Brahminical Gulabjaam: Cultural Critique of a Film

This article offers a cultural critique of a Marathi film, Gulabjaam, from an anti-caste and anti-Brahminical perspective. It looks at the film as a new attempt in strengthening cultural dominance of a caste and city identity. Everyday political discourse in current times is not restricted to simply differentiating vegetarian from non-vegetarian foods. Rather, it is activated to ascribe goodness and badness of character in people who eat them and further, to determine their place as citizens in the Hindu national project. 

Gulab jamuns are to Indian sweets what shoes are to Italian fashion ... The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty that began their rule in India in 1526, brought ... gulab jamuns to India ... The Mughals lost their power, but gulab jamuns continue on with a commanding presence.  (Roufs and Roufs 2014: 170) 

The 2018 Marathi film, Gulabjaam, directed by Sachin Kundalkar, makes the sweet, gulab jamun, significant by letting it hold memories and secrets of relationships apart from its existing culinary and historical fame. A chance savouring of gulab jamuns provided with a meal sends the protagonist Aditya Naik (played by Siddarth Chandekar) looking for the cook, Radha Agarkar (played by Sonali Kulkarni), from whom he wants to learn to cook “authentic” Marathi food. Aditya dreams of opening a restaurant in London, but he has to first overcome Radha's initial reluctance to teach. Later, he successfully initiates a venture called “Dial-a-chef” for her. When it is time for him to leave for London, he bids Radha farewell with a bowl of perfectly made gulab jamuns. The film ends with three garnished pieces served on a small tray in Aditya's restaurant in London to a customer, a beautiful girl who instantly arrests his attention. The delicacy marks the beginning as well as the end of various journeys/relationships in the film.    

One of its kind till date in the Marathi film industry, the film bestows considerable time and attention on the preparation and presentation of several “Marathi” delicacies. Such a film is, no doubt, facilitated by the mediatised ways in which we imagine, see, and talk about food, and complemented by our artificially aroused concerns about lifestyle diseases, body weight, and glow of skin. However, the film promotes a particular caste variety of vegetarian food (the Kokanastha Brahmin cuisine), suggesting it to be the “authentic” Marathi food.

Socio-Cultural Discourse of Food

Food is never simply a matter of culture in India. It is identity and caste identity in the first place, and subsequently a proud exclusionary quotidian practice. Not long ago, chef Sanjeev Kapoor was trolled for his new dish called Malabar Paneer. His attempt was understood to be part of the “relentless paneerification” by netizens who insisted that “adding Malabar prefix to a dish does not make it a Malabar dish” because Malabar food is all about fish, beef, and other non-vegetarian dishes. For ages, Indians have been observing taboos on food according to their caste and/or religious regulations. Not eating garlic or onions, permanently or seasonally, is an example. As social practice, people stop eating a favourite dish in order to mark the loss of a dear relative. Food is far from equality as not all kinds of cuisines along the lines of community, region, and caste, or depending on local availability of food related to histories of deprivation, get equally recognised by the mainstream culture. Given this situation, scholars have attempted to draw attention to invalidated foods and culinary practices of Dalit castes, and have asked for fair inclusivity. The Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women's Studies Centre at Savitribai Phule Pune University published a study of Dalit foods in 2011 with an evocative title: Hee Thali Bharatiya Nahi Ka? (Isn't this meal Indian?). Shahu Patole, another scholar, titled his book, “Anna He Apoorna Brahma” (Food is incomplete Brahma) taking a jibe at the ancient saying that food is complete Brahma, or universe (Fernando 2016). In educational discourse, the fifth standard environmental studies textbook of the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research depicts Brahminical meal as the standard meal. Even today, most of the university and college seminars have vegetarian menus. Ideas of sanctity of food that have a direct connection to the hierarchy of caste, are still operational, even among the educated, highly placed, metropolitan, upper classes exposed to globalisation. For example, Medha Khole, the ex-director of the India Meteorological Department, filed a police complaint against her cook for pretending to be a Brahmin and married, conditions that she had stated in the job description. Her claim was that her religious sentiments were hurt as the woman cooked food during family rituals (Banerjee 2017).  

Food has also been a major concern for our policymakers, as seen in the recently enacted National Food Security Act, 2013. As a nation, we have measured poverty in terms of purchasing capacity required for consumption of certain calories. Our schools provide midday meals to attract and retain children, apart from tackling the problem of malnutrition. Our election manifestos blare out promises of supply of grains at cheap rates. Just as food is the language of caste, it is also one of class. It is said that the prices of millets rose because the upper classes began consuming them, considering their nutritional value in the wake of lifestyle diseases. In recent years, food has invited cultural censorship supported by political and social polarisation. A person traveling in trains today is casually and easily asked not to consume non-vegetarian food during the journey. The issue of beef (bovine meat) consumption and cow slaughter has caused many a mob lynching incident on roads, in houses, or even in running trains. Beef festivals in hostel messes on university campuses have invited opposition and harsh criticism. 

The state has interfered with food on the citizen's plate by making new laws that have solidified “old proposals” of the ruling party. An example is the ban on possession and consumption beef in Maharashtra (Shaikh 2017). State interference has not only led to the stopping of many trade practices related to cattle, rendering people jobless, but has also caused unusual fights between man and the animal over natural resources since the stray cattle has to be contained and fed to save the ripened crop standing in the fields (Shaikh 2017; Lavania 2018; Indian Express 2017; Hindustan Times 2018). The social and the political, it seems, cannot be really separated from the cultural aspects of food in India.  

Brahminical Meanings of the Film

This wide frame of reference that constitutes recent discourse on food is indispensable for appreciating social meanings generated by the film as a cultural product. Gulabjaam becomes problematic because it projects vegetarian food as situated amid a set of signs which fully justify present political meanings of vegetarian food. In today’s reality, they have not been restricted to simply differentiating vegetarian from non-vegetarian foods. Rather, they are activated to ascribe goodness and badness of character in people who eat them and further, to determine their place as citizens in the Hindu national project. Therefore, Radha's opinion that abundant use of garlic and onions in seasoning of dishes is inappropriate, is an insensitive statement. It sounds impractical, judgmental, and discriminatory because it latently upholds the entire gamut of moral ideas associated with vegetarian food (the Satvik variety) in the Brahminical scheme of thought. These ideas, reflected in various Marathi discourses of literary and other arts, see consumption of particular food as a determining factor of a person's sexuality, destiny, and nature. Food is directly held responsible for personal attributes like piety of character, tenderness, roughness, sensitivity, bravery, passion, violence, and evil, especially in case of vilification of Muslim characters. It gets classified accordingly into Satvik, Rajas and Tamas categories, pertaining respectively to qualities of goodness, passion, and dullness in a person. The category of gender also affects consumption of food. Historically, Brahmin widows were prohibited from consuming ingredients like garlic or onion as it was believed that they arouse inappropriate sexual desire. 

Visual and aural clues in the film are observed to certainly evoke such enveloping ideas mainly because Radha never talks about ingredients, their qualities and proportions to be used, or the order and kind of processes involved in cooking tasty food. Instead, we get romanticised vague statements like “every time you cook, you give some part of yourself to it,” or “I share everything in my heart with my recipes ... they understand me.” Were the filmmaker/director self-consciously striving to make the film look different from a cookery show? 

Second, Radha is a Brahmin woman living in an old stone building located in the heart of the city. This place is in the vicinity of Peshwa's historical residence, the Shaniwar Wada, symbolically understood as the bastion of Brahminism. Her fixed and old kind of routine (listening to morning radio, making tea, bathing and then preparing meals) not only reflects the monotony of her life, but also it the insecurity and disconnectedness with rest of the world. She is unmarried for some reason, including the 11 years she spent in a state of coma caused by an accident. Friendless, she cannot even face her sister, her only relation, out of fear. Her fondness for watching Ranbir Kapoor's movies shows that romance and love enter her life only as screen images displayed in the dark. Her lonely status, middle age, strict disciplined way of work, sexual repression, and devotion towards cooking (her only resort in life), all together remind us of Laxmi from Vijay Tendulkar's famous play, Sakharam Binder.[1] Laxmi and Radha's resemblance hinges on two kinds of evocations: sexual repression manifests in eccentricities of mannerisms, and caste morality lurking in their speech/actions. Laxmi's “talk” with ants in the kitchen (during which her giggling attracts Sakharam) provides an insight into her psychosexual make-up, and similarly, Radha “talks” to the food she prepares. Laxmi's inner self flashes energetically in justifying Sakharam's heinous crime (murder of Champa in a fit of anger). It stems from her Brahminical religiosity that leads to her odd devotion to him as her “husband.” Though painted in feeble strokes, Radha's unfulfilled attraction for Aditya is readable. In a short time period, the completely unknown man becomes her confidante for sharing the intimate pleasure of watching Ranbir Kapoor's cinema and for escaping questioning by her elder sister. He can be trusted and asked to stay over when the situation requires. There is a glimpse of her watching Aditya change clothes on the night he stays back in her house. The unbearable moment of separation from him is passed by consuming sedatives. Radha's note for him asks why he entered her life if he was meant to leave.      

By showcasing Kokanastha Brahmin caste cuisine as authentic Marathi food, other caste and regional cuisines within Maharashtra are excluded. The city of Pune, alternately known as the cultural capital of Maharashtra, and former seat of Brahminical power, is made into the locale for the story. Aditya’s labour reminds us of the ancient gurukul system of imparting Brahminical knowledge. It is characterised by hardships undergone and persistence shown by the disciple (Aditya says, “treat me badly, scold me as much as you want, but teach me.”). The reluctant and strict teacher who does not open the door for Aditya, requires to be won over by first performing all the peripheral jobs around cooking—shopping, sifting, drying, doing rounds of the flour mill, washing utensils—for many days before he actually starts cooking. The guru's concerns for hygiene and discipline, like not tasting the dish when it is still underway, have a flavour of caste cuisine rules which glorify vegetarian food as sanctimonious. That it does not really remain discipline, but proceeds to become single minded devotion is highlighted by a famous sloka "Udarbharan Nohe Janije Ydnya Karma"- sung gravely in low notes, in the background.[2] Moreover, reciting slokas before consuming food is a Brahmin caste custom. The single reference to Aditya's non-vegetarian culinary skills (when he cooks fish for his roommates) vanishes in no time under the barrage of vegetarian dishes coming out of Radha's kitchen. 

Change and Globalisation

Change as prompted by globalisation in living conditions, requirements, and dreams of people, happens to be the key word of the narrative of the film. True to the age of marketing, the film appears to think that “authentic” Marathi food needs new presentation to bring its qualities to the notice of the world. But, the problem is that golden-fried, piping hot fritters served on a green banana leaf in a basket made of bamboo cannot be appreciated only as good presentation in the context of Maharashtrian cuisine. Unlike the southern part of India, where banana leaves are perhaps indiscriminately used every day, in the Marathi upper caste culture, food served on a banana leaf usually means offerings to gods on pious days. Similarly, the change under globalisation cannot be perceived simply in the plain sense of assimilation, of having increased variety to choose from. Looking at the promotion of food and culture of a single dominant caste in the film, it does not consider how assimilation also is replacement, subjugation, alteration, dejection, disruption or elimination on the level of en masse living. 

Without alternate meanings of change, the sleekness aided by technology as visible in the images of MacBook notes rolling smoothly down on the stony walls of the narrow alleys from where Aditya smilingly passes every day, or as suggested in the unfolding of new, shiny dial-a-chef toolkit on Radha's kitchen table, is futile. Similarly, the political correctness of showing Aditya's unconventional choice of a career at the cost of a lucrative job in a bank in London, and also of showing his break-up with his fiancé when she does not understand his passion, is ineffective.  

Conclusions

On all these accounts, the film invites strong cultural critique, but most importantly, it does so because it supports and strengthens cultural dominance of a caste and of a city. Food seems to be the new ground for establishment of caste and geographical dominance, after other areas of Marathi cultural landscape including, theatre, literature, language, environment concerns, and musical concerts, have been addressed. It is interesting that a Brahmin person who is a good cook forgets the counting of numbers, but not the caste-specific cuisine or caste-based culinary practices even after partial amnesia caused by coma. Does that not call for the idea that perhaps the film is part of a larger cultural project coming out of a guarded media venture, considering Zee Studios as its producer? 

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