In India, a land of varied food items, it is said that language and the food choices of people change every 11 kilometres. Indian filmmakers and artists have heavily relied on this culinary diversity to tell tales that not only reveal varied aspects of Indian culture but also tell stories of resilience, love, hate and hope.
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Films are an extension of real life. Visual mediums like films and documentaries have the ability to not only document and capture a range of human emotions but also evoke memories and deeper, cathartic emotions. Filmmakers, therefore, have a wide milieu of topics and themes to choose from. But despite the wide array of themes that can be interpreted to convey underlying human emotions, one of the most explored themes in filmmaking has been food. Be it the visual grandeur of the textures and colours captured by food or the depiction of food, its preparation, presentation and consumption as a marker of socio-political and economic identities, food has been used both as a metaphor and a tool to foreshadow events and allegorise emotions. Food has also formed the main theme of several films which have woven their storylines around food or certain cuisines to tell tales about people of a certain era or place.
In India, a land of varied food items, it is said that language and the food choices of people change every 11 kilometres. Indian filmmakers and artists have heavily relied on this culinary diversity to tell tales that not only reveal varied aspects of Indian culture but also tell stories of resilience, love, hate and hope.
Here are some of the best movies to watch from across India that used food to reflect on deeper socio-political, cultural and emotional issues:
Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely housewife, seeks to liven up her stagnant marriage by making a special lunch for her neglectful husband. Unfortunately, the tiffin is misplaced and ends up in the hands of Saajan (Irrfan Khan), an irritated widower. Curious about her husband's lack of reaction, Ila slips a letter into the following day's lunchbox, kicking off a unique friendship in which Saajan and Ila share their joys and sorrows without ever meeting in person. ‘The Lunchbox’ is a fitting tribute to Mumbai's dhabawalas, a tiffin delivery system that dates back over 125 years. It also brings out the complexities of modern relationships and class struggle in urban setups through food, which has been depicted as the 'love language' of a majority of middle-income group couples. It also brings out the gender roles and the loneliness of modern Indian housewives in insipient marriages and their relationship to their kitchens.
After his four older sisters, Faizi (Dulquer Salman) is the much-awaited boy of the family. However, his relationship with his father suffers after he decies to study culinary arts and become a chef rather than pursue business courses, which his father wanted. He flees to his grandpa Karim's (Thilakan) home in Kozhikode, where the latter operates the modest but well-known 'Ustad Hotel.' He strives to realise his ambition by assisting his grandfather, Kareem, in running his hotel. Faizi learns some life lessons, pursues his passion for cooking, and falls in love as a result of this grandfather-grandson friendship. The gem of a film delicately captures the politics and communalisation of food while establishing it as an important marker of identity and belonginness. It is also shown as the string that binds a family together through generational gap.
A PhD student (Arghadeep Baru) studying meat-eating patterns in the North East and a married doctor (Lima Das) discover a link between them as they find a connection in tasting unusual meats—mutton, rabbits, etc. The lonely married woman soon forms an unusual friendship with the younger man which blossoms into an abstract romance. As their adventures get more daring, their relationship begins to take a darker turn. Later in the film, the story delves toward cannibalistic tendencies which form the crux of the climax. While the film unusual eating habits and weaves it into the narrative of a love story, the film can be seen as a deeper meditation on the lack of understanding and othering of foods from the north-east, where culinary traditions are vastly different from the Indian 'mainland'. It can also be interpreted as a critique of the greed of urban, capitalistic consumers. 
Aditya (Siddharth Chandekar), an NRI banker, fakes travelling to London and instead quits his job and goes to Pune to study vegetarian Marathi cookery from Radha (Sonali Kulkarni). Aditya meets Radha, a tiffin vendor, and begs her to teach him traditional Marathi food. She, on the other hand, refuses to educate him on the finer skills of cooking traditional Marathi food until he passes her tests. Through the storyline, the film takes the viewers through a delightful journey ot the intricate Marathi cuisine, thus providing a critique of the absence of regional foods from the country's 'culinary imagination'. It captures the way cultural and linguistic dominance impacts people's food habits and in turn impact the intangible cultural heritage of communities.
Dev D (Ritwick Chakraborty), a Michelin-starred chef working and residing in Paris, returns to Kolkata after 13 years to care for his elderly mother (Mamata Shankar). And, from her hospital bed, his mother throws a life-changing challenge at him: to treat her to a maacher jhol, a Bengali fish dish, which he loved as a teen. He attempts but fails to replicate his mother's maacher jhol. He tries several times and is also confronted by the ghosts of his past. In this film, food becomes a metaphor for nostalgia, for the loss of innocence in youth and also a way to encounter and deal with loss of loved ones. Through the painstaking recreation of his mother's recipe, the protagonist learns new shades about his mother's character, her struggles and trials as a woman and mother, and also rediscovers parts of his own lost inner child.
This is the story of a middle-aged couple, an archaeologist (Lal) and a dubbing artist (Shweta Menon), who unite over their love of food. Kalidasan, a gourmand, receives an unexpected phone call. He discovers that the person on the other end of the line, Maya, enjoys eating and cooking as well. They quickly develop affection for one another. There's also a young couple and a cook who find themselves in amusing circumstances throughout the storyline. The film discusses very delicately the topic of mid-life crisis. Much like Lunchbox, the film uses food as a metaphor to express the intricacies of loneliness and frienship.
Stanley (Partho Gupte) did not bring a dabba (tiffin box) to school, so he and his classmates share one. This irritates the Hindi instructor (nicknamed Khadoos for being a spoilsport). The teacher eats (and takes) from other kids' tiffin boxes but because Stanley doesn’t get a tiffin, the teacher starts reprimanding him. Stanley has a fantastic imagination and it comes easy to him to create stories, and that’s when he starts to tell tall tales about his mother and her cooking. Stanley grew up without a mother. He didn't have a mother to cook his dinner, dress him up, help him with his project, drive him to school, or see him dance in the concert. Stanley used to see parents, particularly mothers, leave their sons off at school on a daily basis. He also saw how his peers praised the meals prepared by their mothers. Stanley used to notice stuff like this. So, in order to demonstrate that he, too, had a mother, he made up a fictional mother. He told anecdotes of his mother and her cooking. He only wanted to show his friends that he, too, had a mother who cared for him. He was successful in deceiving the world throughout the film, but the final moment was the most poignant when the audience is confronted with Stanley's truth, which is that Stanley works at a hotel under his boisterous uncle, and his duty is to serve food to visitors, clean up the mess, wash dishes, and so on. He gets his dabba from the cook of the hotel. The film delves into the lives of marginalised children and leaves the audience with the message of how many kids in India grapple with child labour.
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