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The spice trail

What do films like Mirch Masala, Garam Masala, Cheeni Kum, Hope and a Little Sugar, Chocolate, etc. have in common? The films are as different as chalk from cheese but they generously borrow an ingredient of food for their titles even though this spice or condiment has nothing to do with the theme or story except in rare cases. Perhaps they are pointers to the average Indian's passion for food and everything that goes into its making.
Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala had nothing much to do with food. Yet she could not resist the temptation to use masala in the title. Is it because she is an Indian and masala is a part of our lifestyle? It reminds us of a Canada-based homesick NRI Srinivas Krishnan made Masala (1993) starring Saeed Jaffrey and Zohra Segal which had no links, direct or indirect, to any spices, Indian or international, and yet he named it Masala. In this black comedy, East and West clash and this results in comical situations of a culture collision among Indian immigrants in urban Canada. An old woman claims that she can summon the Gods through television, people struggle with their heroin addiction, cynical salesmen spread the message of magic and miracles jump out like rabbits out of the magician's hat.

The word masala is now an international metaphor and signifier of Hindi mainstream cinema, which also applies to regional mainstream films, made in India. It suggests a little bit of this and a little bit of that which make this 'dish' called mainstream film paisa vasool stuff, meaning, it gives you value for money. A 'little bit of this and a little bit of and that' stands for song-dance numbers, an item number or two, fight scenes, a couple of stunt scenes, some suspense and a love twist stringing them together. Just like the right blending of the right quantity of each ingredient makes a recipe a gourmet's delight, so does a Hindi film fill up the coffers at the box office with the right blend of the right masalas for the right dish.

Chocolate (2005) directed by Vivek Agnihotri was a mafia film shot in London with Anil Kapoor playing the flamboyant lawyer Krish and his interaction with five Indians, two of who are implicated for their involvement in terrorist and criminal activities. Many parts of Chocolate remind one of a Hollywood film starring Kevin Spacey made ten years ago. Though slickly produced with a narrative that gets more puzzling as it speeds towards its climax, the title of the film neither tastes, nor smells nor has any connections with chocolate imported, exported, stolen or smuggled. French film Chocolat with Juliette Binoche , however, is true to the spirit built on the story of how a chocolate-maker's arrival in a small grim, provincial village shakes up the moral brigade but changes peoples' lives to a happier mode.
Priyadarshan's Garam Masala (2005) was a blockbuster remake of his own P Malayalam film called Boeing Boeing (1985). The story revolves around two useless and flop photographers who work for a magazine called Garam Masala, explaining the intriguing title for a film that revolves around a playboy and his friend. How a magazine with a name like that can be associated with a World Photography competition only the filmmaker knows. Just before the film's release, the producers, namely Venus, were accused of plagiarising a hit play called Plane Crazy About Love. Ratan Jain did not bother to refute the allegation because as it transpired, Plane Crazy About Love is itself an adaptation of a 60s Hollywood hit film called Boeing Boeing with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis.

The title of Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala is appropriate literally and figuratively. It portrays the lives of women working in a factory manufacturing red chillies (mirch), and symbolically extends the red colour of the chillies to suggest anger, courage and rebellion that the women use to overpower and defeat the oppressive Indian subedar of the British in India. The entire frame of the film is soaked with the colour red, what with the backdrop of the arid Saurashtra where women from the lower classes mainly wear red ghaghras and chunnis as daily wear.

A recent 'spice' film is Paul Mayega Berges' Mistress of Spices (2006) based on a novel by Chitra Devakaruni Banerjee (2006) starring Aiswharya Rai as Tilo. Tilo is a beautiful orphan who gets trained in magic power that vests her with the gift of clairvoyance through spices, for the welfare of others in a foreign land. She cannot use it for herself, cannot leave the store and cannot allow her skin to be touched. She loses the power when she falls in love and permits Doug to touch her skin. The spices 'punish' her for breaking the rule. Though this film is almost totally involved in how spices have the power to manipulate human emotions if handled with care, it turned out to be a rather damp squib as could not get its message across.

The most outstanding use of the condiment, sugar, was beautifully exploited by the director of Cheeni Kum (2007) starring a pony-tailed Amitabh Bachchan as a super chef who runs a successful Indian restaurant in London. The short-tempered, arrogant and acid-tongued chef falls in love with a girl half his age. Cheeni, which means sugar, is suggestive of the age of the hero, who is 64 where he could perhaps be a diabetic. It stands for Hyderbadi biryani that needs no sugar and is the dish that brings about the first encounter between the lovers. It is also a pointer to how life can be 'sweetened' a bit with love and can change the way the older man looks not only at the half-his-age girl he marries, but also at life in general. Interestingly, the film was co-sponsored by the manufacturers of a popular sugar substitute.

The latest to join the food trail is Tanuja Chandra's English film Hope and a Little Sugar named after a sweet-shop in New York. It is a love story between a Muslim and a Sikh girl set in post 9/11 scenario but fails to bring out the poignancy of a society in a flux.

Perhaps the love story of Indian filmmakers with food and spices is yet to finish.
Shoma A. Chatterji
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