Tag Archives: film

Guest Column, iDiva: Food In Film

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The sweet, underrated magic realist film Woman On Top is probably best known for the image of Penelope Cruz associated with it: a sultry gaze at the camera, a bright chilly poised tantalizingly close to her lips. Yes, we get it: food is sexy, sexy, sexy – this philosophy is thrown at us in everything from advertising that uses the suggestive forms of fruits to imply other ripeness to the lust and aggression that propel cooking-based reality shows. And it is, of course. Sexy, that is. Hunger, in both its desiring and satiating stages, is just as physical as sex. But food is also equally as psychological and – let’s just say it – equally as emotional.

In life as in cinema, there are piners and there are bingers. Food is emotional not just because, paired as it is with the supreme mnemonic of smell, it is full of memories and rituals (the ritual of a family meal, a first date, the food associated with occasions), but also because our relationship with it is affected by our relationships with other people. Some people, arguably, sublimate the sex drive into the appetite, giving rise to the erotically charged sequences of the also magical Like Water For Chocolate, in which a family’s youngest daughter, by decree of tradition, must remain unmarried and take care of her parents – which results in a recipe of forbidden lust, envy and voodoo victuals. Some use it to enhance their erotic lives, as in Tampopo’s use of an unbroken egg yolk in a tricky kiss or the ubiquitous Chocolat, in which a beautifully androgynous Johnny Depp is seduced by a maker of that most famous aphrodisiac of all. In Chungking Express, a brokenhearted Takeshi Kaneshiro compulsively devours canned pineapples, having decided that on the date on which his stockpile expires, he will either have been reunited with his love, or lost her forever.

The converse is also true – the master chef patriarch of Eat Drink Man Woman loses his sense of taste, until he is able to make peace with his widowering and his daughters’ lives. The same goes for Tortilla Soup, a Mexican-American remake of the Taiwanese original. Food is identifiably cultural, but responses to it are identifiably universal.

Of course, sometimes craving is uncomplicated. Who can forget modern cinema’s most iconic food-sex parallel: when a virginal high school senior is caught making sweet, sweet love to a pastry in American Pie? Or even Jamón Jamón, which first paired Cruz with Javier Bardem, in which a pork-loving delivery boy turns gigolo against a backdrop of cured meats, double entendres and even a soda-can wedding ring.

Drinking, strangely, seems to have has less cinema devoted to its pleasures, but the likes of Sideways, Bottle Shock, Autumn Tale and A Walk in the Clouds certainly do justice to the wonderful world of wineries. For those on diets of two highly-compatible vices, Coffee and Cigarettes brings the triumvirate to a neat convergence with the third C: conversation (the fourth, cancer, I’ll leave to preachier types).

Which brings us back to why Woman On Top is underrated. Quirkily spiritual and hopelessly romantic, Cruz’s domestic goddess cannot help but long for her philandering husband. Her otherworldly culinary skills are muffled in her loneliness. What’s more important – the meal or who it’s shared with?

It’s not always the saccharine answer that’s the best one. The way to a man’s heart, the saying goes, is through his stomach. But all goddesses are gluttons, and for many of us, our hearts are our stomachs. And in heartache and in heartburn, we’ll take good care of them.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. A previous guest column in this supplement can be read here.

The Venus Flytrap: In The Mood For Nostalgia

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I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.

It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.

When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.

Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930’s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.

I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.

We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.

Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Cell Block Tango from Chicago

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This song found its way back into my head yesterday, and I remembered that the clip below is one of my all-time favourite music/dance sequences in a film (that credit does not go to Bollywood, believe it or not!). I adore its wickedness. Female aggression — one of my favourite topics. I don’t really think that feminism has even begun to tap into it in its entirety.