Of phang and pao: At DIFF 2020, two documentaries unravel the binding ties of food and community
Akash Basumatari’s documentary Mhari Topli Ma: Phang and Sonia Filinto’s Bread and Belonging are studies in how shifts in social, cultural and economic behaviours directly alter our food habits — and identity.
As a child, whenever I suffered an upset tummy, my mother would feed me steamed rice accompanied with a fine green paste. “Thankuni Pata BaTa” — as this paste is known in Bengali households — is made by mashing and muddling the leaves of the Indian pennywort, grandma's remedy for unsettled stomachs. I cared little about traditional wisdom but was far too small to protest effectively, so I ate the paste. Over the years, however, the leaves had all but disappeared from our rattan colander and the dining table. Along with it ebbed a host of other items — Shiuli Patar Bora, Gimey Shaak’er BaTi Chochchori, sweetmeats such as Moya, Badam’er Takti, Narkel Naaru, Pithe and Monda.
I was reminded sharply of these disappearing foods while watching two films that were part of the recently concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival — Akash Basumatari’s documentary Mhari Topli Ma: Phang and Sonia Filinto’s Bread and Belonging.
Mhari Topli Ma: Phang is set in a village nearly 70 km from Indore. Produced under a three-part series titled Mhari Topli Ma (What’s In My Basket), the film outlines the journey of phang (Midnapore Creeper) leaves, from the wild to the kitchen. In parallel, it also traces the passage of this shrub from the older to the younger generations; the latter are distinctly disinterested in its preparation. Bread and Belonging juxtaposes the unifying character of Goan varieties of bread against the state’s changing dynamics. Both films search for a path toward conservation as shifts in social, cultural and economic behaviours directly alter food habits — for food is identity.
Phang opens with three women singing in a monotone in their first language; they forget the words in the middle of their ditty and break out in laughter. Among the trio is Kehendi Bai, our narrator-interpreter and a member of the Barela tribe. She is cooking phang with cowpea lentils. The dish must be had with jowar rotis. “That’s how the elders liked it,” she says.
The first step of pounding the lentils unfolds in a common area around the hand-operated stone mill. Women sit and sing and grind away, taking turns at the handle. While repetitive humming is typical of labour-intensive work, the Barelas’ introductory sing-song is an invocation for a process not unalike tea rituals — except for the maker’s unawareness of implied aesthetics, the lack of elite constructs of self-care and communion, and the unbidden (not wilful) attachment with Nature and everydayness.
Next, Kehendi Bai steps out to pluck phang leaves from around her Jujube tree. The camera pans over her mud hut in a sea of green. After some washing and chopping, the leaves go into the sticky pulse soup in her kadhai. Kehendi mentions how women from the neighbouring villages used to pluck leaves from her creeper (but not anymore) and the elderly always chose this wholesome meal over meat. Meanwhile, she pounds dry red chillies in the mortar and flattens millet balls with wet fingers. The act is tied together as children and adults — some on their haunches, some sitting cross-legged on the floor — break bread.
Phang reinforces an appreciation for the humdrum yet meditative — as seen in Kehendi’s regular utensils, a modest chulha, and the effortless expression of certitude, and in as Akash Basumatari puts it, “...the philosophy of slow food”. “Slow food or the conscious choice of local produce and culinary traditions as against the fast food culture of mindless consumption, is the core of our film. An endeavour of Samaj Pragati Sahayog’s community media, the series spurs awareness on nutrient-rich wild edibles. The phang leaves have helped the people of Narmada Valley survive tough famines. So, their go-to food for taste and nourishment is not just cast in nostalgia,” the filmmaker explains.
He narrates they wanted young girls from the hamlet to sing in their mother tongue. “The girls had hardly started singing, when a neighbour pounced on them. We later discovered none of them knew their language.” Loss and forgetting is never a one-time adjustment; they multiply. The film lets out a silent cry on systemic erasures of history, loss of indigenous insight, cultural assimilation by emulating dominant food practices of an area, evident class struggles and unlearning of vernaculars.
Pao, poee, undo, kaknam, katro…
Bread found Goa when it arrived with the Portuguese Jesuits. Four hundred years later, the Portugese left but the bread stayed. Goa welcomed migrant bread, a character that wandered in, acclimatised itself and further orchestrated the setting for local diet. Sonia Filinto’s 50-minute feature documentary seeks a triptych in the direction of change. A family of local bakers struggle to maintain a foothold in the face of emigration; Kiran and his co-workers (all outsiders) show resolve to stick around and advance; and Marius, a fresh returnee to his home town, sets out to resurrect the pao of his childhood.
The opening scene looks within a semi-lit hollow: an earthen, wood-fired oven — our stage. In the succeeding scene, the camera moves backstage and we see workers prepare for the day. Alzira’s bakery in Ribandar can just about sustain itself, with no hands for doorstep deliveries. “There’s a dearth of Goan labourers; those who come from other states leave in a couple of weeks,” Alzira says. Her only helper is a young man from Malaysia who plans to continue working. Relocating and resettling is at the heart of staffing problems in India’s sunshine state.
A heritage bakery priding itself on knowing long-accepted baking techniques, depicts — even if reluctantly — the foreground to tenacious migrant groups. At the break of day, the workers cycle for miles to make home-deliveries; an accordion keeps tempo. Kiran has adopted a new place, language and diet. “We had never tasted pao, but we eat it now. We like to have puris, but this is value for money,” his colleague says.
Filinto feels pao is the one Goan staple that dismisses class and caste divides: “No matter who you are, the first person you meet in the morning is a pao-seller.” Marius’ yearly Poderache Fest amplifies this narrative of community. He succeeds in recreating the bread of his childhood — bread made from palm toddy! While Goa’s beloved pao suffers from a change of hands, the bread itself remains. Doubts can be raised over procedure, ownership, authenticity, and accountability to a people and a place. However, the case of returning diaspora, with or without its nostalgic rummaging for roots, may not always warrant a reaching after social mores.
Coming back to the ‘endangered’ Thankuni Pata BaTa, Gimey Shaak’er Chochchori or Pithe and Monda… My mother cooks from memory, which — informed by what she was fed through her childhood — holds only one-third of the vault of my grandmother, Dubhai’s knowledge. Dubhai crammed her life in East Bengal into pots and bags, and reached India on a ferry boat. She must have forgotten to pack the many varieties of rice and spices we now sing eulogies to. She did sorely miss the areca nut flowers her aunt steamed fish in.
In essence, the nimble creeping away of dishes symbolic of my class, caste and culture resulted from an excess of alternatives, pervasive standards of production and consumption, and the absent need of endurance. But, given the choice, would I want to make them reappear in my daily diet? Can our perspective of shifts in food and lifestyle choices, upon factoring in the whole breadth of influences, be independent of the personal? Or, should the gradual fading of a people’s experiences, markers of identity be reversed through purposive performance — as long as it is none other’s place to tell?
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