In a quietly beautiful scene in Bharathiraja’s classic tragedy Muthal Mariyathai (1985), we see vignettes of what it is to fall in love when Malaichami (Sivaji Ganesan) and Kuyil (Radha) share a pot of meen kulambu and rice as rains pound on their hut. As Sivaji polishes the comforting silken curry — something that he doesn’t get at home — Radha watches him speechless, falling in love just a little more with the married man in front of him with every extra helping she pours onto his plate. While theirs is a love (a forbidden romance on account of their differences) that is developed over small gestures throughout the film, it is through a simple hot meal that Bharathiraja chooses to establish their newfound intimacy.
Food has always held somewhat of a powerful role in cinema, ever since the silent era — even if it was treated as movie extras during the time, wrote American author Steve Zimmerman in his book ‘Food In The Movies’ about the emergence of the food films genre. But it was in the 1980s that something remarkable happened in theatres across the country, according to Zimmerman. “The film industry, at long last, discovered the visual and aesthetic appeal of food, glorious food, and began to make movies in which food played a leading role, thus giving birth to a new genre: food films.” We’ve had our own share of satiating food films closer home in the south such as Ustaad Hotel (2012), Un Samayal Arayil (2014), and most recently, Nayanthara’s Annaporani, leading the pack. But even if we keep such genre films aside, food has still managed to play an important cinematic ingredient — through a narrative plot, a metaphor or sometimes even a strong political statement (who can forget the look on Arjun’s face when Rene asks him if he’d like some beef in Natchathiram Nagargiradhu) — especially in Tamil movies.
Romantic or platonic, food has often been the biggest placeholder for intimacy in our films. Bharathiraja doesn’t just show us a scene of Malaichami and Kuyil bashfully catching fish by her boat, but he goes a step further and deems it important to let them share a meal together in Muthal Mariyathai. “Un kai pakkuvatha saapadambodhu, enga aatha nyabagam vardhu,” the stoic Sivaji tells her, showing Radha and us a rare glimpse of his guards being down, as is common with anyone who is eating. In Kaaka Muttai (2014), this intimacy comes in a different form — it is through the hands of that one person in all our lives, who perennially overfeeds us numerous doses of love and food: the grandmother.
When the playground near a slum regiment in Chennai falls prey to gentrification and turns into a pizza joint, two brothers peer yearningly into their glass windows, hoping to one day save enough money to get a bite of the dough pockets. But their paati has an idea. She sits them down and tries to work a pizza in her tiny matchbox kitchen, squinting at the pamphlet to figure out what goes on the dish. She gives a proud toothless grin and flips the dosa onto a plate. While this isn’t any bit the cheezy pizza they’re after, it is still the taste they ironically crave when they actually get the chance to eat a pizza finally. The aaya’s dosa here represents the comfort that we often find ourselves going back to with food. The upma that a daughter lovingly puts together with some leftovers for her father in Sooryavamsam, managed to evoke the same feeling. The only difference is that dosa’s humbler cousin, idly takes the limelight here.
Food, in films, is also one of the easiest ways to show the differences in upbringing and circumstances. When Chiyaan (Vikram) stops fresher Abithakuchalaambal to rag her in Bala’s Sethu (1999), the first thing he asks for is her dabba. “Mutta meen edhuvum illa (Don’t you have eggs or fish?)” he asks her, even as he gobbles up her curd rice. The gap between their distinct star-crossed worlds is beautifully established in the scene. When he sees her next, she readily pulls out a fried snack even before he asks. Chiyaan grins and plops a few more into his shirt pocket, losing his heart in the process.
In Madhumita Sundararaman’s KD (2019), Karuppu Durai, who escapes death (or honour killing to be specific) by an inch, is the biggest ambassador for biryani (a tie with Karthi’s Dilli in Kaithi (2019) to put things into perspective) in this list. “If you write biryani on a piece of paper, he’ll eat it,” the owner of his favourite biryani shop says. He dreams of his daughter Selvi’s biryani while in a coma (“It’s so tasty that it can even bring a dead man alive,” he says), and even uses biryani as a pilaiyar suzhi to begin his bucket list! Madhumitha uses the dish here to go beyond just his finger-licking reviews of the biryani for comedic delight. It is a device that unwittingly intertwines his paths with the street-smart Kutti, and it is also the entity that brings him back home.
Food is oftentimes an excellent portend for destiny to play its game. The first time we see Kameshwara (Kamal Haasan), a conventional Brahmin caterer’s son in Micheal Madana Kama Rajan (1990), it is when a stack of karuvadu (dried fish) quite literally falls on him from the sky, in a moment of divine intervention. The “meen'' that falls into his infamous Mani Iyer sambar is comedic gold, but the dried fish here also represents the collision of his doppelganger Raju’s blithe world with his.
If it was the fish in Singeetham Sreenivasa Rao’s delightful comedy, it is the parotta and nalli curry that unites Vikram with Vedha’s ostentatious universe in Vikram Vedha (2017). In what is the second most famous parotta scene in Tamil cinema (closely behind Soori’s stint with the flaky flatbread in Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu (2009)), Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi) is looking to play up his brother’s newfound love for money laundering to his boss Chetta. And how does he choose to grovel? He brings in a plate of mutton curry and parotta and teaches him the art of devouring the dish. “Ipo sollu epdi irukudhunu,” he asks. The “adipoli '' in Chetta’s response is not just for the parotta, but also a yes from his side to invest. And just like that, a trust is formed.
Writing about the experiments of cutting-edge American directors in the 70s, Zimmerman goes on to elaborate on Coppola’s knack for including food in his films. “For Coppola, this meant, among other innovations, corporating food into his movies as a cinematic ingredient to enhance his story and enrich his characters, which had the unintended effect of helping set the table for the arrival of food films,” he wrote in his paper ‘Food in Films: A Star is Born’, equating the lasagna in The Godfather (1972) with the Corleone family’s secretive dangerous world.
Similar such experiments of Tamil cinema’s modern auteurs have been impressive, no less. In Kaithi, the biryani that Dilli belts with a handcuff in one hand is symbolic of his newfound freedom. We hear Sam CS’s iconic beat in the background, but we’re also played the sounds of Dilli’s memory at the jail waiting in line for food. Using food to eliminate dialogue is at its best display in Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (2022), where Muthu’s first encounter with parotta at the Essaki eatery is through violent kneading of the dough. He warily catches a glimpse of a man aggressively kneading the parotta. He already knows that the kneading is only a metaphor for all the whacking that goes on behind the kitchen. And of course, in the next few scenes, we see a man punching another man at the very spot he was punching the dough.
But perhaps one of the most poignant yet restrained depictions of food to tell a quiet train of thought can be found in Manikandan’s Kadaisi Vivasayi (2021). A troubled Ramaiah (Vijay Sethupathi) finally comes home to see his dad following an arduous trek. Rocked by tragedy, Ramaiah carries the ghost of his past and his dead lover wherever he goes. He knows what people are thinking every time they stare at him, but at home, he finds food and comfort. Nallandi (his father, an ageing farmer) nods along to all of his silly stories as he places a pot of poondu kulambu and appalam on the floor. There are not two plates, but three — for Ramaiah, his dead lover, and himself. The third plate here soundlessly signifies an unconditional love for a child and all that he believes that extends beyond logic. Sometimes a parent’s own weird way of saying “I love you” can be through some simple poondu kulambu.