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Desire, Appetite and Sexuality: Indian Cinema’s Evolving Taste Buds

The posters of two Indian films - Six Strands (2011) by Chaitanya Tamhane and Aamis (2019) by Bhaskar Hazarika.

Indian representation of womanhood has always placed food in close association with the identity of ‘woman’. A kitchen has long been at the centre of the zenana and the woman becomes the all-pervading Mother Goddess who takes care of all the household matters by herself. But in reality, this glorification is nothing but a reflection on a woman’s lack of agency in all matters except the kitchen, her children, and the upkeep of the household. Consequently, she has been rebuked for any lapse. Motherhood has often been used against her. Her morality and chastity have been suspect at times, as she has been touted as a ‘chudail’ (witch) or a ‘giri hui aurat’ (fallen woman). Indian films have for long fed into as well as mirrored social and cultural practices. Many of them depict a woman as being restricted to the kitchen and serving delicacies during festivities. She can seek affection through her cooking (Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, 2013) or food can be her way of ‘secretly’ being with her lover and talking about her desire (Deepa Mehta’s Fire, 1996), or her mastery over cooking is seen as a warm gesture of love in almost any Indian family drama. A recent radical take on motherhood attempts to shift the discourse through Ravi Udyawar’s Mom (2017) and it could have stood out only if the protagonist’s agency was explored as more than that of a mother seeking validation from her daughter as she hunts for her daughter’s rapists. Though they try to look at a woman’s role as an individual, her actions frequently revolve around someone from her past or present, putting a man, and sometimes the family, centre stage.

Two Indian films have brought forward narratives that break such a state of ad nauseum. Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut, the short film Six Strands (2011), stays true to his style and has a lingering impact. Featured in a number of international film festivals, it received a lukewarm response in India. In an interview, Tamhane mentioned that many Indian film festivals didn’t give it the recognition it deserved. The other film, Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis (2019), despite critical acclaim, remains relatively obscure. Both films revolve around a woman’s desires that surpass the limits of verbal expression, thus resorting to the language of food. In addition to fresh perspectives on women’s desires, the directors also aimed at dissecting traditional ideas of family. Tamhane’s film does away with the family altogether, while Hazarika sheds light on the facade of a happy family.

Shot in picturesque Darjeeling, Tamhane’s short film uses brilliant narrative techniques as well as beautiful stills to offer a dreamy quality. It is the tale of a woman (referred to as The Lady and played by Sushama Deshpande) full of agency, if not vitality, narrated by a voice (Puja Sarup) different from hers. This is a woman, nameless and ageless, who knows love and exploitation. Tamhane skilfully employs an immersive narrative structure reminiscent of an age-old fable. As the story unravels, we are drawn into the enigmatic world of tea, specifically, “Moonlight Thurston” tea. Hazarika’s film Aamis, set in Guwahati, showcases the unusual relationship between Nirmali (Lima Das), a married paediatrician, and Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah), a young PhD student researching the different meat-eating habits of the people of the north-eastern region. This relationship is fleshed out as they taste-test different meats and embark on a journey, not paying heed to societal norms. The film takes a dark turn as it delves into the intricacies of desire and the consequences of exploring forbidden passions.

Tamhane’s Lady is the embodiment of the New Woman who defies the societal expectations placed upon her and challenges Victorian morality. For her, tea transcends from being just a drink that takes her through a tough day to a marker of her passion, devotion, love, and desires. Tea is a journey that leads her to the pinnacle of elation, pleasure, and happiness. She doesn’t have a child to rear or a husband with whom she finds happiness. Tea is everything to her. It is, as the narrative puts it, “like bearing the same child again and again.” The discovery of the taste of tea is symbolised by the appearance of a little girl, which perhaps gives tea the status of a companion. Tea becomes intimately intertwined with her desires. The exquisite flavours of the tea-leaves heighten her senses and strike her core in four layers. The first layer evokes the smell of earth after the first rain, the second layer is like the hybrid of rose and jasmine, the third layer hits like sex and the fourth, the after-effect, is a sensory journey beyond words.

The visual presentation of The Lady’s desires resonates with the desires of Nirmali in Hazarika’s Aamis, a film that romanticises a gothic culinary trope of human flesh-eating or cannibalism. This act of cannibalism diverges from the visual representation of Hannibal (2013-2015), an American horror thriller series that represents the typical ‘food and horror’ trope, showcasing the contrast in their respective narratives. Aamis, at its core, is a modern retelling of the biblical story of damnation, one that has branded Eve as someone who, after being tempted by Satan, leads Adam astray and consumes the ‘forbidden’ fruit. Driven by her own fiendish desires, Nirmali pushes Sumon into killing for the ‘forbidden’ flesh. Notably, her uncontrollable hunger (for flesh) is strikingly similar to the Lady’s passion (for tea).

It is interesting to note that the literal translation for the word ‘Aamis’ is ‘non-vegetarian’ or ‘meat’, but the director chose Ravening as the English title for the movie, which, as per the definition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, means “(especially of wild animals) aggressive and hungry.” Thus, Hazarika too, akin to Tamhane’s approach, gives Nirmali the status of a non-human entity. Tamhane’s Lady is like a Witch, who controls an entire tea estate, the village of Khagambari, and its people with her secret tea recipe derived from the “forbidden ‘Kalpa-Vriksha Shastra’” while Hazarika’s woman is like a ferocious animal who has come to devour a man. Ironically, despite Sumon having more screen time and occupying a central position, the film primarily tells Nirmali’s story. She emerges as a strong woman who acts on her desire for flesh and is devoid of any love or desire for Sumon. Her desire, thus, caters to her own needs, transgressing societal norms. While she fails to feel nauseated at the knowledge of the kind of meat Sumon feeds her, Sumon vomits up the food when Nirmali feeds him her own flesh. Ultimately, when Sumon and Nirmali get arrested, Nirmali becomes the main culprit – a cannibal, a seductress and a ‘fallen woman’ who has left her husband to engage in an affair.

In a particular scene, Sumon tells Nirmali about gandhi puk, an insect that some people consume raw. The fluids inside the insect, as Sumon goes on, induce “an amazing trip,” such that one wishes to hide inside a hole. Then he asks Nirmali whether gandhi puk is really food or a hallucinogen, to which she responds, “An optimum amalgamation of food and hallucinogen.” This topic of food and hallucinogen is something that both directors have tried to explore.

In the interview mentioned earlier, Tamhane discusses the language that he chose for his short film. He employed a fabricated tongue, or as he himself said, “gibberish.” For Hazarika, his language didn’t belong to the masses. It wasn’t Hindi or English, it was Assamese, a regional language that took the film to its height. The directors’ choice of language replaces a codified language with food which becomes a medium of expressing women’s desires. Adding to such a postmodern approach, the scenes are made visually immersive by the inclusion of stream-of-consciousness sequences.

Identity, when explored through the lens of food and sexuality, is not a new concept. This captivating topic has been internationally celebrated for a considerable period of time. In the third instalment of Ang Lee’s ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), the narrative revolves around a series of weekend family dinners. During these gatherings, the three daughters of Chu courageously make their “little announcements,” seizing control of their own lives, which were previously entwined with their father’s. Another noteworthy film that delves into this theme is Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000), wherein the protagonist Vianne’s nonconformist nature, epitomised by her exquisite chocolate-making skills, becomes a source of struggle as she confronts the societal pressures imposed upon her. Like Water For Chocolate (1992), a Mexican film by Alfonso Arau, makes an attempt to bring the individual experience through its protagonist Tita, whose emotions get expressed through food. People start crying or even feel their desires when they taste the food she made with similar emotions. Food Wars (2015-2020), a TV anime series adaptation, deals with food as it taps into the hidden desires of mankind, but the visuals that present the women’s experience of pleasure are akin to the pornographic representations of a masturbating woman. Evidently, all these representations either run the risk of representing the male gaze or the focus lies more on the fulfilment of desires rather than individual experience.

The brilliance of Hazarika and Tamhane’s approach lies the way they delve into the individual experiences of their characters as pitted against their immediate kin and communities. Community is done away with completely in Six Strands as the Lady forages a living on her own, and Nirmali, in Aamis, is pushed to the borders of society for pursuing her ‘heretic’ desires. In Six Strands, the Lady’s defiant passion for tea is also associated with loneliness and witchcraft as she has broken out of the cast imposed on an Indian woman. Nirmali too does the same which results in her family falling apart. She is prominently presented as a mother who is also a paediatrician, lending further nuance to her character as that familiar to any upper middle-class urban household. Furthermore, the defiance of the protagonists to conform to the rigid guidelines of the community and their taking charge of their own appetite challenges the idea of appetite as ‘un-feminine’.