There’s an extra bit of visual detailing in Jawan (2023) that most of us have been conditioned to overlook. It happens during a phone call in which Sanya Malhotra’s Dr. Eeram dials her boss in desperation. With an urgent need to replenish the stock of oxygen cylinders in her hospital to save a group of children, she begs the health secretary for help. On Dr. Eeram’s side of the call is chaos as hospital staff do what they can to keep the children alive. In complete contrast is the casual dinner table setting at the health secretary’s home. Showing no signs of remorse, we see the man bite into a piece of chicken, ignoring the pandemonium on the other side of the line. One can argue that a Christian character named George may well be eating chicken for dinner, but in a film with dozens of characters and food scenes, it is only the bad guy who gets a shot of meat.
This is akin to how there are multiple shots of fruits, vegetables, mithai and prashad when Sholay (1975) introduces us to characters on Thakur’s side. But in the only shot of meat, you see eight massive blobs of flesh over a fire as a worried-looking Gabbar rests behind. Similar examples go into the hundreds, especially with reference to Hindi movies. In Anil Kapoor’s Mr India (1987), he uses his invisibility to steal a massive non-vegetarian feast from an annoying, hoighty-toighty couple. The scene begins with the rich dude pointing at the spread, stating, “See this table and tell me there’s a food shortage in India,” and it ends with Mr India giving it to a family of hungry, distraught Indians, flexing his superhero muscle.
In Rangeela, Aamir Khan’s Munna orders bheja fry at a fancy restaurant to underline his “taporiness” and in Kamal Dhammal Malamaal, we see Nana Patekar finishing an entire chicken for his gluttony to be highlighted. In most cases, meat is either used to make the bad guy appear ruthless or as a motif to convey inequality, as though meat is the food of the rich. But how really did our movies come to associate meat-eating with negativity?
Gabbar Singh is hardly the first meat-eater in our movies. This bit of imagery has been a part of our subconscious, even before most of us started to watch movies. An example of this can be found even in the way Asuras or rakshasas are introduced in comics such as Amar Chitra Katha or Tinkle. While food eaten by fairer characters are often kept purposefully vague or colourless, the darker asuras can be seen biting into large quantities of chicken, with the meat coloured bright red or pink.
National Award-winning filmmaker G Vasanthabalan acknowledges this filmmaking cliche, admitting to have repurposed this idea himself. In his most recent Aneethi, an inconsiderate character can be seen eating tandoori chicken when he’s refusing to send money to help a dying friend. Interestingly, he feels these are tricks one uses to convey the mindset of characters with little screen time. He says, “A character drinking milk in a tea shop suggests he is out of money. The idea is to take the least amount of screen time to say something striking. Earlier in films, a bottle of poison would literally have “POISON” written on it. But now the grammar has changed to the point where you can say it's poison with the way the actor looks at it, with fear and hesitation. We might not agree with these cliches, but as filmmakers, we need them because audiences are primed to take away meaning from them.”
It is the economy of these images that makes them useful. “In my film Angadi Theru, I was able to create a compelling villain without resorting to any cliche. He doesn’t drink, smoke cigarettes or womanise. He doesn’t eat meat either. But because the film revolves around him, you get the time to micro-detail, making that character appear real and new. When you can’t, you resort to cliches like how MN Nambiar, the great Tamil villain, would invariably be shot in red light, often with cutaways to a lion’s head. ”
In Rajinikanth’s blockbuster Jailer, a film with many scenes set around the dining table, we see the Superstar refer to food only when it’s a vegetarian breakfast, that too with a request for his favourite chutney. In scenes revolving around the bad guys, the spread is different. In one scene, a kutti bad guy gets interrogated while he’s finishing his fish-fry meal. As for the biggest villain, his meals are hardly vegetarian with out-of-focus shots of biryani and other dishes.
“There’s a certain symbolic violence we’ve come to associate with meat-eating,” argues food scientist and author Krish Ashok. “In Jawan, the scene with Dr. Eeram (Sanya Malhotra) is meant to invoke memories of what Dr. Kafeel Khan had to go through. Chances are that in reality, Dr.Kafeel Khan may have had no issues with eating meat. One may even argue that the diplomat he had to deal with might also have been a vegetarian, given the geography. But when we see it in the film, the bad guy is non-vegetarian.”
Director Santosh Viswanathan knows a thing or two about movie cliches. In the process of writing and directing the first spoof film in Malayalam, Chirakkodinja Kinavukal, Santosh watched several blockbusters, dozens of times for the parody. In his experience, he feels these images operate on stereotypes and they gradually get better with time. “It’s like how our movies once showed fair guys as decent and dark guys as evil…you do not see much of that anymore. Similarly, cliches are broken when they are called out. You can call it lazy filmmaking, but it’s almost impossible to make a film for the masses without it. Despite making a spoof, I myself repeated cliches when I made my next film.”
Although Krish Ashok agrees that this could be lazy filmmaking, he knows why this bit of visual storytelling has stuck. “Because non-vegetarianism is such a topic of discussion for us, it automatically heightens the nature of a character. When someone is shown to eat meat with their hands, we associate it with him being barbaric or uncivilised. Apart from our own culture, this may even be a Western influence when we assume eating with hands is somehow inferior than with cutlery. An example of this can even be Western media’s judgemental portrayal of Donald Trump for his obsession with KFC chicken.”
It’s understandable that filmmakers reuse patterns and ideas from older films to convey messages but this does not explain how it became a part of the visual lexicon in the first place. In a country with so many non-vegetarians, how did the message become a staple? “It’s the result of a Brahminical gaze,” explains writer, nutritionist Dr.Sylvia Karpagam. “Even today, some of the revered directors come from Savarna backgrounds. Their casteist lens contributed to such images and they eventually became a part of cinematic grammar. They are being reused today even if the filmmaker repurposing them are likely non-vegetarians themselves.”
Dr.Karpagam urges us to think beyond movie history to understand why such prejudices have spilled over cinema. This is what has led to a foreign notion that India is predominantly vegetarian. The conditioning is cultural too, she feels, reminding us of the term “pure” being used to denote the higher quality of vegetarian restaurants. “India is one of the only countries where even health advisories do not prescribe consumption of meat. If one is anaemic, the advice is to eat veggies. In schools, we’ve heard of teachers telling students they cannot concentrate because they eat meat at home. Even data about Indian food consumption patterns is skewed because researchers hail from savarna backgrounds. It is only natural that this conditioning becomes a part of media too.”
She points to the world of advertising where even ads for biryani are propped up with pictures of pulav. “In movies, especially in the South, you rarely see the fair heroine eat chicken. They are portrayed as “purer”. But in the same film, you will see the hero’s best friend, the comedian, eating chicken. It is often a part of the joke too, suggesting that they are somehow inferior, either in class or caste.”
While acknowledging the cliche in the aforementioned scene in Jawan, Dr. Karpagam also points to the progressive steps the film takes. “In Jawan, you also get a scene where fellow prison inmates give their share of eggs and milk to a pregnant Deepika Padukone (Aishwarya Rathore). Beyond the fact that the protein is needed for her character, the film was also able to package that scene with joy and positivity, changing the way one may look at food like egg.”
But when looking back at dozens of such sequences from movies across languages, it is also interesting to note that it is chicken that ended up getting the bad rep. This may have to do with the practical ease with which real chicken meat can be served at shoot locations, compared to any other meat. The chicken drumsticks, even as a visual, lends itself to a more striking image with the possibility of showing a character ripping the meat off the bones. Yet what’s strange is how seafood in general, or fish, is seldom associated with the same kind of negativity. “You cannot rip the meat of fishbones. So as a visual, a person eating fish becomes a delicate act…something that requires patience and sophistication. Given that a large movie-going audience lives on the coastline, fish is as good as a vegetable in many cultures. And because we rarely deal with fish or prawns when its alive, it doesn’t come with the slaughtering effect you’d associate with a chicken or goat.”
But with modern filmmakers taking a stand to rewrite these unwritten rules, food may no longer mean the same. Director Tamizh’s Sethumaan not only addresses prejudices linked to pork meat, he also uses the film to talk about the politics of caste through food. It reverses the gaze on the audience when it frames people from dominant castes looking down on characters eating pork. In Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen, an important scene addressing table manners is brought up when the film’s leads eat chicken. And in Pa.Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, protagonist Kabilan ordering the meat of his choice plays out like an act of defiance. Instead of demonising the hero for eating beef, the film readjusts the gaze, normalising a food order another film would have treated judgmentally. As Dr. Karpagam points out, “Up until now, it was either erasure of meat from popular culture or the negative portrayal of it. With newer filmmakers countering these pre-set notions, the screen too should become realistic reflections of India’s actual food habits.”