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A film series reminds us why delicious food and a grandmother’s love remain linked in our minds

Grandmas Project is a collaborative space that invites filmmakers from across the world to document their grandmothers’ signature recipes.

When filmmaker Natasha Raheja’s grandmother, Sushila Dodani, asked her what she was doing, she was tickled greatly with Raheja’s reply – she was making a film on her. Dodani laughed and said, “Oh my, a film on an old woman.”

Sindhi Kadhi: A Recipe by Nani, documents Dodani as she prepares Sindhi kadhi, a curry made with gram flour and vegetables, for a lazy Sunday afternoon lunch.

Raheja’s grandmother was born in Sindh, Pakistan, and came to India with her family in 1947 as a refugee. “It is interesting how for my grandparents, Pakistan is a place of nostalgia as well as a place of fear,” Raheja said. “They have a sense of attachment to the places they grew up in and curiosity for what they are like now, but also fear that they wouldn’t be welcomed now. Their heart is soft when thinking of Pakistan before Partition and hardens when they think of Partition and how it unfolded.”

Sindhi Kadhi is the first Indian film entry to Grandmas Project, a collaborative web documentary that invites young filmmakers to make a movie on their grandmothers, using a favourite traditional recipe as the fulcrum. In 2016, Grandmas Project received UNESCO’s patronage for its work in raising awareness among the general public about the intangible cultural heritage through digital means.

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The collaborative project was started by French filmmaker Jonas Pariente in 2015, when he released his own film, Molokheya, on his paternal grandmother cooking a traditional Egyptian dish of the same name. Growing up, Pariente – who is Polish on his mother’s side and Egyptian on his father’s – spent time watching his grandmothers sauté, sift and stir ingredients to make dishes from their respective heritages.

“Both my grandmothers have been very inspiring to me,” said Pariente. “They both migrated to France in the 1950s and even though I had a really simple relationship with them as a kid, I could tell the depth of what they experienced. For me, as they were cooking for us, I always felt like their history was also passed down from the food.”

For him, the taste of herring and vodka is the taste of home. He started filming Nano (born in 1933 in Cairo) and Mémé (born in 1916 in Warsaw) in the mid-2000s, but abandoned the project after he got accepted to film school in New York and Mémé passed away in 2008. Pariente could not bring himself to continue the project for a long time.

But on one contemplative, sleepless night in 2013, he decided to take forward their stories and started Grandmas Project, inviting filmmaker friends from different cultures and communities to create eight-minute films sharing their grandmother’s cooking. Pariente’s production house, Chaï Chaï Films – named after the call of the tea-sellers he heard on a trip to Mumbai once – mentors and provides artistic supervision to the participants.

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In his film featuring Nano, Pariente narrates, “Nano’s cooking is my only tangible relationship with Egypt. Her accent, her anecdotes, the ingredients she uses, make me travel to an imaginary Cairo, a city that I don’t know and yet defines me.” While making molokheya, Nano talks about how, as a little girl, she wanted to be a paediatrician but her father did not approve of women working. Later in life, she never got permission from her husband to take up any paying work. Though shy and more quiet than the more effervescent Mémé, whom Pariente describes as a “performer”, the 35-year old filmmaker hopes his Nano is proud at having her story shared.

Nano as a young woman (Photo courtesy: Jonas Pariente).
Nano as a young woman (Photo courtesy: Jonas Pariente).

“It’s not so much about the food but about the power of food or a dish to invoke memories,” said Pariente. “The idea was to create a portrait of that generation of women. Our grandparents belong to a world that was fraught with conflict. Even Natasha’s film alludes to the Partition in India, a time of disturbance and suffering. When you watch these films, you tend to realise the similar experiences that people from all parts of the world were going through – wars, conflict, emigration. In most cases, you’ll see that asking about one recipe organically opens the door to conversations about history and identity.”

In a sequence in Raheja’s film, she is seen helping her grandmother as they cut vegetables for the kadhi. It’s the only time her Nani mentions Pakistan and the event that altered and shaped her life. “My Nani has fond memories of her childhood and regularly tells us stories about Sindh, but at the same time leaving Sindh and not being able to go back was difficult for her,” said Raheja. “I included a single mention of Partition to signal that while my Nani’s memories of Pakistan are a casual part of conversation, there are also silences around the difficulty of having to leave home and not being able to return.”

Natasha Raheja filming her grandmother (Photo courtesy: Natasha Raheja).
Natasha Raheja filming her grandmother (Photo courtesy: Natasha Raheja).

The film has a certain sense of comfort. It’s not an intruder with a camera in Dodani’s home, asking her questions – it’s a day spent with her granddaughter. “She was open to the idea of being filmed but told me she ‘does not like mashoori’ (fame),” said Raheja. “At first, she was concerned that her sisters-in-law might think she is attracting too much attention. In front of the camera, she was at ease going about her regular activities and giving me instructions. She is used to me following her around and sticking to her. One of her nicknames for me is chipkali, or gecko, because of the way I stick and cling to her. When filming, I was a chipkali with a camera.”

Raheja’s grandfather, too, makes appearances in the film – walking around, reading a newspaper or enjoying the Sindhi kadhi with great relish. “I think she did a great job with the character of the grandpa,” said Pariente. “He doesn’t say a single thing and yet she made it a very comedic character. The way he throws the towel in the opening kitchen sequence is amazing.”

Grandmas Project features grandmothers from across cultures – from France, making soufflés; from Croatia, making knedle meatballs; or from Lebanon, demonstrating how to make the delicate mehchi, a dish of stuffed peppers. The grandchildren who make these films and briefly feature in them, have all talked about how their grandmothers are the one connection they have to where they immigrated from.

For Raheja, filming her grandmother was a way to observe her “gentle grace through a camera eye. When she cooks, she pays attention to how things look, feel, taste, and smell, not exact measurements or timings. In working on this film, I thought about the role of food in mediating relationships and building intimacy. I thought of how making and eating meals together can be a generative act, not only a consumptive one. I thought of how my grandma is a source of nourishment for our family. I thought about the gendering of domestic work. I thought about how patriarchy shapes who cooks and who gets cooked for.”

The project also invites those who are not filmmakers to share their grandmothers’ stories with simple pictures. For instance, Anita Kumar from Mumbai shared a picture of her 90-year-old grandmother and sent in the recipe of marundhu, a sweet dish that shaped her memories of celebrating Diwali with her grandmother. She wrote about her grandmother’s outstanding cooking skills that she partly learnt from her mother and partly during her travels with her husband who was with the British Navy.

“Our grandparents’ generation was the last one that made everything by hand, the last one that cared to carry on the traditional recipes of their culture and families,” said Pariente. “I also feel we need to preserve this legacy.”

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