If you are fond of a typical sub-editor type low-hanging silly pun, you can say Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food is in a soup. The film, which is about a woman's dream of making big as a chef, is now stewing in its own juice as it has been taken off from the streaming platform Netflix following protests and complaints against its content that have been called out for being Hinduphobic and against the conservative practices of Brahmins.
Make no mistake about it, it is never nice to see a movie, or for that matter any work of art, to be yanked off the air for potential problematic ideas. No news outlet, which deems freedom of expression sacrosanct, would want a film --- essentially a work of fiction --- to be thrown out. It is a slippery slope. If today it is Annapoorani, yesterday it could have been Kashmir Files, which upset a different section of people. And there could be no end to this competitive censorship.
Art, however tricky or thorny, deserves to exist in the marketplace of ideas. But the makers of Annapoorani did not do themselves any favour with their own approach, and the film was not just seemingly Hinduphobic, but actually insidiously pitted one religion against another. To be specific, Hinduism against Islam. And in the way it presented the matters, it seemed more sympathetic to one religion than the other.
In a sense, to be discussing the film Annapoorani in any manner, is to give a respect that it didn't deserve in the first place. When it was released in the theatres in Tamil Nadu it proved to be dud. The film, which is Nayanthara's 75th film, did not even make Rs one crore in its collection. Also, its anti-Hindu slant and Brahmin bashing wasn't taken note of because, in Tamil Nadu piling on Brahmins is the norm.
Annapoorani was bland and undercooked
Anyway, Annapoorani was essentially a poorly cooked up khichdi made out of undercooked women empowerment sentiments and sugar-coated secularism. Mind you, women's emancipation and secularism are not wrong ideals. But just as the Congress and assorted Dravidanists and Communists gave secularism a bad name, Annapoorani too seemed to ride on it as a fad. There was no inner conviction in the idea, and the film was tedious and tepid.
Being boring or shoddy is no crime though. Annapoorani's fault may have been in its intentions, even if they are claimed to be unwitting. Having named a film after a Hindu goddess (the film's tagline actually says as much), the film then throws traditional Hindus under the bus.
The central conceit of the film is about a young woman, the eponymous Annapoorani (Nayanthara), born into a conservative Iyengar family, wanting to become a Michelin-rated chef in a star eatery. Her father is a cook at the Srirangam temple madapalli (kitchen) serving up delicious akkaravadisal (the Iyengar version of sakkara pongal) and Puliyodarai.
To be a cordon bleu kind of chef, though, Annapoorani has to deal with meat and fish. So there is an understandable moral quandary. And this is where the film slips into territory it shouldn't have. It has a Muslim character, played with unbearable hamminess by Jai, who is a friend and classmate of Annapoorani, who resolves her mental dilemma by --- wait for it --- quoting Sanskrit verses claimed to be from Valmiki Ramayana. Yup, a Muslim character, with authoritative gusto, belts out the Sanskrit line saying that Lord Rama himself ate meat. Ahem!
So, Annapoorani's morals are now clear and she goes on to taste meat as a first step and then proceeds to cook them. Of course, vegetarian cooks face this problem. The famed chef in these parts Venkatesh Bhat, one is sure, would have faced this ticklish and existential issue. But from what we know, he remains a vegetarian but is among the top-rated chefs of the country. So they could have at least checked notes with him as to how he solved this perplexity.
As we said, the film was trying to play to the gallery. And being anti-Brahmin in Tamil Nadu always has a big stadium of backers. But Annapoorani doesn't stop with that. In the film's feckless climactic portions, the heroine is in a competition for the best chef in the country, and she has to cook a succulent biryani. And the said viand is her achilles heel.
But in that moment of tension and tumult for her, Annapoorani looks inward, and voila, she gets inspiration. She drapes herself in an impromptu purdah and becomes in an instant, a Muslim. And she goes on to do namaz with determined devotion and goes forth to whip out the biryani. No prizes for guessing that she gets crowned as the best chef for dishing out the tastiest biryani ever!
But wait, Annapoorani, who just a few minutes back assumed the avatar of a Muslim, tells the judges to not colour the dish (biryani) with religion or caste. This is supposed to be the punchline of the movie. It would have been laughable if the intrinsic idea was not silly and sinister.
It can be argued that since this is director Nilesh Krishnaa's first film, he didn't have the skills to grapple with such a serious theme. But his creative choices in the film don't allow us to grant him this latitude. All through the film, the maker seems to juxtapose Islam and Hinduism in a dangerously disturbing way. Even if this is inadvertent, it is bound to trigger backlash, especially in these sensitive times.
And that is what has happened. A film that should be ignored on its own artistic merit is now in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
All said and done, the Goddess of Food actually deserved better serving.
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