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Food and Cinema: Subliminal Aesthetics.



There are many reasons why a movie or a literary work deeply touches our minds. Many of these reasons are subjective. But I am talking about the seemingly insignificant 'emotional-generators' that are deliberately or inadvertently added to a movie. Sex in cinema is an ancient concept that can be placed in this category. However, its purpose is often quite obvious. Let's talk about a more indirect application – when we see a character enjoying a mouth-watering dish in a movie, even if the movie is not good, our subconscious mind is likely to transfer the same affection we have for that food to that scene. There is an unproven argument that Stanley Kubrick, inspired by the controversial subliminal advertising techniques of Coca-Cola at that time, used 'subliminal erotica' in "The Shining." The mention of food in Basheer's literature has repeatedly compelled me to revisit those stories. (In the story "Manthrikapoocha," there is a two-page-long recipe for biryani).


"Now, Forager" was a small, good movie with a parade of such elements. Perhaps because I love food and photography – there is a scene where Lucien finds roots, mushrooms, and leaves in the forest, scrambles them with wild hen eggs in a pan, and eats. It is executed with excellent macro shots and even better editing – I have watched that scene multiple times. Watching that movie feels like enjoying a comforting meal. The Japanese film "Tampopo" begins with a prologue on how to savour noodle soup!


I first noticed this phenomenon in Basheer's stories. In the story "Manthrikapoocha," there is a scene where Basheer and the Gypsy cook rice and masala on an outdoor stove and eat together. Just reading those words made my mouth water for the first time. Both sexuality and food create almost the same type of neural waves in our brains. That is, references to these will naturally attract us. This is used in the arts – but often, it is confined to sex. The purpose of a scantily clad actress in a movie is to attract more viewers to that movie. I have wondered why this same psychology cannot be applied to food. Later, when I started watching foreign films, I realized that they often use food in this way more than sex. Southeast Asian films often feature the presence of food in many scenes. Some are sublime, while others are in-your-face. Recently, in Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," a prominent character was Meat Stew. There are other examples – Turin Horse (Potato), The Host (Octopus Tentacles), LOTR (Lembas Bread), The Godfather (Spaghetti and Meatballs), Rice Rhapsody (Duck), Now Forager (Omelet), House of Cards (Ribs), and so on.


In Indian Cinema that I know, Adoor Gopalakrishnan is the only filmmaker who has used food well. In "Naalu Pennungal," there is Nandu’s meal, and in "Elippathayam," Karamana’s dinner. I am not mentioning films where food is used for humor (For example: "Gajakesariyogam"). Ironically, there is not even a memorable instance in the loudly publicized 'food films' we have!


The TV show "Hannibal" masterfully presents food (mind you, it is human meat) visually pleasing and artfully, blurring the lines between horror and haute cuisine. The series, with its sophisticated cinematography and meticulous food styling, transforms grotesque meals into culinary masterpieces that captivate and disturb viewers which is the main intention of the narrative. Each dish, often prepared by the titular character Hannibal Lecter, is crafted with such elegance and aesthetic precision that it challenges the audience's moral compass. This juxtaposition intensifies the show's psychological impact, leaving a lasting impression of eerieness.


Another show "The Bear" uses food to create tension and tell the story. Set in a busy kitchen, it shows the hectic life of a struggling restaurant. Food preparation and presentation are key to the plot, symbolizing the characters' struggles and goals. The fast scenes of chopping, cooking, and plating reflect the characters' inner conflicts. Each dish and order represents their battles with the past, relationships, and dreams. The constant pressure of the kitchen and the need to meet customer expectations add to the tension, making food a central part of the drama— not just as content but as its visceral form.

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