Here’s presenting you the season’s special, the multi-course deluxe meal, fresh from the oven. But please eat it till the end. By Sayan Bhattacharya.
When at the first editorial meeting about the year’s first issue, it was decided that “Food” would be the theme, I chose food and cinema for my essay. There was such a lot to explore. The forlorn woman walking down the pavement to collect her noodle soup each evening while the forlorn man watches on and the haunting track by Shigeru Umebayashi accentuating the ache they feel for the lives they never had and the lives they could possibly hope for, the erotic games that the young lovers keep devising with food oblivious to the bloody end that awaits them, the tramp’s illusions about spaghetti like shoe laces, the giant appetites of the Italian mafia family, the bishop’s forbidden lust for chocolate… food and the myriad ways it has been captured on celluloid. Sometimes to drive the narrative forward, sometimes to flesh out characters and their motives, sometimes to inject a dose of the quotidian into the text or slapstick around the theme of gluttony, sometimes even used to expound on fundamental truths of life, to philosophize and reflect the class-caste-gender locations of subjects and often used as mere props. In a nutshell, the universalities and the particularities of food, as seen in the moving images would have formed the content of my essay, or so I thought. However, as I started viewing and reviewing some of the films I would take up for analysis, some other images collided with my stream of thought and hence and I am finally stating it, this essay will not catalogue or pay homage or even attempt a commentary on some of the emotive sequences around food, I just described. Yes, “food” and “cinema” are still the keywords but food here is disruption, food is nausea, horror, unmitigated violence, food is an abstraction, a haze and a banality, a sore thumb as an ode to the surreal world we live in, consume, belch out and excrete in a cycle. But do you have the stomach to face up to it in black and white?
Around the time when Mukesh Ambani announced that Reliance Retail would close the operations of Reliance Delights Stores that sold non-vegetarian fare because it offended sensibilities (read the tastes of upper caste stakeholders in Reliance and of course the neoliberal iron man, the development messiah and India’s Prime Minister elect), a photograph started doing the rounds on Facebook. Of an obese body and with the caption, “Is all the weight because of the consumption of vegetables and leaves?” That body was not any other body from an urban, well to do aspirational family. The body lives inside the monstrous block of concrete and glass with a vertical garden (do the vegetables come from there?). Akash Ambani, the scion of the Ambani empire. As people circulated the photograph, many people squirmed at the impropriety of the dig. Why persecute the son for the father’s sins, many wondered while some felt disturbed by the commentary on someone’s physicality. Cyber bullies, many exclaimed. And just as the arguments were heating up, a newsflash came but like a meteor it vanished in a blinker. An Aston Martin had rammed into two cars on a Saturday night and killed two. The driver was allegedly drunk and his name was Akash Ambani. However, our torchbearers of liberal rights, namely the trinity of Barkha-Arnab-Rajdeep and the lesser minions blacked out the news after an initial guarded coverage (where no mention of the Ambani boy was made. For more lessons on how media exercises restraint, please do not forget to have a word with the Talwars!). Now, it emerges that the Ambani chauffeur, an old man, was supposedly behind the wheels. At the dead of the night he was “test driving”! But it is a moot point to add that eye witnesses (who will not remain witnesses for long) have said that the man behind the wheels was young and clean shaven.
Meanwhile, the caption of the photograph being circulated on Facebook, changed. “Not just a leaf eater but also man eater”, it went. Appetizing enough?
We witness a dystopian Taiwan where the rivers have gone dry and tanks and reservoirs are fast depleting. However, water melons are available in plenty and are dirt cheap. Hence, it’s more lucrative to sell water melon juice than the fruit itself. So much so that a jug of water melon juice costs less than a bottle of mineral water. Juice drinking competitions are being regularly organized and are being televised. As the mineral water processing units keep raking in billions, water melons become a fixture everywhere. They float in the canals, so do their pips, the melon juice becomes the staple drink. And then people, their expressions, emotions, kinks become water melons.
A female porn actor is made to keep a water melon between her legs and as the male performer digs in, she simulates an orgasm. Then a girl keeps a water melon under her tee and feigns a baby bump but as she climbs up the stairs, she develops labour pain and gives birth to a fresh, juicy water melon… Yellow melons are for friendship, the red and developed ones indicate passion.
And amid this, two individuals who had met sometime back reconnect. They cook mussels, crab, prawns and mushrooms together with difficulty and fear (the crab’s still alive and the rice noodles get burnt). They eat together and grow fond of each other. But this fondness does not become a clearly etched out story. It meanders on like the pips floating in the canal without the clear cut culmination of Gregor Samsa’s jouney.
Tsai Ming Liang’s The Wayward Cloud is a constellation of such images, sometimes exquisitely and sometimes grotesquely mounted. Food becomes glue between two floating bodies. Food becomes the symbol of the vacuity of our virtually driven, consumerist lives. Does food fetishize us or we fetishize food? Who or what drives whom? It’s all a juicy blur…
The fact that coke has reached even some sub Saharan countries where potable water hasn’t, has been so highlighted (without much consequence of course) that it fails to resonate with us anymore. However, when I was watching the nebulous girl going high on the red juice, I was reminded of an anecdote shared by a friend. He was on a bus booked for ferrying relatives and friends to a wedding reception in a back of beyond village. It would take five hours to reach the destination but half way through, all his guards to nature’s call fell. He stopped the driver on a highway and rushed to the bushes but he had forgotten to carry water. He called a friend to get water. There was no water in the bus but there was a bottle of coke. My friend did not go back to the loo for two days after that.
The mob boss is so despicable that he does not simply kill his opponents but brutally tortures them, forces them to eat excreta. His wife tells him to leave the poor enemy alone because they have dinner to attend but it is soon evident that the wife is a battered soul herself. The mob boss also owns a gourmet French restaurant. He confesses that business is money but food is pleasure in a public way unlike his wife who is for private pleasure. The chef at the restaurant creates complex and layered flavours. The kitchen is his canvas through which trundles the mob boss. He does not appreciate art but cares for anything that feeds into his machismo. He humiliates guests at the dining room, sometimes overturning their food on their heads, at other times mutilating them with a barrage of verbal assaults. He does not care whether his restaurant finds clients. And in this entire din, an erudite man takes a corner table, enjoys his meals over books on the French Revolution. He is also a book-keeper. The wife steals glances at him. They meet in the lavatory and try to sneak in a few minutes of love making but are rudely interrupted by the mob boss. The wife escapes being caught but passions rise. The chef allows the lovers refuge in the storeroom where they make love each day between courses, in the midst of cornflower and vegetables. However, the thief starts suspecting and he violently ransacks the restaurant. The chef helps the lovers escape in a truck carrying the entrails of animals consumed in the restaurant. The lovers reach the library cum bookstore. The chef keeps sending them meals. They eat and make love but the refuge is only a momentary one. While the wife is away, the thief reaches the store and kills the lover, stuffing him with his favourite books. The wife sees her life and dream shattered and then she steels her nerves. She persuades the chef to cook her lover and invites her husband for a private dinner at his own restaurant. She forces him to feed on the man he had murdered, at gunpoint and then shoots him. All this through exquisitely designed sets and the searing soundtrack by Michale Nyman. Curtains fall.
The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover by Peter Greenway (1989).
Outrageous? Disgusting? Exploitative under the garb of the revenge genre? Too crass for your aesthetic sensibilities? But is it more violent than the father raping her daughter and then making his friend rape her as well before gagging her to death “to teach her a lesson” for eloping with her lover from another caste (Kashimira, Uttar Pradesh)?
Or is it more shocking than the fact that Surender Koli used to feed on the organs of children while chopping them into pieces? While he has been sentenced to death (and the nation’s collective glee after hanging a convict is almost akin to the joys of the hunter after having killed a prized bounty), expectedly no incriminating evidence has been found against his employer, Moninder Singh Pandher.
And these are no aberrations, only if we are ready to take off our blinkers and look around. Then the question becomes how many “perverts” can one sentence to death or force how many to commit “suicide” in jail after feeding them excrement (Ram Singh, one of the rapists of Jyoti Singh Pandey, December 16, 2013)? If one starts cataloguing the list of perversions and perverted individuals, how does one start and where does one end? In this rigmarole of questions and counter questions, Peter Greenway serves us a dish that challenges us to encounter our grotesque reflections, that test our levels of tenacity. If we have the stomach for it, perhaps some startling revelations would await us but can we own up to those revelations?
Saló, or 120 Days of Sodom is Piere Paolo Passolini’s last feature. Just days before the premiere, the director was brutally murdered. The film, loosely based on Marquis De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, is divided into four chapters – Ante-Inferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood. Four corrupt Fascist libertines, the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President device newer and more lethal ways of torture in a puppet Nazi State, called Saló, in an Italy just after the fall of Mussolini. They kidnap the most beautiful men and women and their bodies become the site of extreme sadistic pleasure, torture and murder. The kidnapped are forced to eat the captors’ feces in the second chapter of the film. It is one royal feast and then they are forced to have sex. The levels of torture escalate and death looms large.
Saló had a specific sociopolitical context. It emerged in post war Europe. It emerged from the experiential realities of Passolini under a Fascist regime. It is a commentary on how sovereign power subjugates subjects and how it also keeps perpetuating itself. Yet, the film could not be more relevant today. After Soni Sori’s bail was granted, Himanshu Kumar, founder of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, called a press conference where Soni recollected how other tribal women were tortured in cells, they were electrocuted and their nipples were cut off. As images of the graphic torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison emerge, as corporate after corporate lavish praises on Modi while the scars of Gujarat riots suppurate, as there are still people who scavenge manually for a living and to make their work bearable, they intoxicate themselves with country liquor, one is left wondering what is so explosive about Saló that it is still banned in several countries?
So therefore, for the perfect ending to the gourmet meal, Saló for dessert.