Feasting on love
A recipe for the ages
* First, you need a couple (this recipe is gender agnostic).
* Make sure they are ripe, and in equal measure, for best results. We are going to blanch them in some fruity tunes and then drop them into a dramatic ice bath (a snow-capped mountain works just as well).
* Then a separation: fry them individually in melancholy oil, add some chilli flavoured longing and salt, swaadaanusaar.
* For the next step, you will need to bring the couple together. Fold in some physical affection and add a few drops of tears.
* Finally, add some chopped up neem leaves and a drizzle of shehed; and there you have it – the perfect love story.
INDIA has an unrelenting appetite for love and romance. From film and popular culture to social and political debates, we devour love in its many forms and iterations. Across the subcontinent’s numerous languages, we hear innumerable names for love and desire, and as many love stories: some passed on through generations while others hidden away in the comfort of anonymity. It is not surprising, then, that the filmy love song is a staple in our diets – both literally and metaphorically.
Growing up, I noticed how film songs accompanied both feasts and fasts. While instrumental renditions of old love songs were the perfect ambient music for large feasts (weddings, birthdays, naming ceremonies), fasts of faith and mourning were often marked by songs that narrated tales of separation and sacrifice. In the Indian context, fasting and feasting are both acts of commensality, a shared experience of culinary togetherness. Eating is ritualistic, eating is performative; eating – in the dual sense of what is eaten and how it is eaten – becomes a marker of our identities and ideologies. You are what you eat. But also, eating is visceral: it is an experience that cannot separate the body from the mind; a carnal need that socially necessitates policing as much as it is accepted as a required means of survival.
It is not a wild conjecture, then, to realise that food and love are intricately linked in our collective imagination. Another popular aphorism, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, is neither subtle nor feminist in making the connection between food and love. But it captures something simultaneously intimate and universal: both acts – eating and desiring – can be incredibly personal and individualistic, while also having a tangible sense of being a communal and collective experience. As we will see, this relationship between eating and loving is not simply similar but, perhaps more interestingly, interconnected and inextricably linked. We eat our feelings and feel passionately about food. Most significantly, we boil concoctions of food and love in the same song.
Desiring food and all-consuming desire are represented in both film and folk songs. What draws me, and this essay, particularly to filmy love songs, is the experience of song accompanying ‘real life’ situations of commensality and courtship. As mentioned before, film songs are commonly played in ritualistic and celebratory fasts and feasts. They are also used to ‘set the mood’ for intimate dinners and solitary meals. They create context (there is a film song for every occasion); they are taken out of context (‘ek garam chai ki pyaali ho’ is now more of a question than Salman Khan’s wish); they often become spaces to get out of one’s own context (a dream sequence: your lover is singing and cooking for you – go).
So, why do we sing so often about food and love? Or, perhaps a more answerable question: what can we learn about ourselves, by listening to songs that soothe both stomach and heart? Well… let’s listen.
Kabhi Neem, Kabhi Shehed: Most often, metaphors of food are used in songs as a description of one’s beloved. Kabhi neem neem/kabhi shehed shehed; sometimes bitter, other times sweet. What is the affective register of grafting edibles onto our lovers? For one, it adds texture. Calling your lover bitter is a (antagonising) statement; metaphorizing that as neem, on the other hand, conveys a more complex (and perhaps less estranging) bodily sensation – of having bitten into a leaf, the taste on your tongue, the shiver down your spine. This is quickly followed by shehed, which soothes the nerves and sparks a smile of culinary and romantic contentment.
While metaphors aid the process of creating an excess in meaning, metaphors of food, particularly, allow for meaning to transgress the boundaries of cartesian thought. In this sense, metaphors of food enable us to depict love as viscerally complex, separate from singularities of meaning or experience. Most importantly, it captures the often contradictory complexities inherent in love and desire: that of power and helplessness, of gluttony and restraint, pain and pleasure.
This doubleness also maps on to the various positions of desire occupied by the lovers. Among a couple, a triad or even a polyamorous group, at every instance there is the amorous subject and their beloved – the lover and the loved; the eat-er and the eat-en. These positions are shifting, each person being the lover and the loved at different (and sometimes same) instances. In song, these positions are usually made to correlate characters with the voice of the narrator-singer, who is expressing their feelings in tune. The narrator-singer is the amorous subject, expressing hunger for their beloved and conveying it in often veiled poetry. An interesting aspect of this to think about is when film songs display incongruence in narrator-singer and character voices, queering the default heteronormativity in popular cinema.
The diversity in filmy love songs also tells us that the position of the amorous subject isn’t singular or definite. While there is the lover who seeks to possess, there is also the lover whose love is a form of reverence. In a popular kannada film song, poojisalende hoogalathande, verses of devotion are addressed to ‘Rama’, which refers to the God as well as the amorous subject’s husband (whose name is, well, Ramu). It is a song of reverence, but also of love and sexual desire for her very human husband. I remember my mother telling me how the song, when it first started playing on the radio, became a staple at temple functions and feasts of worship; later, when people watched the film, they realised the ‘real meaning’ of the song – that it was a love song, a woman longing to be desired by her husband. Interestingly enough, the song still plays at festival pandals around Bangalore each year.
What role do songs play in Indian films? The naach-gaana is an inextricable part of how we view cinema. Songs often take us to a tangential temporality and incite a spatial disjuncture from the ‘reality’ of the film’s narrative. In this sense, songs allow for spaces within films where desire can be explicitly expressed, which otherwise might be governed by moralistic restraints and nasty censor boards. By extension, within contexts of patriarchal morality, they allow for women to be amorous subjects, lovers who express desire to be with their beloveds physically, emotionally, and sexually. It is in songs that women’s perspectives are most often voiced, be it Meena Kumari’s melancholy longing in chalte chalte (from Pakeezah) or Anushka Sharma’s post-breakup escapades in the breakup song (from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil).
It is fruitful, then, to also examine the relationship between using metaphors of food, and agency in desire among women, particularly in the Indian context. Using a vocabulary that is domestic and feminine, and employing the language of the kitchen, enables women to rupture the confinement of patriarchal gender roles and desire openly, explicitly and tastefully. This can be perceived in two ways: first, that women do not have access to a register outside of food, which as an argument is both reductive and unappetising.
Perhaps more interestingly, this can be viewed as women employing a register that is simultaneously inaccessible and mysterious (and consequently seductive) to the patriarchal man. It then becomes a way for women to wield power by occupying the place of the amorous subject, rather than the passive beloved. To tell a man cheeni kum hai, then, is to assert one’s agency and power in loving by using a register that is markedly feminine (even to an older Amitabh Bachchan; even when he’s an award-winning chef).
Be it a desire to consume one’s beloved or to serve oneself on a platter, filmy songs set the table for every kind of love.
Daawat-e-Ishq: I began this essay with a recipe for love – or the filmy love story – as we know it. There is something predictable about our love affairs, and yet we devour different renditions without complaint. Like rajma chawal in a Punjabi household, we return to it time and again for the familiarity, the comfort and, of course, the incomparable taste.
At the outset, I have understood food and love as similar in terms of nourishment. The beloved is nourished by the love of the amorous subject. Like food, love aids the well-being of both body and soul; like a comforting meal, love is calming (remember listening to that playlist of slow love songs on a tumultuous day?); both facilitate some sort of change (one hopes, always for the better). Love songs capture this essence of nourishment: love making the lovers better people, giving them better lives, and being a source of sustenance in times of distress. This motif of change that is inspired by love and influenced by the lover is extremely common in our popular imagination.
Atif Aslam sings Irshad Kamil’s words, main rang sharbaton ka / tu meethe ghaat ka paani / mujhe khud mein ghol de toh / mere yaar baat ban jaani – the lovers are equally capable of nourishing (the rang aesthetically, the meethe ghaat tastefully), but it is their milan, the meeting, that truly brings out the best in both. They aid and enhance the qualities of one another, just like two complimentary dishes on a thali.
But love, I concur, is more complex than a combination of two palatable flavours. Ishq, mohobbat, pyaar (ki baatein…) in our collective imagination is more comparable to a feast – a daawat. Much like a feast, even in its apparent cohesion, love is not singular or a monolith. There are many kinds of lovers, even more kinds of love. A daawat always comprises an abundance of dishes, pickles, and flavours: something for everyone; some also not for everyone. There is masala, there is dahi; there are complex flavours, there are simple accompaniments. There are things that go well together, things that clash, things that, eventually, fall into place. A daawat thus balances out its affairs gracefully: Gud se meetha ishq ishq / Imli se khatta ishq. A daawat makes up a whole, which is more than the sum of its parts; the experience of commensality at the love feast lies in a collective community experience, as opposed to simply feeding and nourishing a group of individuals.
The tablecloth is spread; the feast of love is ready: Dil ne dastarkhaan bichhaaya / Daawat-e-Ishq hai. But who’s invited? India’s practices of commensality give us keen insights into its practices of love. In the togetherness at the daawat there is the othering of those absent, there are hierarchies of who is eating and who is serving, and, even among those enjoying the feast, there are socio-patriarchal norms of seating and sharing. Nourishment is secondary to these norms of conduct and etiquette. Even within a feast – an idea that forms the bedrock for gluttony – there is the social exercise of control and moderation. Likewise, both in experience and imagination, explicitly and implicitly, who we love and how we love is governed by predetermined rules of religion, caste, class, gender and society.
And yet, there is the seduction of the forbidden fruit.
Namak Ishq Ka: A story –
Early last decade.
My grandparents’ house.
Every festival day (and we had many in a year), my cousin and I would slip away from our conservative, religious household where the festivities were unequivocally vegetarian. Away from the gaze of morality and ritual, we would devour a plate of chicken fried rice, or shawarma, and return home from our innocent escapade. Many-a-time, this was also a secret rendezvous for my sister and her boyfriend, whose existence was either unknown or conveniently ignored by most of our family. Our adventures were accompanied by giggles, smirks and a vain sense of accomplishment. For two girls who ate meat on most other days, nothing was as appetizing as the forbidden feast.
There is an uncharacterised, inexplicable seduction in the forbidden. Be it food or love (or both) this seduction seizes the rational mind, compels it to step outside the confines of norm, and indulge in something that is sweeter for being disallowed. This urge to misbehave is driven by desire: which can perhaps be tamed but never nullified. The departure from social norms and morality – facilitated by disjuncture in time and space – in film songs allow for such desires to be expressed. In that sense, while some love songs invite us to a daawat, others seduce us to taste the namak that characterises the socio-political incorrectness of desire: Zabaan pe laga laga re namak ishq ka…
Songs like namak ishq ka draw an interesting and insightful connection between the acts of consuming and consummating. Gluttonous consumption and illegitimate consummating are both acts of defiance against normative social behaviour; both commonly expressed in song sequences. Within the temporal and spatial disjuncture of a song, these desires become acceptable – to sing about.
In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Nandini’s (played by Aishwarya Rai) entire family is complicit in the double entendre of the song nimbooda. During the course of the song and dance sequence, which is performed by Nandini at the wedding of a cousin, the entire entourage of kith and kin play along with the nimboo metaphor, testing the limits of its ability to veil the ‘real’ meaning: Itta sa hai par hai to raseela nimbooda! /Chatkhara badadeta hai chhabeela nimbooda! / Iski khushbuon se hi lalcha jata hai yeh man / Rakhe jubaan par to bas aayi aayi aayi aayi. The song captures the juicy, sour and addictive nature of love and desire, and the many forms of pleasure that result from tasting a nimboo. The film itself, being an astounding success, reflected in the wedding feast playlist for the years to come.
Let’s briefly return to Gulzar: Ho... aisi bhookh lagi jaalim ki / ke baansuri jaisi baaji main. Hunger, bhookh, is perhaps the most desirous collusion between food and sex; and the recurring motif in countless film songs. This ravenous hunger is characterised by a need – of the stomach and of the skin – for nourishment and intimacy. It is bodily, carnal, at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and consequently more fundamental than morality or religion: a necessary requirement to sustain life. When we sing of hunger, we vocalise this elemental desire. To briefly put this in psychoanalytical terms, the repressed id – wanting to break free from the moral dictates of the superego and unleash its gluttony for sexual love – manifests in the dream-sequence of the film’s song and dance.
Metaphors of food, thus, are not simply a surrogate for speaking about sex, but have the unique ability to capture the essence of unqualified sexual desire. Metaphors of food draw our attention to both what is being eaten and how it is being eaten; meanings form on the dual realms of object and act, both of which are pleasurable. These songs are playful, snarky and excite multiple senses in its audiences, they satiate our hunger. It allows us to, briefly, enjoy the multiplicities of meaning and respond to it viscerally – from the stomach, heart and the rest of both body and mind. It is experienced as a whole and suggests an excess in the same way that songs are often said to be ‘extra’ within the narrative arc of films. Namak Ishq Ka is not just a metaphor for phallic secretions, but simultaneously also a culinary experience of salt; the sensuous desire of eating and loving.
Meetha Meetha Har Sukh Har Dukhda: There are as many dimensions to food and desire as there are cuisines in the world – each in itself a microcosm of normative culture and its transgression. It is perhaps too ambitious to encompass this in its entirety within an essay; on the contrary, I hope to conclude by reflecting on what it means to cook (for someone), which I believe replicates the performative love and affection of singing for one’s beloved.
I have accompanied my grandmother in the kitchen for as long as I can remember. It started with small things – taking away the bitter ‘poison’ in cucumbers, wiping down vegetables, deveining beans – and I spent many years looking, observing as she made meals for different people, with different tastes: her husband, with an unwavering palette; her grandchildren, each with an uncompromising refusal to eat certain foods. Not surprisingly, of course, she accommodated all of our demands, and I aspire, to this day, to inherit in my own cooking her skill, compassion and, above all, love.
Iam not sure when exactly I graduated from being the helping hand to cooking the main dish, but now, having moved out of my grandparents’ home and slowly creating one of my own, my kitchen eerily resembles my grandmother’s. My spices are arrayed in the same order as hers, shelves organised according to her arbitrary choices. But, as I realise more and more every day, my kitchen is also mine. It is here that I know best how to express my love: to my family, by recreating food that I grew up eating and sharing with them; to my friends, with endless dinners and altering each dish, just a little bit, to cater to each of their palettes; to transient lovers whom I never said I love you to, but always made a meal that packed the unsaid within its folds.
Food, I concur, is a tangible memory of places and people, and often becomes the way in which we remember, recount and relive our many loves. We share a similar relationship with songs: they mark periods in our lives, people we shared them with, and our many selves throughout our long, arduous and complicated journeys. Maybe that’s why songs – about food and otherwise – remain etched in our memory, because of how palatable they are; because our consumption of music, food, and love is inherently defiant to capitalistic notions of disembodied consumption. We devour them, digest them, and they become a part of us – and we sing, with all our body and soul.