In Marathi film Gulabjaam, a delectable journey of local cuisine explores the ties between food and memory-Entertainment News , Firstpost (2022)

"Good food is like music you can taste, colour you can smell." Ratatouille gets us. In this series 'Food for Film,' we pick food films/shows that make our mouths water and our souls richer.

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One of the earliest memories of my childhood is that of languorous summer evenings spent playing made-up games on the veranda of my grandmother’s house as a purple grey dusk settled on the gulmohar in the park facing her home, and flocks of birds returned to roost on the foliage after a day’s work.

On such evenings, the soft and comforting aroma of the freshly cooked ambemohar (mango blossom) rice wafted towards me from my grandmother’s kitchen, followed by her gentle voice that beckoned me indoors, asking me to wash my hands and feet before I sat down to dinner.

With her soft fingers, my grandmother proceeded to mix the aromatic rice with varan (dal), adding to it an indulgent amount of tup (ghee), a pinch of salt, and a dash of lime juice. She popped the first morsel of the warm varan bhat (dal rice) into my mouth for a taste, and only then set in front of me a plate full of the simplest and most joyful dinner.

Food is a layered experience of flavours — sour and spicy, umami and sweet, hot and tangy — but so much of the time, food is quite simply, a memory. Today, the gulmohar is gone, the birds have disappeared too, and in the place of my grandmother’s house stands a tall apartment building. But what has remained with me is the sepia-tinted imprint of my little frame gorging on a homecooked, nourishing meal, prepared with warmth and love.

Inevitably then, when the Marathi film Gulabjaam, directed by Sachin Kundalkar, invokes the nostalgia of relishing such local Marathi food, I am taken back in time to my childhood, and to a feeling of being home. The 2018 film is a culinary ode to blissful food memories; it is a celebration of not only of the unassuming yet delicious Maharashtrian cuisine but also the sheer happiness of eating this homecooked food packed with flavour.

Gulabjaam tells the story of Aditya (Siddharth Chandekar), a quintessential Marathi expat who quits his banking job in London – unbeknownst to his family and his fiancée – to pursue his ultimate culinary dream of opening a restaurant in London that serves authentic Maharashtrian cuisine. He returns to the charming alleyways and idyllic streets of old Pune in search of a chef who would teach him how to cook, and stumbles upon one when the taste of a gulabjaam in his roommate’s tiffin takes him back to his childhood.

The cook, he finds out, is the reclusive Radha (Sonali Kulkarni), who runs a small ‘dabba service’ from her home, and quite contrary to the sweetness of her gulabjaams,is rather sharp-tongued and severe, and unwilling to take Aditya on as an apprentice. After a series of unspectacular arguments, she gives in. What unravel are the sweet, salty, and bitter tastes of the protagonists’ lives and the food they cook along the way.

An utterly lip-smacking journey of regional cuisine, Gulabjaam is a warm insight into cooking as a skill that transcends the adding of one ingredient to another to perfect a recipe. In Radha’s sharp but perceptive lessons to her protégé are apparent the missives of connecting with local ingredients, respecting fresh produce, and pouring in a little bit of one’s own emotions into the dish being prepared. Whether you’re cooking for one person or more, she remarks very early on, it requires the same kind of commitment and devotion to the ingredients.

Her love for food comes through in her reflections about her own dabba service as well, and she can’t help but take pride in the empty tiffin boxes that return every single evening, bearing shining evidence of her customers having enjoyed their lunch.

I find myself returning to Gulabjaam repeatedly with this identical feeling of pride for the Marathi cuisine I grew up eating. That it also serves as a motivation to cook notwithstanding, through Radha and Aditya’s divergent but interlinked stories, what Gulabjaam achieves is the feeling of being closer to one’s roots. To watch the protagonists prepare delectable traditional recipes – everything from puranpolis to kanda bhaji to poha papad – is almost like sharing this delightful bond with the characters, which is forged with foods that are as central to their lives as mine.

During the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing, the film’s rather prescient insistence on niguti (meticulousness) while cooking took on a new meaning for me. In the earliest weeks of the pandemic, many a grandmothers’ dusty notebooks were reclaimed from forgotten shelves, and hours were spent poring over the directions and ‘secret tips’ to make crispy kothimbir vadis, to knead the perfect dough for fluffy, caramelised puris, to learn the technique of rolling out chaklis, and to attempt the knuckle-cramping task of pleating the perfect ukdiche modak! What these tips and tricks in fact symbolised was the diligence, intelligence, and ingenuity of the bonafide sugran (a proficient home-cook), who could turn every day food into a memorable feast.

The film is a shoutout to each of these traditional recipes so that even as the two cooks put a fine dine spin on wholesome Marathi food with their project Dial-a-Chef – where chaklis and kadbolis are plated on a bed of banana leaves – they continue to connect their customers, young and old, with their shared heritage through crunchy snacks and sumptuous meals.

Gulabjaam is about recognising this deliciousness and balance of traditional recipes: of modak teeming with tup or the traditional feast of hot puris and shrikhanda or the spicy misal pav that makes one salivate. But to my mind, the film is appealing more so because it transforms the purported every day drudgery of kitchen work into an emotional experience of cooking and eating that ought to be appreciated and savoured.

Moreover, somewhere in between perfecting the subtle flavours of the suralichi vadi and the generous sweetness of besan ladoos, the film also becomes a narrative of coming home and simultaneously moving on, all the while food being the common ingredient that ties the past to the present.

As Radha’s story unfolds, we begin to understand the contours of her secluded existence, how after a crushing trauma, food rebuilds her existence, and how her culinary art remains the only memory of her earlier, vibrant life.

Yet, Radha and Aditya’s interactions, despite the more sombre realities of their life, take on a rather comic, even satirical tone that hardly downplays the various other efforts that go into cooking. Radha often rebukes her disciple for his childish insistence on entering the kitchen, and instead sets him to the more tedious tasks of washing utensils, sorting vegetables, and spreading dry red chillies on the roof to dry. With each of these exchanges, I learn anew that preparing elaborate feasts is more than just pottering about the kitchen mixing spices. Cooking is hard work, cleaning up afterwards, harder still.

Nevertheless, the visual treat of Radha serving a traditional feast of shrikhanda-puri,coupled with aloo subzi and varan bhat,and assortments of chutney, loncha (pickle), and papad, wakes my taste buds up every time I watch the film: they’re alert and hungry at the mere thought of dipping those hot puris into the sweet shrikhanda, with a bit of tangy pickle placed on the tongue for just the right balance, and the varan bhat next, mixed with my hands like my grandmother would, all of which is then washed down with refreshing buttermilk.

Read more from the Food for Film series here.

Aishwarya Sahasrabuddhe writes about art, culture, books, and entertainment. Currently, she has returned to school to study the intersections between gender, culture, and development.

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