Gulabjaam: A Marathi Food Film With a Caste Problem


Gulabjaam: A Marathi Food Film With a Caste Problem

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

As a member of a small Catholic community native to Mumbai called East Indians, most people haven’t had a taste of my favourite Maharashtrian foods – and indeed, they are Maharashtrian. These include a variation of the pork vindaloo; a spicy, tamarind-heavy fish curry; and a mutton curry made with the famous bottle masala sold by East Indian families in Mumbai.

But there are Maharashtrian dishes far more popular than these that don’t make an appearance in Sachin Kundalkar’s Gulabjaam, the story of a Maharashtrian man who leaves his high-paying corporate job in London to learn how to cook in Pune, with the hope of taking Maharashtrian cuisine to the rest of the world.

I watched Gulabjaam late one night after an unsatisfying meal and the images were pure delight – and pure torture. I could almost taste the unique mix of sweet, salt, and spice as I watched the real hero of the movie, the disturbed but resilient Radha Agarkar (Sonali Kulkarni), teach the protagonist, Aditya Naik (Siddharth Chandekar), to cook in her small Pune flat.

During the film, my theatre companions and I glanced at each other in silent acknowledgement of our craving for chakali or kothimbir wadi. It took me days, however, to realise that I had unquestioningly accepted the film’s definition of Maharashtrian cuisine.

The fact that the foods missing are those of castes on the lower rungs of the hierarchical system or those that fall outside of it, makes an omission of this sort distasteful.

Nobody, including the film’s makers, would deny that Maharashtrian cuisine is endlessly diverse. It reflects the many communities and geographies that make up the massive state. It nods at the cultural differences between these communities; just like language and dialects, ingredients and taste can vary every few hundred kilometres. Puneri cuisine is very different from food from the Konkan, or Malvan, or Vidarbha, or Kolhapur. Within these cuisines, lie the differences of caste and class.

But the problem with Gulabjaam is that it doesn’t acknowledge any of this.

We meet characters from backgrounds different to that of the leads, but they have no say in anything food-related here. We see Radha and Aditya are shown great appreciation from customers when they go to their homes to fix them traditional meals for a fee. But there’s not a peep over the fact that this is not the only type of Maharashtrian food. No one asks Radha whether she could whip up a chicken rassa, no one comments on the absence of millets, and no one finds that her food is lacking in some specific way that might allude to a different taste.

The message is clear. Either the only people calling the duo are Brahmin Maharashtrians from the Pune area – or for the sake of this story, Radha’s food is Maharashtrian cuisine. That is to say, upper-class, upper-caste Brahmin vegetarian fare.

Since Aditya starts his restaurant using what he has learnt with Radha, we can assume the menu reflects this bias. This is an understandable choice for the character to make – he wants to celebrate the foods from his own upbringing, and films focusing on food have often been about the personal journey of characters.

But when Gulabjaam tells us the food he serves embodies Maharashtrian cuisine, we witness the erasure of what other communities bring to the cuisine as a whole and the assertion that “true” or “real” Maharashtrian food can only be found in the Brahmin strongholds of Pune.

The fact that the foods missing are those of castes on the lower rungs of the hierarchical system or those that fall outside of it, makes an omission of this sort distasteful. It not only takes other communities out of the state’s food story, it establishes the Brahmin as the default.

This is important because Dalit cuisine especially, is already absent from many aspects of mainstream Maharashtrian culture. Foods of the marginalised don’t appear in mass media, recipe books, restaurant menus, or grocery-store shelves in metros. With the beef ban in 2015, the Maharashtra government took away a central ingredient of the cuisine in one fell swoop and expressed its hostility to these food traditions.

In Dalit writings and research projects, efforts have been made to highlight foods consumed by Dalits, the harsh circumstances and resourcefulness that shaped the cuisine and counter dominant culture.

In a 2009 research project titled “Isn’t this plate Indian?” students at Pune University recorded food memories and recipes used in Dalit households. “As social science researchers, what gets written of is of immense importance to us but so is that which is written off,” says the report.

Finally, course correction is left to the communities that remain marginalised. Former journalist Shahu Patole wrote a book documenting recipes of Dalits in the Marathwada region in 2016. “I started researching for, and writing, the book over three years ago mainly because I wanted to let the world – and my children – know what my people, the Mangs of Marathwada, ate,” he wrote in an essay published by Express Foodie. “Also, when I looked around, I saw books and blogs on every kind of food imaginable: south Indian, Bengali, Syrian Christian, Parsi, Punjabi and so on, but there was very little about Dalit food, and that is when I decided to give it a go.”

For long-time Pune residents, it’s touching to see the city portrayed and filmed with immense tenderness in Gulabjaam, and it is a charming tribute to food from the area. But viewers should keep in mind this is a snapshot of a very small part of Maharashtrian cuisine and culture. Radha’s food, however authentic, will not remind the vast majority of Maharashtra’s population of their mother’s home-cooking.