How extending my palette to beyond Bollywood helped me undo my stomach's inherent patriotism and vegetarianism

It took me years to realise I never took to meat because I barely saw it on the big screen. It wasn’t until I moved to Mumbai that I discovered a world outside Bollywood – and vengeful vegetarianism.

Rahul Desai January 22, 2022 08:00:43 IST
How extending my palette to beyond Bollywood helped me undo my stomach's inherent patriotism and vegetarianism

Shah Rukh Khan and Deepak Tijori in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa

"Good food is like music you can taste, color you can smell." Ratatouille gets us. In this series 'Food for Film,' we pick food films/shows that make our mouths water and our souls richer.

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Growing up as a Gujarati kid in 1990s Ahmedabad, I was conditioned to swear by three things in life: cricket, food, and Bollywood. I know this is hardly unusual for an Indian to say.

But Gujarat breeds a different language of obsession – one that has often been glimpsed in its aggressive cultural and political history. My borderline-toxic love for cricket likely stemmed from a deep-set inferiority complex. Gujarat’s notoriously weak sporting legacy meant that local players like Ajay Jadeja and Nayan Mongia enjoyed Sourav-Ganguly-in-Bengal status. We idolised them because they were “ours,” not for their skill on the field. 

This regional loyalty extended to other areas of my childhood. I didn’t know it then, but my passion for Hindi cinema defined the way I ate. For impressionable boys who learned from film and derived entertainment from school, Bollywood and food habits were inextricably linked. Maybe it’s fitting that one of my earliest memories of seeing and loving food on screen featured a Gujarati actor.

I’m pretty sure I developed a lifelong sweet tooth after watching Satish Shah own a bakery – and sneak in bites of delicious pastries despite his diabetes – in Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. Watching Ayesha Jhulka secretly wrap chapatis and sabzi in a newspaper from her house to feed a sulking Aamir Khan in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar made me a permanent sucker for ‘ghar ka khana’ (homemade food). The way Sanju chew-swallowed in that scene always made me famished, as did the sight of Ratan selling pav bread to his lady love at Ramlal’s Cafe. 

How extending my palette to beyond Bollywood helped me undo my stomachs inherent patriotism and vegetarianism

Pooja Bedi and Aamir Khan in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar

The ‘shampoo omelette’ from Hum Hain Kamaal Ke turned me off the taste and smell of egg for a long time, much to the chagrin of my North Indian mother. Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke made me crave for adolescent favourites like sandwiches and chips, while Vaastav – thanks to the brand new food stall that triggered Raghu’s spiral – did the trick for pav bhaji.

The strangest of scenes had a lasting effect on my palate. The sight of a starving Neeraj Vora wolfing down vada pavs in Mumbai, in Mann, made me a regular at my school canteen: a place that customised the dabeli to create its own version of the vada pav. I even remember begging my mother to make “spicy Japanese food” after watching Shah Rukh Khan’s Babloo as a bumbling chef in Duplicate. Most of all, my experience of hearing about Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! from my family-hearted Marwari neighbours reinforced the territorial vegetarianism of Rajshri Films – and by extension, commercial Hindi cinema.

How extending my palette to beyond Bollywood helped me undo my stomachs inherent patriotism and vegetarianism

Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!

It took me years to realise I never took to meat because I barely saw it on the big screen. The few times I did – like Aditya Pancholi eating chicken in Yes Boss, Mukesh Tiwari gnawing in China Gate or Ashutosh Rana feasting on flesh in Dushman – I associated it with villainy and character bankruptcy. It can be argued that the film industry was yet to recognise the culinary diversity of globalisation. But when viewed through the lens of post-liberalisation Gujarat – where every movie outing triggered a visit to the nearest pure-veg restaurant – it was impossible to ignore the religious subtext and inbred nationalism of our habits. 

This was, after all, a region determined to preserve tradition and taste in the face of sweeping reforms – and it showed from the sort of unassuming movie scenes that made me hungry. (For instance, I also assumed Jughead’s hot dogs from Archie Comics were made of paneer). A Gujarati’s pride in local cuisine is often rooted in a distaste for other ways of eating and living. Watching characters eating fried snacks and singing about bhel puri simply fed this cultural inferiority complex. I would get hurt when my mother and her catholic sister-in-law made fun of my one-dimensional food habits (“Hindu boy”), but I soon learned there was a profound truth to their taunts. 

It wasn’t until I moved to Mumbai that I discovered a world outside Bollywood – and vengeful vegetarianism.

I became obsessed with reruns of Top Chef, savouring the science and art of cooking, if not yet eating. But the more non-Hindi movies I watched, the more my palate widened. Ironically, it was Ratatouille – an animated film named after a French vegetarian dish – that equipped me with a curiosity about fine dining and diverse ingredients. Julie and Julia made me appreciate my own mother’s versatile genius in the kitchen, especially her meat sauce. The Hundred-Foot Journey renovated my reading of secularism in (Indian) cooking, and how food – like writing – is a craft elevated by personality and voice. Chef got me interested in Cuban sandwiches, grilled cheese, and steaks on my travels, while Angamaly Diaries unlocked in me a desperate lust for beef. I’m yet to see an appetizing sea-food scene – other than British fish-and-chips rom-com bits – so I suppose my taste for lobster and crab is still under construction. 

Like millions of others, I rarely eat without watching something on my laptop these days. That something is never a Hindi film, as though I’m subconsciously purging myself of all those years of virginal plate worship. It’s like I’m willing the stuff I watch to reverse a taste that my younger self was too closed to know. (The Human Centipede was a particularly dire effort).

How extending my palette to beyond Bollywood helped me undo my stomachs inherent patriotism and vegetarianism

Still from Angamaly Diaries

I’m still not the most adventurous eater. My love for potatoes and street food remains crippling, but pasta wasn’t built in a day. I’m still trying to undo my stomach’s inherent patriotism. After all, my roots are strong; yanking it from the soil is likely to reveal a vegetable. 

Read more from the Food for Film series here.

How extending my palette to beyond Bollywood helped me undo my stomachs inherent patriotism and vegetarianism

Illustration by Poorti Purohit

Rahul Desai is a film critic and programmer, who spends his spare time travelling to all the places from the movies he writes about.

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