The List: Films on Food #SherylPuthur

We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink – Epicurus

Food is denial. Food is pleasure. Food is honest. Food is sinful. Food is expression. There are many ways we label what we eat and would like to eat. So closely connected with bodily functions, it has been rejected, upbraided and worshipped. So presenting, a collection of films that excite the sensory organs – Films on Food.

Food is the near-perfect beginning to a New Year. The films are placed in the order of release, with the oldest first. It is the reader’s decision as to what makes their list and what doesn’t. The table has been set, please enjoy your meal!

Babette’s Feast (1987)

babette's feast

Director: Gabriel Axel Screenplay: Gabriel Axel Story: Karen Blixen

Gabriel Axel’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s short story Babette’s Feast has fable-like qualities. Set in a desolate landscape, the Jutland Coast, it narrates the story of two elderly sisters Martine (Brigitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kerr), the daughters of the deceased puritan pastor of the village. The story delves into their past to explain how they came to employ a French housekeeper Babette (Stephane Audran). The story comes a full circle with Babette’s celebratory feast in honour of the birth anniversary of the pastor. The feast juxtaposes a fine food connoisseur against the simple folk of the pastor’s austere sect, who believe extravagant food is sinful. There is displayed in the film, paternal selfishness and a loss of the original idea of what the religion was to stand for but the beauty of the film is that it does not condemn but accepts. The meat preparations may seem unpalatable to vegetarians but there is so much more to it than just that. Pope Francis has claimed this to be his favourite film.

Chocolat (2000)


Director: Lasse Hallstrom Screenplay: Robert Nelson Jacobs Story: Joanne Harris

Set in a quiet French town that believes in tranquillity especially during the season of lent, the film follows Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), who like the wily north wind blow surprising changes into the lives of the townspeople. The film is rather obviously about chocolate but also living life as opposed to seeing the time on earth as only a preparation for the heavenly abode. Life is not for flagellation alone but pleasure as well.

The film sells the idea that chocolate could be the answer to every ailment and the viewer willingly buys it because it is so exquisitely presented.

For more, read my full review of Chocolat.

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
Under the tuscan sun

Director: Audrey Wells Screenplay: Audrey Wells Story: Frances Mayes

Most would catalogue this movie into films on Travel. While it is true that it is about travelling to Tuscany, it is also a film about self-discovery.

Frances Mayes (Diane Lane), a writer and book critic, goes through a painful divorce, battling insecurity and lack of self-worth. A gift by her friends sees her on a trip to Tuscany. There, she makes the impulsive decision of buying an Old Italian villa because she feels it’s a sign. In the process of restoring the villa, she begins to heal and more importantly, build valuable relationships, with the workers, her neighbours, potential love interests and Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), the enigmatic English female actor who doles out advice by the Great Fellini and vociferously defends vanilla ice cream’s power ‘to change fate’. Traditional Italian families still believe in the sit down dinner because as Placido (Roberto Nobile) points out “it is unhealthy to eat alone.” Sharing a meal and having someone to cook for is the warmest idea of community.

Ratatouille (2007)


Director: Brad Bird Screenplay: Brad Bird Story: Jan Pinkava; Jim Capobianco; Brad Bird

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat who has a wonderful sense of smell and the creative mind for cooking. Of course, the chances of a rat being allowed to cook in a restaurant are next to impossible, which is why a chance relationship with Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano) the garbage boy, results in a partnership that lets each have what they want. Throw in a couple of short-sighted avaricious villains, a frightening sallow-faced food critic Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O’Toole and – Bon appétit!

The signature line of the film, in Chef Gusteau’s words – Anyone can cook!

No Reservations (2007)


Director: Scott Hicks Screenplay: Carol Fuchs; Sandra Nettlebeck

No Reservations is about two chefs who end up working in the same kitchen to interesting results. Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a fastidious head chef of a popular restaurant. The untimely death of her sister makes her the guardian of her nine-year old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin). From being someone who doesn’t allow people and relationships to interfere with her work she now has to deal very closely with grief and more importantly, her niece’s grief.

Added to that disturbing state of affairs, is the entry of the new sous-chef her boss Paula (Patricia Clarkson) hires. Nicholas Palmer (Aaron Eckhart) is a carefree chef who is popular in his own right but wishes to work under Kate and hence joins the restaurant. Kate is suspicious of his motives but slowly begins to warm to him. The rest of the film follows the characters as they journey towards a sense of completeness. While not particularly moving, the obsessive love for cooking displayed by Kate is awe-inspiring. Especially her early morning visits to get the best ingredients for her dishes, making it a point to choose them herself.

Julie and Julia (2009)


Director: Nora Ephron Screenplay: Nora Ephron Story: Julie Powell; Julia Child; Alex Prud’homme

Julie and Julia is based on two true stories – that of Julia Child and the other of Julie Powell. They have both moved to a different place because of their husbands work. While Julia (Meryl Streep) happens to love France, Julie (Amy Adams) hates her new home. Both women find themselves in a rut professionally, and use food to find themselves – one as a cook and the other as a writer. What is really beautiful about the film is that Julia Child’s journey which took place post World war helps Julie Powell find herself as she decides to make all of Child’s recipes and blog about it. The relationships of the characters with each other even through space and time and most certainly with food, defines the film.

Stanley ka Dabba (2011)


Director: Amole Gupte Story: Amole Gupte

Stanley ka Dabba is a children’s film with heart. It says so much but does so without being preachy. A sense of nostalgia coupled with a vague sense of unease accompanies the viewer as they follow Stanley’s story. The film opens with Stanley (Partho Gupte) coming rather early to school with marks that look suspiciously like bruises. However, Stanley is a storyteller who can spin a yarn about just anything and that makes him well-loved. He doesn’t carry a dabba (tiffin) to school so one begins to suspect the state of affairs at home. One poignant scene shows him filling his stomach with water because he has no food.

There is also a teacher Babubhai Verma (Amole Gupte) nicknamed Kadoos (grumpy) who also does not carry a dabba but eats from others. He steals from the tiffins of his colleagues or else bullies students into sharing their food. His mannerisms are disturbingly that of a child abuser and within the narrative an important metaphor.

Food is central to the film but it is about the simple meal a child would carry to school in a dabba. It states the value of a home cooked meal.

Salt and Pepper (2011)


Director: Aashiq Abu Screenplay: Syam Pushkaran; Dileesh Nair

The title of the film is a pun on food and age. It follows Kalidasan (Lal), a middle-aged archaeologist who is a food connoisseur. His closest relationship besides his work and food is with his cook Babu (Baburaj). Even his nephew Manu Raghav (Asif Ali) loses precedence in front of these. A missed call by Maya (Shweta Menon), a dubbing artiste, leads to a misunderstanding between Kalidasan and her. Eventually, their shared love for food becomes the foundation stone for a telephone friendship. The conversations follow the histories of various dishes especially Joan’s Rainbow cake. Their own romance and that of the secondary couple display classic elements of Shakespearean drama. The fact that love has no age makes this film comfort food.

Ustad Hotel (2012)


Director: Anwar Rasheed Screenplay and Dialogues: Anjali Menon

Ustad Hotel is Faizi’s story. The beauty is, Faizi’s (Dulquer Salman) story starts long before he was born. His one defining memory is shown to be, his grandfather Kareem ikka (Thilakan) feeding baby Faizi sweet milk. Food in all its forms makes up this movie. Be it the conversations on love and philosophy over a cup of sulemani chai between Kareem ikka and Faizi, or that being a good cook is about satisfying the heart.  Conversely, there is a stigma attached to becoming a chef in the rich orthodox Muslim community. Chef = the guy who makes biryani at a feast. Hence, it’s not an honourable profession. It makes Faizi a poor match for Shahana (Nitya Menen). The film is then about changing stereotypes and fixed notions of what your destiny is.

The film with its evocative camera work and vivid dialogues brings forward a mouth-watering array of Calicut cuisine.

The Lunchbox (2013)


Director: Ritesh Batra Screenplay: Ritesh Batra

Originally planned as a documentary on the Dabbawalas of Mumbai, it developed into a love story between a cantankerous office worker and a house wife. Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is due for retirement and has shut himself post the death of his wife. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is trying to regain her husband’s interest in her by making delicious lunches for him. However, the lunchbox, in a one in a million chance gets wrongly delivered to Saajan. On realising her mistake, Ila writes a note explaining herself and that starts off an exchange of experiences through notes, accompanied with delicious lunch.

The film does a lot of things differently. It shows a connection being drawn through the old fashioned means of writing a letter. It is a portrayal of loneliness and the need for validation from another human being.

Chef (2014)


Director: Jon Favreau Screenplay: Jon Favreau

A head chef Carl Caspar (Jon Favreau) in a fine dining restaurant drags his reputation through the dirt after engaging in an online slingfest with a popular food critic who pans his cooking. Post his rather public meltdown, he walks away from the restaurant and finally agrees to his ex-wife Inez’s (Sofia Vergara) decision to start a food truck. The road trip that he sets on is as much about finding his creative centre as it is about mending his dented relationship with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony).

The film abounds in clichés but certain things set it apart, for instance his relationship with his ex-wife who is still very supportive. The surprise element like the legendary chemical X is Robert Downey Jr. who plays Marvin, Inez’s ex-husband. He literally lights up the screen. And yes, the food. If it was humanly possible to put your hand through the screen and grab a cubano you would do it. It is your junk food fantasy film.


Chocolat (2000) #SherylPuthur


Directed By: Lasse Hallstrom

Written By: Joanne Harris; Robert Nelson Jacobs


Juliette Binoche – Vianne Rocher

Victorie Thivisol – Anouk Rocher

Alfred Molina – Comte de Reynaud

Judi Dench – Armande Voizin

Hugh O’Conor – Pere Henri

Lena Olin – Josephine Muscat

Peter Stormare – Serge Muscat

Johnny Depp – Roux “river-rat”

Language: English                                                          Genre: Romance-Drama

Chocolat opens with a beguiling fog that slowly reveals a quaint French village atop a hill, surrounded by walls, looking much like fort. The fog seems reminiscent of the steam that surrounds a vessel on the stove, which you brush aside to continue with your creation. What you discover is that food, in every manifestation (even metaphorical), is present in the film. Food and its close associate denial.

Set fifteen years after the Second World War when the world was recovering, yet hadn’t quite found its joie de vivre, the story follows a young chocolatier and her daughter who arrive in this village that is beginning its Lenten period of fast and abstinence. It is a village that believes in tranquillity and Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and Anouk (Victorie Thivisol) destroy it by being different.

The Mayor of the village Comte Reynaud (Alfred Molina) both practises and enforces moral austerity on the people. Vianne’s open flouting of the Lenten rules by opening a chocolaterie, not attending mass and flaunting her unwed mother status, leads him to a covert operation of ostracising her from the community.

He exercises ideological control over the villagers by editing the Lenten sermons of the village priest Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor). It would be folly to see him as a cardboard villain because the irony is that he believes that he is justified and doing it for the good of the people. He is also quite the gentleman and is actually shocked at the seamier side to people’s lives such as when he finds out that Josephine (Lena Olin) is actually being beaten by her husband Serge (Peter Stormare) and hence left him.

The film thus critiques the practise of being morally right and quick harsh judgement. It also presents how society ensures that people follow the norms laid out by inflicting mental harassment. In this it deviates harshly from true Christian principles of accepting everyone, of not creating hierarchies of morality and of community welfare. It thus makes religion un-enjoyable.

Religion is about joy but people are quick to assume that flagellation of the self will make one superior. One can notice that those who do this – remaining austere by force have no joy and are actually grappling with dark emotions. It seems dark all the more because they are unable to forgive themselves for possessing it.

The confessional then becomes an important motif in the film; some being forced to enter it on the assumption that by just going through the motions of it, it will result in miraculous effects. But most villagers congregate there to confess that they felt pleasure.

Pleasure is given a lot of bad press but there is nothing wrong with feeling pleasure. Eating good food, living life on your terms does not make one a sinful hedonist. (If you want to get a glimpse of hedonism, watch The Libertine – it documents the life of the Second Earl of Rochester). For some reason, people correlate more misery with better chances of going to heaven. This is why Pere Henri’s Easter sermon about the humanity of Jesus Christ as opposed to his divinity makes sense. He lived, ate, drank, had friends, yet people brush that aside and focus only on the forty days of fast and the agony on the cross.

So my take back from the film would be this quote – “We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness, by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.”

After all, once you understand and respect pleasure, you can be forgiving and open-minded. Pleasure, correctly understood, is liberating.