HerStory: The Goddess And The Storm In The Kitchen

HerStory: The Goddess And The Storm In The Kitchen

Annapoorani tries to cram too much ammunition to ‘reform’ the community of conservatives

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, January 25, 2024, 08:37 PM IST
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Nayanthara in Annapoorani | File Photo

The last few days have seen a needless controversy over the film Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food. After protests over Hindu sentiments being hurt, it has been taken down from Netflix, and the lead actress Nayanthara and the director Nilesh Krishnaa have been made to apologise. All this after the film was released in the theatres without any fuss. So those who missed it when it was streaming might wonder what it is about the film that so upset the conservatives.

It is a very ordinary film with a typical winning-against-all-odds plot, and might have just vanished without a ripple if it weren’t for the protests and the capitulation by the producers and the OTT platform. There may be two factors to it: one could be that Nayanthara’s name in the credits is prefixed by “Lady Superstar” — and that implies crashing into an area reserved for men, so she has to be brought down a notch or two. There have been female superstars in the past in the Tamil industry, but current films have shown that a macho culture is returning to movies from the South.

The other is a line used in the film: “Food is culture.” And the film dared to step into this bastion of orthodoxy — the kitchen, the space that is run by women of the household but controlled by the rules made by men.

Annapoorani is the daughter of Rangarajan (Achyuth Kumar), a deeply religious man, who spurned well paid jobs to live in the temple town of Srirangam, where he cooks the food served as prasad to the devotees. The Brahmin family is strictly vegetarian, and observes the old customs like the woman not entering the kitchen while menstruating.

Rangarajan is progressive in every other way when it comes to Annapoorani, who since childhood has been fond of cooking and has an enhanced sense of taste. After watching celebrity chef Anand Sundarajan (Sathyaraj) on TV, Poorani aspires to be a chef too — India’s best — which is where her father draws the line. She cannot join a hotel management course and take up a profession that would require her to cook meat. It is his faith, his reputation and the purity required of his vocation that is threatened.

The way Nayanthara is made to play Poorani, she is always seen a looking nervous, her thickly kohled eyes wide with anxiety, and also much too deferential towards the opinion of men, whether it is her father, or a classmate Farhaan (Jai) who exhorts her to enrol for hotel management. He is remarkably well versed in Hindu mythology, and gives her examples of non-vegetarian deities (he names Ram which has angered conservatives, who seem to have ignored all the other examples), about which Poorani brought up in a Hindu Brahmin household is clueless.

To soften the problem of a Muslim suitor, earlier in the film Rangarajan is shown to narrate to a bunch of tourists the story (with animated visuals) of how a portrait of the Muslim princess Bibi Thulukka Nachiyar happens to be in Lord Sriranga’s temple.

Farhaan convinces her that her religious beliefs should not come in the way of her passion, and she secretly joins the hotel management course, pretending to her father that she has enrolled for an MBA. She is the only female student in the classroom — which is odd when there are plenty of female chefs in the country now. After reluctantly learning to cut a chicken, she realises that she cannot properly cook non-vegetarian food, unless she also eats it. With the help of Farhaan and other classmates, she soon turns into a raging carnivore.

When the father finds out, she is forced to drop out of college and her marriage is fixed to a suitable groom of the same caste. Farhaan appears on her wedding day, with her bags packed, to ask her to run away to Chennai and pursue her dream of becoming a chef in a hotel.

Now comes the scene that is probably the only honest one in a film that is otherwise deliberately provocative considering the tinderbox times we are living in. As the wedding rituals are underway, her grandmother catches her with Farhaan and encourages her to escape. As a young woman, she was not permitted to follow her passion for dance. As a widow in a “faded sari” she likens herself to a “forgotten lunch box in the attic.” The old woman says she gained nothing by clinging to orthodoxy and tradition. “I am a reflection of your future,” she tells a bewildered Poorani. She also quite rightly predicts that society will change its attitude depending on whether she succeeds or fails. “If you keep thinking of society, you won’t keep your identity.”

Poorani lands up in Chennai, and through a series of contrivances impresses her childhood hero Chef Anand (with a dish just like his mother made it!) and gets her dream job in his five-star hotel— the first woman in that kitchen — where, in a hilariously corny sequence, she impresses the French President with her South Indian cuisine, as he turns up her nose at the French dishes the other chefs have served. Chef Anand's jealous son Ashwin (Karthik Kumar) engineers an explosion in the kitchen that leads to the loss of her taste buds, without which her skill as a chef would be compromised.

This time it is her father who demands that she succeed and wipe out the humiliation he suffered in the town because of her. The highest point of Poorani’s climb — helpfully illustrated with an animated girl climbing a series of mountains — is the cooking contest that results in culinary stardom and a job at an international seven star hotel.

All her supporters want her to win not just for herself but to break walls for other women. As Chef Anand says, if women can cook at home, why can’t they be chefs? A valid question, even if it comes a little late in the day — this wall has already been breached by women a while back. There is a scandal about her competing without a sense of taste, and she shames the committee of chefs by asking if they object to a girl with a disability or a girl per se?

Annapoorani tries to cram too much ammunition to “reform” the community of conservatives, not just rid them of their aversion to non-veg food, but also “accept” Muslims into the Brahmin fold. It goes without saying that gender equality, inclusivity and shedding of dogma are goals that the country and the world needs today. However, Nilesh Krishnaa could have anticipated the problems that could arise with the scene of Poorani performing namaaz before cooking a perfect biryani and winning the show. So now, a mediocre film about a woman succeeding in a man’s world becomes a cause celebre!

In the end, the film also redirects a woman’s ambition into social work. Annapoorani does not take up that coveted seven-star job; she starts training girls to cook and get into the culinary profession. Nobody would expect a man to suddenly turn into a messiah for the underprivileged, but a woman has to know her place.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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