Food and culture

From ‘Bao’ to Bollywood, a mother’s cooking and emotions go together

Several Western viewers missed the symbolism of Domee Shi’s short film. But in India, it has special resonance.

In Pixar’s short film Bao, parental love comes wrapped in dough and greased with dollops of butter. Domee Shi’s animated short film was released along with Incredibles 2 on June 15 . The film is centred on a Chinese-Canadian woman who raises a bao as her child. When the bao grows up and decides to leave home, she swallows him in a rush of possessive love. The bao is revealed to be a metaphor for her son, who left his home to live with his partner.

Bao.

The idea of a woman swallowing her child puzzled several Western viewers on Twitter, who found the film confusing and weird. But Asian immigrants tweeted that they felt an emotional connection with Bao.

The short film is a flavourful reminder of the complex relationship between food and family in several cultures. This tangle also plays out in Hindi cinema, where mothers often dish out gajar ka halwa or kheer for their sons, equal portions with love and possessiveness.

“Maa ke haath ka khaana” has rich metaphorical significance in films. In the cross-border romance Veer Zaara (2004), it signifies a return to uncomplicated times. Veer is reminded of his childhood after he receives besan ke laddoo that taste exactly like the ones his aunt used to make.

In Agneepath (2012), food resurrects a painful past when Vijay storms out of an argument with his family with a dish full of his mother’s cooking and proceeds to eat with feverish need.

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Agneepath (2012).

Food signifies tradition in Swades (2004), when Kaveri cooks for NASA scientist Mohan, who is rediscovering his Indian roots. But in Kapoor and Sons (2016), where a mother dishes out savoury tarts and bhindi ki sabzi with equal proficiency, it becomes symbolic of a turn to modernity.

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Swades (2004).

A mother’s cooking almost always stands for memories and relationships in films. How children receive this offering reveals the way they feel about their family and childhood.

In Dear Zindagi (2016), a mother tries hard to compensate for her absence during her daughter’s childhood by plying an adult Kaira with food. But Kaira rejects the overtures by resisting these efforts to feed her. In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani (2012), Kabir expresses his disapproval towards his stepmother by refusing to eat the food she heats up for him.

In Namak Haraam (1973), a drunk Somu tries to escape his mother’s eagle eye by retiring to bed without eating dinner. But when he learns that she had made kheer especially for him, he has it sent to his room, not wanting to reject her affection.

In Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008), food is a special part of Jai’s relationship with his mother. Jai splits the cooking responsibilities with Savitri, a single mother. Their culinary creations are so clearly an extension of their identity that when Savitiri disapproves of Jai’s remarks, she also finds fault with the scrambled eggs he makes.

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Namak Haraam (1973).

Movie mothers especially go into culinary overdrive when their children return from foreign shores, hoping that their food will help bridge the chasm of time and cultural differences. But their creations often end up highlighting those very divides. In Hyderabad Blues (1998), Varun is served hearty mutton curry on his return to India from the United States of America after 12 years. When he points out to his mother that the food is full of “saturated fat”, he communicates that along with his tastes, his ideas of affection and family have also changed.

Pools of fats also divide generations. In Rang De Basanti (2006), Mitro assures a reluctant Sonia that the butter on her parathas will make her bones strong. In Saathiya (2002), Suhani refuses to eat her mother’s cooking because it has too much oil for her liking.

Maa ke haath ka khaana is doubly significant in movies because food is tied strongly with women’s identities as mothers. They are expected to be good cooks and feed their families, so their culinary skills are remarked upon only when found lacking. In English Vinglish (2012), Shashi finds that her food as well as her identity are consumed by her family without any regard for her talent in the kitchen. However, in Cheeni Kum (2007), chef Buddha flippantly, but often affectionately, comments on his mother’s poor culinary skills.

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English Vinglish (2012).

Only a few films go inside the kitchen to demonstrate the emotional or physical labour involved in bringing food to the table. In Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009), a mother complains of rising prices of vegetables while she struggles to feed her son and his friends. Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007) also hints at a mother’s desperate tiredness, focusing on Savitri’s forlorn face while she rolls rotis for her family in the kitchen.

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Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007).

When a screen mother is unable or unwilling to care for her children’s nourishment, the woman who feeds is automatically considered a stand-in mom. In Bobby (1973), Raj’s mother doesn’t breast-feed him or care for him, but Mrs Braganza, who gives him sponge cake, fills in as a motherly presence. In Amar Prem (1972), Pushpa, who feeds neglected young Nandu, is a maternal figure even in his adult life. In Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Maham Anga, who fed Akbar her breast milk when he was an infant, is a more formidable maternal influence in the Mughal emperor’s life than his own biological mother.

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Amar Prem (1972).

Since food is one of the few powerful tools at a screen mother’s disposal, it can also be weaponised to demonstrate her disapproval or exert control over her brood. In Sujata (1959), an adopted Dalit daughter’s status as an outsider in an upper-caste family is reinforced when she asks her father to feed her halwa, and her mother bristles at the prospect. In Haider (2014), Ghazala starves herself till her son comes to see her.

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Sujata (1959).

Food is a recurring element in a woman’s relationship with her troubled son in Mother India (1957). The mischievous Birju’s grandmother asks his mother Radha to punish her son by not giving him food. Radha is unable to leave her unrepentant son hungry, so she bucks her mother-in-law’s wishes. But even as she does not let anyone else wield control over Birju through food, Radha is not above using it herself to tighten the leash around her son.

When a starving Birju is handed channa by corrupt landlord Sukhilala, Radha orders him to throw the snack away, forcing him to choose between her and the food. When a grown-up Birju is working hard in the field, Radha feeds him roti. When she disapproves of his behaviour, Radha starves her son and herself.

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Mother India (1957).
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