with a traditionally ‘feminine’ activity seems to push restaurant kitchen culture in the direction of an overcompensatory machismo.

So it’s interesting to find that films about chefs are so often about finding a balance between what's often understood as masculine and feminine, between worldly ambition and the nurturing of family. Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef, for instance, centres around a well-known Los Angeles chef called Carl (played by Favreau himself), whose public meltdown in response to a nasty review goes viral on Twitter. Having lost his job, he ends up on an unanticipated trip to Miami with his ex-wife and ten-year-old son Percy — and finds himself starting anew by opening a food truck.

Many elements of the plot aren’t new: the road trip, the father-and-son bonding, a man trying to reinvent himself after a midlife crisis. But putting food and cooking at the centre of this cinematic journey allows Favreau to wax gently philosophical about what we really need to nourish our souls. The battle between Carl and his restaurant owner boss Riva (Dustin Hoffman) speaks of how catering to a known market can kill all creativity, making you feel distant even from a job you love in theory. The road trip is another classic trope in a world of deadening capitalist routine – moving into unfamiliar surroundings to re-familiarise yourself with your feelings.

It’s in rejigging the beat-up old truck, though, that the film really hits its stride. There is something here about actual physical labour, about father and son working side by side, that feels wonderfully real. What’s nice is that it isn’t just about being able to summon up strength — something that might be seen as the displayable test of masculinity. Here, instead, we have a forty-year-old man initiating his ten-year-old son into a thoughtful work ethic. Clearing out the old doesn’t always mean acquiring shiny new stuff, Carl suggests to Percy: it can often mean the slow and laborious process of saving what can still be used, and the drudgery of actually cleaning it. The unglamorous stuff needs to be done, even if it’s not what goes into the social media pictures.

Favreau’s film was officially remade last year in India by Raja Krishna Menon, starring 
Saif Ali Khan in Favreau’s role. Rather than the overweight Carl, who has a hilariously deadpan verbal contest with his father-in-law about who’s dropped more pounds recently, Saif’s Roshan Kalra is super-fit — but with anger issues, expressed in actually punching a customer in the US restaurant where he works. His return to India is spearheaded by losing his job as well as adesire to see his son Ary, who lives with Roshan’s estranged wife Radha in Kochi.

That seems believable. What doesn’t is the food truck — especially Menon’s attempt to relocate the father-son bonding over work into an Indian upper middle-class scenario. The ethic of dignity of labour is practically impossible to translate into a world in which all cooking and cleaning around a child like Ary is done by servants.

In Favreau’s film, the labour we see – even under Hollywood conditions and with the fetishising of such things as the chef’s knife – feels undoubtedly like work. In Menon’s film, neither father nor son can make us believe that it is anything but play.

(To be continued next week)