How Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri transport me back to dining table, food escapades of my Bengali home
‘Interestingly, Piku is obsessed with food in a way that’s familiar to all upper-class Bengalis, but the obsession manifests through the constant talk of shit and diseases, which also, very honestly, is quite familiar to this group of people.’
“Good food is like music you can taste, color 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.
There’s a scene in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku  when she’s back in her ancestral home in Kolkata with the whole family, and there’s a family reunion dinner. There’s food, there’s laughter, and there’s music. The song playing is from a 2015 Bengali movie, Open Tee Bioscope— ‘Pagla Khabi ki?’ [What will you eat, you crazy person?].
The song fits perfectly in the film, which is obsessed with food — its intake and excretion, but more importantly, perhaps, the song is an excellent comment on Bengali love for food, their passion for it, and the time they spend appreciating it. My boyfriend always picks this song to describe me because I’m constantly concerned about what to eat at the next meal, and because I spend hours deciding what to order. Food is quite the obsession for me, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I love Piku so much: because it shares this obsession.
Very few movies make me as food-sick as Piku. Whether it is the feasts they serve in their homes [luchi, begun bhaaja, mangsho, fish fry, ice cream] or the kochuri and jilipi Bhaskor [Amitabh Bachchan] gets while cycling around Kolkata, the close-up of the roll Piku [Deepika Padukone] and Rana [Irrfan Khan] eat, or even the alu paratha in the dhaba on one of their stops on the highway. Food, especially Bengali food, is rarely shown with so much love in Hindi movies.
Interestingly, Piku is obsessed with food in a way that’s familiar to all upper-class Bengalis, but the obsession manifests through the constant talk of shit and diseases, which also, very honestly, is quite familiar to this group of people.
So the butter on the alu paratha is frowned upon. The ghee is looked upon favourably because it might help “motion.” And of course, the salt is hidden multiple times to protect Bhaskor’s rising blood pressure levels.
When I left Kolkata to study in Delhi, I missed food as much as I missed home itself. Every time someone we knew was travelling from Kolkata to Delhi, my parents made it a point to send snacks: nimki, pastries from Kookie Jar and Cakes, and a bottle of Jharna Ghee. The Jharna Ghee was supposed to comfort me when the PG served the worst food. Hot rice and a dollop of ghee are all you need to satisfy your hunger and your homesickness, I had been taught, but it is only when I moved away from home that I realised how true it is. Bhaskor adds ghee to his khichuri in his Delhi bungalow, like we’re all taught to do at home. We’re shown the bottle of Jharna ghee that he’s using, which has probably been brought from Kolkata.
The family’s relationship with food is one I can identify with. In my home too, we’d be frowned at if we arrived with packets of roadside kochuri and radhaballabhi, but after the initial admonishment, the whole family would sit and enjoy it, and spend a long time analysing the quality of the food. Fish fry would be made on all special occasions, and I can imagine Bhaskor refusing to eat it if it was made with basa and not the favourite, Bhetki.
Another movie that reminds me of this obsession with food is Aranyer Din Ratri . This classic Satyajit Ray film involves four young men on holiday. So naturally, they constantly want exciting food. Their meals form an integral part of the story. As soon as they reach the forest bungalow [where they don’t have a reservation, but that’s another sub-plot], they find out the caretaker’s wife is sick, and can’t cook for them as she usually does for the guests. The caretaker agrees to fill in with reluctance, and it is decided that Lokha, one of the village boys, will get the ingredients from the market.
The boys want the comforts of the city in the jungle, even as they set out to admire the peace and quiet of the place. Sanjoy wants his coffee, Shekhar his eggs. On their first morning there, the caretaker serves them tea. There’s nothing to accompany the tea though, and from their reaction, you’d think something catastrophic had occurred.
In Aranyer Din Ratri, they talk about food constantly, and food is admired in its absence. When they’re invited for breakfast with the Tripathi family, the first thing Shekhar asks is, “Dim khawaben toh?” [You will feed us eggs, right?]. Food is a great way for the boys to make friends with the family: whether it is breakfast [that they eventually don’t wake up in time for], or the cutlets at the picnic.
Much like the boys, food was [and remains] an obsession for me when I travel. As a kid, my family and I often went on long drives on Sundays, and at the end of exam-season. We’d drive to the outskirts of Kolkata, often to some village or town that no one had really heard of. Sometimes, it was because my dad had heard of a mishti’r dokan on the radio that he wanted to try; another time because the area was famous for its fresh fish. As I grew up, the lines between travel and food became blurred in my head. Going to new places meant excellent food. Even now, my closest friends are people as obsessed with food as I am, and I can totally imagine the chaos at our Airbnb if there was nothing to accompany tea on the first morning.
There are, of course, many things I miss about Kolkata generally and specifically about home. But what I miss the most [even more than the food itself, I think] is the constant talk of food. I miss the overpowering role that food plays in our lives. I miss discussing the quality of the fish available in the market, and the food served at a wedding. I miss the fact that no one bats an eye if you’re talking about Digene and Imodium at the dining table itself. These movies, while ostensibly not about the food itself, do a great job of showing this obsession.
Read more from the series here.
Shreemayee Das is a writer and a stand-up comedian. She writes mostly on cinema and culture. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @weepli.