Saturday, November 16, 2019

How to love a hotchpotch meal (or a masala film)

[Now that the Wokes have determined that Friends was a regressive/trashy show, I am looking at the possibility of doing regular columns examining its many layers. In my latest “moments” piece for The Hindu, thoughts on Rachel’s hideous Thanksgiving trifle, Joey as an egalitarian food-buff, and masala cinema]

In season six, episode nine of the hugely popular sitcom Friends, the once-mollycoddled Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), not known for her culinary prowess, decides to make an English Trifle for Thanksgiving dinner. But when two of the pages in the cookbook get glued together, she ends up mixing recipes and producing a satanic concoction of shepherd’s pie and dessert: the layers include jam, beef with peas and onions, bananas and ladyfingers. In short, many things that are perfectly good in their own right, but which no sane eater would think go well together.

But is “sanity” all that it’s made out to be?

The evening wears on, the dish is served, everyone in the room gasps and wheezes and finds ways of disposing their plate without hurting Rachel’s feelings. “It tastes like FEET!” says Ross, sotto voce. But there is one person – a true food lover, friend to any blundering chef – who genuinely enjoys the dish. “I like it,” Joey announces between mouthfuls, “What’s not to like? Jam – good. Custard – good. Meat – goooodd!”

If you know the old Boris Karloff-Frankenstein films, you might be reminded of the scene in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein where the Monster, befriended by a blind hermit, grunts “Good! Good!” in childlike delight as he experiences a glass of wine, bread, and a cigarette for the first time. Here is a barely sentient creature putting things in his mouth, responding with his senses, not with sophisticated preconceptions about taste.

There is something pure and enviable about this, and I feel similarly about what Joey does in that Friends episode. Within the given context, we are meant to see him as a gluttonous philistine, but I also view the scene as a display of egalitarianism, coming from a boundless love for a particular thing or activity (in this case, food or eating). It weirdly reminds me of the Sanskrit word “sahriday”, which has different layers of meaning but which has often been used to describe the ideal reader, “of one heart” with an author: someone fully responsive to a creative work and engaging with it at all the levels that the artist might wish for.

With apologies to my gourmet friends, there is an off-kilter logic in Joey’s caveman grunts of appreciation: he is treating each ingredient on its own terms, focusing on the component parts instead of worrying about how consistent or organic the whole dish is. This also puts me in mind of some of the conversations around the “masala” film, which constantly mixes and mashes tropes. This sort of movie – championed by Jonathan Gil Harris in his recent book Masala Shakespeare, and also defended by a small minority of film critics who still have an appetite for the form – is easily denigrated today. Understatement and psychological realism have become vital to Hindi cinema, writers and directors are telling personal stories rather than following old boilerplates. Which is a welcome development, but it also leads to an often thoughtless putting down of earlier modes of expression where many tones and genres could coexist.

Perhaps appreciating masala cinema involve a certain brain type, one that can compartmentalize elements and assess each separately. This, by the way, is not the same thing as lack of discernment: a viewer of a masala film can still make thoughtful judgements about whether the comedy track, or the drama track, or the musical track, is well-done. Joey wouldn’t care for the trifle if the beef was overcooked or the bananas were raw.

There is always the question: do lines still need to be drawn – is it possible that some things simply aren’t compatible? Hard to say. There have been terrific films that combined genres you wouldn’t think could go together – horror and goofy comedy, for example, or noir and musical. It gets trickier when you combine more than two – for that, you probably have to look at something like the mainstream Hindi film as it once was, shifting from weepy drama to comic interlude to song-and-dance to dhishoom-dhishoom.

I love that sort of cinema, but I also understand why it can annoy or exhaust people. And though I experiment a lot with food, I did feel my gorge rising once when someone showed me a photo of banana pieces on a pizza. Most of us have breaking points; few of us can be as open-hearted as Joey.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

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