While ‘food songs’ are not utterly unknown in old Hindi cinema, it’s rather more difficult to track down memorable scenes featuring food. Talk about new cinema, and it’s easier—and when I talk of ‘new’ cinema, I don’t just mean very recent films like Stanley ka Dabba, The Lunchbox, Cheeni Kum, or Chef: I even mean films from the 70s and 80s.
There was Bawarchi, where Rajesh Khanna’s eponymous bawarchi promised Harindranath Chattopadhyay’s character shukto and some three hundred or so types of chutney (he also made kababs out of elephant yams). There was Amitabh Bachchan, surreptitiously stuffing himself on a thali full of puris and other goodies in Do aur Do Paanch, only to be stuffed all over again by a stream of little kids, all instigated by a wily rival (Shashi Kapoor). In Sau Din Saas Ke, Lalita Pawar played an evil mother-in-law, so vicious that she tried to poison her bahu with kheer simmered with gecko.
Pre-70s cinema is a little less easily remembered for its food scenes.
The food songs spring to mind more readily because of the recall value of a song; the scenes are relatively difficult to recall. But here are ten scenes which, to me, showcase food in some way or the other. The love for a particular food, the memories associated with food, the hunger for food, other associations with food. As always, these scenes are all from pre-70s Hindi films that I’ve seen.
1. Mirza Ghalib eats mangoes (Mirza Ghalib, 1954): This, for me, is the most memorable food scene from old Hindi cinema. Firstly, it features mangoes (which also happen to be a weakness of mine, and by far my favourite fruit, as they were for Mirza Ghalib). Secondly, the scene showcases Mirza Ghalib’s love for mangoes, not just through his eager consumption of them (though Bharat Bhushan’s Ghalib is rather more restrained in his savouring of the fruit as compared to his less talkative companions).
That love for mangoes comes through in different ways. Ghalib praises mangoes above sugarcane, because unlike the undiluted sweetness of sugarcane, mangoes offer a contrasting tartness that balances the sweet. He recites a sher in praise of the fruit. And, when an unconvinced companion points to a donkey who’s turned away from a heap of mangoes—the man comments that even a donkey won’t eat mangoes—Ghalib’s dry retort is that yes, it’s donkeys who don’t eat mangoes.
2. Kammo and an ear of corn (Chori Chori, 1956): Food is a time-tested, very powerful holder and carrier and evoker of memories. The flavour of a particular dish can bring back to mind related memories—I, for example, remember eating a particular type of aloo paratha on a long-ago trip through Kumaon, and while I never could find out what masala was used, whenever I encounter that distinct combination of spices again, I am immediately transported back to Almora.
This aspect of food comes through in this scene from Chori Chori, which is actually the second scene in the film that features the humble bhutta, an ear of corn. In the first scene, Nargis’s wealthy and utterly spoilt heiress Kammo turns up her nose at eating something so pedestrian the first time Sagar (Raj Kapoor) offers her bhutta while helping her flee from modern-day bounty hunters. Days later, a changed Kammo—and a grieving Kammo, deeply in love with a man lost to her forever—cannot stomach the rich dishes spread out at the dinner table and asks for roasted bhutta instead. And cries over it as she eats. Or doesn’t eat, really.
3. Ejaz steals halwa-puri (Ghazal, 1964): Food, like everything precious, is all the dearer when it is unattainable. Unattainable for various reasons: mostly, in cinema, because of extreme poverty, but also—as in this case—because of a social norm or restriction that imposes fasting. Sunil Dutt’s Ejaz is a revolutionary poet who scoffs at tradition and mocks strictures. Like the fasts of Ramzan. But openly flouting the roza is too much even for Ejaz, so he sneaks off to the doli/hawadaan when no-one is around, and steals a plate of halwa-puri. He isn’t able to eat much—his younger sister Qauser (Nazima) finds him out and tries to appeal to his better self—but two morsels, big ones at that, are eaten.
4. Preetam sits down to rice and talks of delicacies (Professor, 1962): Food, as in the example from Ghazal, is all the more valued when it is hard to come by—and here, in Professor, the reason for it is more poignant: Preetam (Shammi Kapoor) despite being educated, and despite trying very hard, is still unemployed. His mother (Protima Devi) realizes (like any good Hindi film mum) that his unemployment—and their subsequent poverty—is not his fault, and so tries to hide the truth, that they’re down to their last few grains of rice. That’s all she’s been able to cook, and it’s not even enough for one person, really. When Preetam asks his mother why she isn’t eating, she makes an excuse—the neighbour’s child had his mundan (ritual head-shaving) and she ended up eating so many laddoos, she couldn’t possibly eat any more.
And Preetam, recognizing a white lie when he hears one, counters it with one of his own. Professor Sahib, his former teacher, whom he’s been visiting in an attempt to get a job, fed him really well today. Rasgullas, chamcham, sev-gaathia: he’s so stuffed, he couldn’t possibly eat anything more. So Ma had better share. Sadly, in the ensuing affectionate tussle, Ma’s consumptive cough (which she’s also been hiding from her son) comes on—and it helps give the story the necessary push ahead.
5. Johnny discusses apples while Julie eats biscuits and pakoras (Mr & Mrs 55, 1955): Mr & Mrs 55 was one of those rare films where the secondary pair had a romance with enough cuteness and charm to make for an adorable little film of their own. Johnny (Johnny Walker) is a photographer with a newspaper; a colleague, a ‘steno-typist’ (as they were called) is Julie (Yasmin), whom Johnny falls for the very first time he sees her. And when he happens to run into Julie at a local café (is that an Irani café? Bambaiwallahs, any help?), he sits down and offers to pay for all that she’s eaten and all that she’s going to eat.
Then, while Julie first finishes a biscuit and starts off on a pakora, Johnny starts talking about apples. Kashmir apples, to be precise. Which have dimples on both sides. This man is an accomplished flirt; by the time he’s finished talking, the girl is already smiling, thoroughly charmed.
6. Zamindar Sahib pigs out (Anuradha, 1960): Asit Sen plays a wealthy and gluttonous zamindar in this film: a man so fond of his food that he will not give it up, not for his health. The local doctor, Nirmal (Balraj Sahni) has put Zamindar Sahib on a strict diet, and when this scene opens, it does seem that Zamindar Sahib is sticking conscientiously to it. His guest (Bhudo Advani) is being told how Zamindar Sahib hasn’t eaten even a grain of rice in this last week—and in the middle of this admission, in comes a devoted servant, bearing a platter of samosas, gulabjamuns and imartis. Zamindar Sahib jumps at the goodies, his diet (if it ever was being followed) forgotten. He waxes eloquent about the glory of each of the goodies, he stuffs himself silly—and is interrupted by the arrival of Nirmal himself. Some subterfuge helps at first, but it ends in embarrassment for Zamindar Sahib.
7. Raja tucks into fry dal and more (Patanga, 1949): Raja (Yaqub), a traffic policeman, finds himself suspended after gross inattention on his part results in a bad pile-up. Wandering hungrily through the streets and with no money to buy himself a meal, he finds himself outside a restaurant and sees an interesting (and inspiring) scene. A man (Gope), who’s just eaten a full meal without having a naya paise to pay for it, is thrown out onto the street by the waiters. He can handle being thrown out, decides Raja, as long as he has a full stomach. So he goes in and sets about ordering food. What do they have on the menu? The waiter rattles off a list of vegetables (Raja scoffs at the mention of kaddu—pumpkin—saying that they eat kaddu at home; why would one go to a restaurant to eat kaddu?). He also asks what ‘fry dal’ is, and is very amused to discover that it’s nothing but tali hui dal—the British have gone but they’ve left their language behind, he chuckles.
So he orders three of everything, and tucks in nonchalantly, cribbing about the lack of ghee on the rotis, but finishing off the meal, every last morsel of it. Including the fry dal.
8. Bonding over coffee (Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957): Restaurants appear in Hindi cinema fairly frequently—in various avatars. As part of clubs, with people watching cabaret performances. As shacks. As places where a man takes a woman hoping to impress her. Few eateries, however, play as important a role in a film as the one in Dekh Kabira Roya. This is a plain, no-frills restaurant, but very busy; and this is where the three heroes of the film first meet—a painter, a writer and a singer who quickly become good friends.
From being able to afford only plain water, they progress quickly to coffee—and each man has his own preference: hot coffee, cold coffee, black coffee. Throughout the film, the restaurant becomes their common haunt, and the waiter who always attends to them, played by Sundar, becomes their friend and confidant. So much so that when the respective lady-loves of the three men find themselves in a quandary and reduced to singing ‘sad songs’, this is where they come. They order coffee—black, hot, cold. And listen to the sage advice offered by the waiter, who solves their romantic entanglements. Not much coffee-drinking is actually shown through Dekh Kabira Roya, but the café and its coffee are an integral part of this delightful little comedy.
9. A cake as a lethal weapon (Intaquam, 1969): Cakes are not exactly ubiquitous in Hindi cinema, but if there’s a birthday party anywhere in the story (and not a very ‘Indian’ one, where the sweet is kheer or laddoos) you can pretty much expect cake. Something with lots of icing, ceremoniously cut by a smiling hero or heroine while friends and family gather around and chorus “Happy budday to you!”—and someone proceeds to sing a song, preferably either at a piano or accompanied by someone at a piano. The cake is forgotten.
There are some instances, though, where a cake is important. For me, this somewhat idiotic and convoluted attempt at revenge, using a cake, is memorable simply because of its looniness.
Sadhana’s character, Rita, has wreaked havoc on the plans of a gang of villains, and they decide to have their revenge—not by killing her, as one would have expected for a dastardly lot like this, but by disfiguring her. Rita is going to be cutting a fancy, icing-laden cake at a grand party in the club she owns, and the gang manages to replace it with one of their own—a fake cake, the interior of its lower tier hollowed out so that it can house a balloon filled with acid. The idea being that an unsuspecting Rita, cutting into the cake, will puncture the balloon and the acid will splash up into Rita’s face, ruining it forever. Macabre.
10. Enmity flourishes over balushahi (Ek Hi Raasta, 1956): Barring the instance of the lethal cake in Intaquam, I can’t think of too many other memorable scenes where food and crime are closely linked together. But there’s this scene, in Ek Hi Raasta, where two former crooks meet in a street and end up vowing to have their revenge. Bihari (Jeevan) was once involved in some very corrupt deals along with an accomplice, a truck driver. Thanks to the conscientious whistle-blowing Amar (Sunil Dutt) Bihari and his crony are found out and lose their jobs. Bihari ends up taking to the work of his forefathers: going about with a khomcha, a portable wicker basket-cum-carrying case, selling sweets: balushahi, sohan halwa, motichoor ke laddoo, naankhatai.
One day, wandering about selling his sweets, he meets up with his old accomplice, Pahalwaan, and who should come along but Amar. In the process a fight breaks out, with Pahalwaan and Amar wallowing in the mud and nearly knocking over the khomcha. Not a grand fight, but muddy enough, and what always stands out for me is the mithai-laden khomcha.
So that’s my list. Ten food scenes, not necessarily very good scenes, but memorable scenes. I didn’t have to go trawling through old films to look for these scenes: these scenes popped up by themselves in my mind. How many others can you add to the list?