Significance Of Food As Cultural Identity Through Hindi Songs

In Indian films, the discourse around food gets reflected on screen, and we get to enjoy seeing various food items prepared during a wide range of festivals. The selection of food depends on the ethnicities depicted and reflects the demography of the area where they belong. In Indian films, songs and dance sequences are important narrative elements. Through songs and lyrics, various emotions are portrayed that are not included in the dialogue of the narrative, creating a massive impact on the audience.

Serving the purpose of mass appeal, songs are composed on various themes depending on what the narrative demands. Songs are an integral part of Indian films, especially films made in the Hindi language; they are used to introduce the main protagonist of the film; through songs, the romantic interest is established, and at times, food becomes the central theme of a song even though the film might not have a narrative based around the food as a central theme. The songs which have food in their themes are mostly celebratory or establishing romantic interests, but they serve other purposes as well. Since we are focusing on food as the main theme of songs and lyrics included in the narratives of Indian cinema, we are going to look into the composition of the songs and break them down to analyze how they set the tone of the film or add elements to the film narrative. Through the lyrics and compositions of songs, we are also going to understand the cultural context of what the songs represent, focusing more on the lyrics than the instrumental elements.

The film Daawat-e-Ishq (2014), directed by Habib Faisal, as the title suggests, has a narrative built around the idea of food. It is a romantic comedy featuring Aditya Roy Kapur and Parineeti Chopra as the leads of the film, and the romantic dynamic between them develops based on food. The narrative of the film deals with the effects of dowry and focuses on Article 498A of the Constitution. The representation of food in this film is a nuanced representation of a contemporary Muslim household devoid of the stereotypes that Hindi films are burdened with far too often. The film starts in Hyderabad and takes a major turn in the historical city of Lucknow. With the vibrant Mughal history, architecture, and food of Lucknow, the film uses the entire city, making it a filmic space. Through the city, we get to see the events unfolding through various food preparations. 

Aditya Roy Kapur’s character runs a hotel in Lucknow that serves drool-worthy Mughlai dishes and tries to impress Parineeti Chopra with his expert culinary skills. After the initial premise of the film is set, the title track comes in, and shows off the dynamic between these two characters. The lyrics read, “Dil ne dastarkhwan bichhaya, daawat e ishq hai,” meaning the heart has set the table for food. In this scenario, food is symbolic of showing fondness and adoration for the person to whom the food is served. The song is made of sequences focused on the preparation, the  serving, and the influence of the smell of Biryani, kababs, nihari, etcetera, which creates the sensorial pleasure of seeing all those delicious foods for the audience. It is presented in a way that appeals to the general aesthetic, hooks the audience onto the scene, and transports the audience to the place in that moment of time. The idea of food is so appealing that its visual portrayal immediately creates a false scenario in the audiences’ imagination where they feel themselves transported to the place with such scrumptious food items. They feel the sensation of hunger while watching the sequences, and they believe the expressions and responses of the character who’s seen to be immersed in such good food.

Since the song is all about showing love and affection towards a person through food, just like the saying goes, “the way to the heart is through the stomach,” the character played by Parineeti Chopra is seen to have recognized Aditya Roy Kapur’s feelings and efforts towards her. The song establishes the budding relationship between them, with food being the most important element that had a significant role to play in their relationship. The film follows and tackles a lot of social struggles, but through the medium of food, which thus becomes an integral part of the narrative. There are very few Indian films that have food as a main part of the narrative, and Dawat-e-Ishq is one of them. It has songs and dance sequences with food and other kitchen utensils, making for a wholesome visual treat for the audience.

The song starts with the tapping of the forks, and then the tapping includes the plates, where the noise actually strikes us. As the character of Aditya Roy Kapur taps on the plate, the sound shifts to the rock guitar-based tone, shifting from a diegetic to a non-diegetic sound. He moves and jumps around from table to table, where we see happy customers and the scrumptious, colorful food on the table. These movements also give us an idea of the space where the song is being filmed. Keeping the restaurant and its food as the major theme of the song, he goes on to express his love for both food and the female lead. The camera movements are rapid, and no single static shot is being used to highlight the energy of the song, with the fast camera movements traversing the space along with the actor. The first time the title “Daawat-E-Ishq” comes, Aditya Roy Kapur is addressing the spectators directly from the screen as an invitation to the “daawat” of his journey that he’s about to undertake in the film. Then the next time, he attempts to serenade her with the help of people by traveling on the top of a vegetable cart, utilizing the cinematic space to the fullest; the frame never looks empty, which can be interpreted as reflective of the general lifestyle of the city as well. There is constantly food being prepared in the background, with smoke infiltrating the screen, which adds to the aesthetic of the song, and also depicts the food culture of the streets of Lucknow.

The character of Parineeti Chopra is then seen to be walking into the hotel, where a spread of food is being served that consists of all the essentials of Mughal cuisine, which is ingrained in the culture of the place. The food is not only colorful and delicious; it also bears a significant historical past, which is necessary to understand the cultural context of the narrative that is being placed in the old city of Lucknow. The dancers are dancing around her with plates full of food in their hands. Food is both used as an expression of love as well as a persistent aesthetic element to convey the specificity of the space, as well as focusing on the larger traditions of the dishes. Like any good meal, the song also ends with a dessert prepared by the character of Aditya Roy Kapur, and immediately after having that sweet dish, the character of Parineeti Chopra is seen to be smitten by his actions and food. In the film, through food, we get to explore as audiences the city of Lucknow and its rich cultural heritage, including the history behind the fancy foods that originated there and are now being popularized and commercialized throughout the nation.

The next song that we are focusing on is the lyrics of the song “Chicken Song” from the film “Bajrangi Bhaijaan.” The film Bajraangi Bhaijaan (2015) is directed by Kabir Khan and is a unique take on the tense relationship between the two nations, India and Pakistan. The film’s narrative deals with how an estranged child is lost in a foreign country, and the character of Bajrangi or Pawan, played by Salman Khan, promises to escort that child to her home, which is in Pakistan. The character Pawan is shown to be a devotee of Bajraangbaali (Hanuman God),and could not tolerate the smell of cooked meat. The character is shown to be living in a mixed neighborhood of Old Delhi, which constitutes both Hindu and Muslim populations, and their intolerance towards non-veg food comes into the conversation frequently. The child Munni, played by Harshali Malhotra, is mute and completely terrified of being lost without her mother in an unknown land before being rescued by Pawan. The child’s identity is revealed to Pawan’s family through her food habits when she is shown to reject the vegetarian food prepared by them, but she flees their home and is seen eating chicken in a Muslim household.

The chicken song is followed by this sequence, where Salman Khan takes the young girl to have non-vegetarian food, and while she is waiting, the song starts to play. The song is shown as a pure celebration of various non-vegetarian food items. The song is an interesting addition to the narrative, as the character played by Salman Khan is shown to be a strict vegetarian who couldn’t even stand the smell of such foods; yet, for the child, he is dancing and celebrating the food that he used to despise before. The portrayal of food in the song, as well as the previous sequence, becomes political, as it indicates that people belonging to a specific community are associated with non-vegetarian food, creating an invisible line showing the stark difference between the two religions. When Pawan’s family gets to know that the child eats non-veg, they get angry at her. When her Muslim and Pakistani identities get revealed through a series of events, the welcoming home turns intolerant to Munni’s presence, which, in a larger context, brings out the nationalist feeling that she belongs to the “enemy” nation. The family before knowing her food habits, which led to the unfolding of her religion as well, was very welcoming to her, spoiling her with everything in their capability, but everything changes once her identity gets revealed. She became the ‘other,’ and the people immediately became very uncomfortable around her presence, as she did something awful being a Muslim who belongs to Pakistan. The song, even though it celebrates the food, which otherwise is not accepted in a Hindu household, has that underlying conflict, as we get to see from the lyrics, “aj dharam bhrasht ho jaaye,” which clearly tells that eating meat is considered somewhat of a crime and non-religious.

The argument that we are trying to put forward is that food is not a mere mode of sustenance but also a socio-political being that affects people’s lives and is thus incorporated into cinema as well. The concept of non-vegetarian food, especially in regard to the current political scenario of the nation, makes it very political, and as we see in the song, similar politics are unfolding, though very subtly. The song is about religious indifferences yet tries to invisibilize and marginalize the politics behind the types of food. The song strengthens the stereotype that certain food items are related to certain religious communities. Yet it tries to celebrate both veg and non-veg, but the location, the people, and the mise en scène all indicate the differences between the two religions, and consuming meat is not welcomed by people belonging to the Hindu community. The cinematic element of the song is rather bland and monotonous in comparison to the lyrics and energy of the song that it tries to portray. The location indicates the alleys of Purani Delhi, yet somewhat comes short of the aesthetic that the region holds in reality. The camera movements are mostly static and fixed upon the single place where the major actions are taking place, which does not match the eccentricity of the song that the makers were going for. Keeping aside the cultural context, the filming of the song is average and can be observed as just an added element to the narrative without actually having a direct relation to it.

From these two examples of Hindi cinema, we get to observe and analyze how food is associated with religious communities. As film scholars, we keep arguing that cinema is a reflection of society and that portraying the differences between various communities is an assertion of these existing differences. As Miraj Ahmed Mubarki argues in his paper, throughout the span of seventy years, the presentation of meat consumption in Hindi cinema has always been identified with nationality and cultural citizenship (M. A. Mubarki, 2020). Non vegetarian food has always been considered part of Muslim identity in northern Indian states, where the food culture is predominantly vegetarian. Hindi cinema, being the most popular film industry, commercializes this discourse and focuses on “otherness” through the subtlety of food.

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Mouparna Guha
Mouparna Guha
Mouparna is a budding film and gender scholar with a degree in media and film studies.

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