Food porn, perhaps, has a more literal rendering in Ninnila Ninnila, with the swoons and sighs after a good meal indistinguishable from a thorough orgasm. There are even tears, five times over the course of the film, after eating something that moves the heart and the stomach. It’s as biological as it is performative, as pleasure giving as it is pleasure seeking.
Ninnila Ninnila, streaming on Zeeplex, is set in the culinary world of London, barring a flashback in Hyderabad. The first we see of Dev (Ashok Selvan), he is pot-bellied, jet lagged, and homesick in a wintry, lonely London apartment. He gets muscle spasms, where he contorts and shakes vigorously. It almost looks like a comedy sketch, his spasms looking more like possessions. There is more to what meets the eye, as the film will tell us.
The last place you’d want him in is your kitchen with expensive crockery and sharp knives, and yet he’s the chef beyond compare. He has moved cities to work under the Michelin Star head chef played by Naseer, who also has a yet-ness about him—he is a head chef but he never cooks, eating only bland cups of industrial oatmeal, and doesn’t taste the food being prepared in his kitchen, for he is able to discern taste from sight; every meal, before being served, must pass his olfactory gaze.
Dev’s diligent colleague Tara (Ritu Varma) has OCD, sanitizing her hands regularly enough for you to worry that her skin would peel off. She’s also jealous of Dev— how he walked into the restaurant, and wooed his way to the heart of the stoic and stern head chef, and how he cooks with intuition and not precision, as she cooks. He puts his hands into a container of crushed ginger and is about to throw it into the pot but Tara stops him, opens his palms, notes the number of gingers, and takes note in her book. Dev has never seen this before — an artform reduced, perhaps enhanced, by its exactness.
Dev has demons he is dealing with, one of whom is Maya (Nithya Menen), fittingly named, for she becomes an illusion, a hallucination drummed up by Dev. This is the least appetizing part of the film, for Maya is a character noted to have the “mind of a child”. This could mean innocence or development issues. Menen plays the latter, while the film keeps invoking the former; a cross between Beatrice from Kadal and Jenny from Koode.
As the film progresses, the muscle spasm, the paunch, the OCD are not seen as characteristics, but as conditions that the character has to overcome. It’s a simplistic pathologizing, but in this partially magical, and wholly tender world, it passes. Rarely have I seen tenderness on screen like this, lit with hazy light streaming from the sides; the longing to hold and be held. The frame with Maya and Dev as kids holding onto one another, limbs and cheek bones a soupy mess invokes a pause within.
The biggest offender of this food-based film, however, is the lacking visual flavour of the food itself. A good food stylist would have made the soup, the scrambled eggs, the turkish chicken look not just palatable but art-like. There is also a restlessness in the scene building, where hints are dropped without subtety knowing it will be invoked later — when Tara tells Dev of the door not working in the frozen pantry, and the emergency button not working, it is not hard to predict a scene where they both will be stuck inside. Tara’s dubious past too comes in a flash and goes without much of an impact. The whole film, in fact, plays out at a wispy level, content with merely setting up these mist-like characters, who live with passion and precision— some phantom-like in the mind, some phantom-like in the body— only for them to evaporate when the curtains come down.