In one of the crucial scenes in the movie, ‘Annapoorani: The Goddess Of Food’ starring Nayanthara, the protagonist’s grandmother cites herself as an example of not following her dreams of becoming a classical dancer and performing around the world just like MS Subbulakshmi did with her singing. She then encourages her granddaughter, the titular character, Annapoorani, to ditch her own wedding and pursue her goal of becoming a chef.
‘Annapoorani: The Goddess Of Food’ is about a woman from a conservative Brahmin family who has dreams of becoming a chef. When seen from an apolitical lens, the movie seems to be talking about breaking societal barriers and pursuing one’s aspirations. But I wonder if a movie about a Brahmin character can ever be apolitical. The movie managed to garner praise from feminists, yet I couldn’t ignore the influence of caste in this movie. After all, what is feminism without anti-caste politics?
A large chunk of this movie revolves around how a Brahmin woman begins to eat and cook meat despite the stigma attached to it. Cooking and eating meat is shown as a barrier. But why? The slightest inconvenience to a Brahmin woman is shown as a barrier, but how relevant is it when compared to the ban on meat in campus canteens across several Indian universities, because ‘vegetarian’ youth from Brahmin communities wouldn’t share food or use the same utensils as their meat-eating peers? Let me give you another example. Annapoorani’s father Rangarajan works as a priest at a temple and he makes the prasadam. Him and his family enjoy the status of the caste they were born into. I happened to read a comment under a post about the movie after it began facing flak from Hindutva groups. The commenter spoke about having the choice available to ‘vegetarians’ to cook in ‘vegetarian’ kitchens for a ‘vegetarian’ crowd. These kitchens have, in fact, existed for decades, if not centuries; like the ones Rangarajan works in.
My point is that in the grand scheme of things, Brahmanism continues to exist and Brahmins continue to enjoy caste privilege in spaces exclusive to them. How relevant is a story that glorifies a Brahmin woman for overcoming an inconvenience that is the product of Brahmanism in the first place?
This film also tries to be secular. If there’s something Annapoorani couldn’t master to perfection until the climax, it’s the quintessential biryani. In the finale of the cooking competition Annapoorani participates in, she’s asked to cook biryani. I wasn’t ready for what came after. Annapoorani recalls what Farhaan’s mother (a Muslim biryani expert) had told her about her method of cooking biryani. Annapoorani wraps a black piece of cloth around her face as a hijab and offers prayers to Allah as if that were the missing ingredient. It didn’t sit well with me because I felt that this scene was equivalent to that one friend we all had who would suddenly become secular with the mention of biryani on Eid. The whole idea that a devout Muslim would make the best biryani and a conservative Brahmin would make the best chakkar pongal is itself flawed and extreme. The symbolism and the contrasting of it is unconvincing.
Farhaan supports Annapoorani as a good friend and eventually falls in love with her. But we don’t see Annapoorani responding in the same way. There’s still a question mark on what Annapoorani feels for Farhaan. It makes me wonder a tiny bit if the makers were anticipating ‘love jihad’ remarks. The movie has attracted hate from Hindutva groups over Farhaan-Annapoorani’s relationship. Personally, the ‘love jihad’ remarks and forcing the producers to remove it from Netflix makes zero sense to me. Would an inter-faith marriage be too much for this film? Honestly, the makers aren’t to blame when the hatred is so real!
The film revolves overtly around the father-daughter dynamic and the daughter bringing disgrace to their family by not adhering to caste supremacy. The writing is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if people empathised with Annapoorani’s father instead of the protagonist. Annapoorani isn’t an anti-caste protagonist. She doesn’t try to liberate herself from the patriarch in explicit ways. She tries to convince the patriarch about her goals and the means she uses to achieve them, without ever pointing out how flawed and discriminatory casteism is. What irked me the most was how innocently unaware Annapoorani was about her caste privilege, which is not an option for many. I was conflicted after watching it because my opinion didn’t go with the popular opinion of feminists, who lauded the film. It was one of the few films that made me think and even critique myself before critiquing it. The inherent refusal to address caste privilege and wrapping it the garb of feminism is perhaps what makes it hard to critique. In simple terms, ‘Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food’ is a movie that refuses to talk about anti-caste politics and caste privilege, despite being a movie about a Brahmin character. But does feminism without anti-caste politics make any sense?