How expanding my palette beyond Bollywood helped me undo the patriotism and vegetarianism inherent in my stomach

It took me years to realize that I had never liked meat because I had barely seen it on the big screen. It wasn’t until I moved to Mumbai that I discovered a world outside of Bollywood – and vengeful 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 catches us. In this “Food for Film” series, we select food movies/shows that make our mouths water and our souls richer.

*

Growing up as a Gujarati kid in 1990s Ahmedabad, I was conditioned to swear by only three things in life: cricket, food and Bollywood. I know it’s not unusual for an Indian to say that.

But Gujarat engenders a different language of obsession – a language that has often been glimpsed in its aggressive cultural and political history. My borderline toxic love for cricket probably stemmed from a deep inferiority complex. Gujarat’s notoriously weak sporting heritage meant that local players like Ajay Jadeja and Nayan Mongia enjoyed Sourav-Ganguly-in-Bengal status. We idolized them because they were ‘ours’, not for their talent on the pitch.

This regional loyalty extended to other areas of my childhood. I didn’t know it then, but my passion for Hindi cinema has defined the way I eat. For impressionable boys who learned from movies and got entertainment from school, Bollywood and eating habits were inextricably linked. It is perhaps fitting that one of my earliest memories of seeing and loving food on screen involves a Gujarati actor.

I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a sweet tooth all my life after watching Satish Shah own a bakery — and sneak in delicious pastries despite his diabetes — at Kundan Shah. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. Watch Ayesha Jhulka secretly wrap chapatis and sabzi in a newspaper from his house to feed a sulky Aamir Khan in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar made me a permanent sucker for ‘ghar ka khana‘ (homemade food). The way Sanju chewed-swallowed in this scene always made me hungry, as did the sight of Ratan selling pav bread to his beloved at Ramlal’s Cafe.

How expanding my palette beyond Bollywood helped me undo my inherent stomach for patriotism and vegetarianism

Pooja Bedi and Aamir Khan in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar

The shampoo omelette Hum Hain Kamal Ke made me lose 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 teenage favorites like sandwiches and fries, while Vaastav – thanks to the brand new food stall that started Raghu’s spiral – did the trick for pav bhaji.

The strangest of scenes had a lasting effect on my palate. The sight of a hungry Neeraj Vora devouring vada paving stones in Mumbai, Man, made me a regular at my school canteen: a place that personalizes the dabéli create your own version of vada cobblestone I even remember begging my mom to make “spicy Japanese food” after watching Shah Rukh Khan’s Babloo as a clumsy chef in Duplicate. Above all, my experience of hearing about Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! of my Marwari neighbors at the heart of family reinforced the territorial vegetarianism of Rajshri Films – and by extension, commercial Hindi cinema.

How expanding my palette beyond Bollywood helped me undo my inherent stomach for patriotism and vegetarianism

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

It took me years to realize that I had never liked meat because I had barely seen it on the big screen. The few times I did – like Aditya Pancholi eating chicken in Yes Boss, Mukesh Tiwari gnawing china gate or Ashutosh Rana feasting on flesh Dushman – I associated it with the wickedness and bankruptcy of the character. Arguably, the film industry had yet to recognize the culinary diversity of globalization. But seen through the lens of post-liberalization Gujarat – where every trip to the cinema triggered a visit to the nearest vegetarian restaurant – it was impossible to ignore the religious subtext and innate nationalism of our habits.

It was, after all, a region determined to preserve tradition and taste in the face of sweeping reform – and it showed in the kind of unassuming movie scenes that made me hungry. (For example, 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. Watch characters eat fried snacks and sing along bhel-puri simply fed this cultural inferiority complex. I hurt when my mother and her Catholic sister-in-law made fun of my one-dimensional (“Hindu boy”) eating habits, but I soon realized there was a deep truth in their taunts.

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

I became obsessed with reruns of excellent leader, savoring the science and art of cooking, if not eating. But the more non-Hindi films I watched, the wider my palate grew. Ironically it was Ratatouille – an animated film named after a French vegetarian dish – which gave me a curiosity for gastronomy and the diversity of ingredients. Julia 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 profession elevated by personality and voice. Chief got me interested in Cuban sandwiches, grilled cheese and steaks on my travels, while Angamaly Diaries unlocked in me a desperate thirst for beef. I’ve yet to see an appetizing seafood scene – other than bits of British rom-com fish-and-chips – so I guess my taste for lobster and crab is still under construction.

Like millions of others, I rarely eat without looking at something on my laptop these days. That something is never a Hindi movie, like I’m unconsciously purging myself of all those years of virginal plate worship. It’s like I want the things I watch to subvert a taste that my younger self was too closed off to know. (The human centipede was a particularly strenuous effort).

How expanding my palette beyond Bollywood helped me undo my inherent stomach for patriotism and vegetarianism

Excerpt from Angamaly’s journals

I’m still not the most adventurous eater. My love for potatoes and street food remains paralyzing, but pasta wasn’t made in a day. I’m still trying to undo the inherent patriotism in my stomach. After all, my roots are strong; pulling it out of the ground is likely to reveal a vegetable.

Learn more about the Food for Film series here.

How expanding my palette beyond Bollywood helped me undo my inherent stomach for patriotism and vegetarianism

Artwork by Poorti Purohit

Rahul Desai is a film critic and programmer, who spends his free time traveling to all the locations of the films he writes about.