Making a big splash in pop culture reportage is the news that Netflix took down the Tamil film ANNAPOORANI (TheQuint, EconomicTimes). This is supposedly in response to agitation by right-wing groups claiming that the film hurts Hindu sentiments. There is a specific reference to the scene of Annapoorani doing namaaz as being a form of love jihad.
Luckily (for those with FOMO) or unluckily (for me), I watched the movie last week. ANNAPOORANI if memory serves, promised a tale of battling caste oppressiveness via the route of the kitchen. I was hoping for a story that used food to explore social issues (Pomegranate Soup, Lessons in Chemistry). Even if the film medium does less for me than a book, the caste angle made me think of Jai Bhim as a reference point in meaningful portrayals of casteism. I was sorely disappointed. And how.
ANNAPOORANI, the film
Actor Nayanthara plays the titular Annapoorani, a girl so endowed with magical boons and birthright superiority that you might be forgiven for thinking this was a Women’s Day version of Adipurush. Yes, down to the cringe-worthy, pointless animation. Wait, didn’t that make a stir for offending right-wingers too? Methinx there’s a common strategy at play here.
Annapoorani is the only child of a temple pujari, right out of the most fanatic of agraharams as Tamil Brahmin fantasy might go. Her father is a practical saint, always with gentle eyes, a faint voice and scripture quoting without a trace of judgment. Ask any non-Brahmin and they’ll be hard-pressed to recognise such a depiction as authentic. As a child, Annapoorani and her father pass a meat-serving restaurant. True enough to the most fanatic of Tamil Brahmins, her father crosses the road with a hateful look at the ‘sinners’. He also gives his daughter a lecture on the moral superiority of vegetarianism. So much for gentle saints.
SuperANNAPOORANI & her magical powers
Annapoorani has fantastical powers to decipher the ingredients of dishes with a blind taste test. This fact is lauded over and over throughout the film. Take a minute to register that the biggest part of taste is our sense of smell. It is a vital trait in the kitchen as smell is what helps discern flavour, assess freshness, monitor charring etc. Our sense of smell is subject to conditioning and learning. This will become important later in the film.
Annapoorani, the centre of the universe
Throughout the entire film, Annapoorani enjoys undue adulation while the world mocks anyone who opposes her. Her friends seem to exist only as personal slaves, willing to abandon their careers, homes and love lives to cater to her whims. She shows no humility to learn or respect for the people who support her. Her teacher is but comic relief and a total caricature. What did she need to join college for then? It can’t be the degree since later in the film, she walks right into a plum job at a top kitchen without a test because….she’s Annapoorani, I guess?
She agrees to a wedding and then runs away, leaving her family and the groom at the altar. There are no repercussions, social, emotional or financial for Annapoorani. This never comes up again except for a blink-and-miss cameo by the jilted groom, cheering her on from the sidelines when she competes in a cookery contest. The whole world is just walking around with a sign that says, “Kick me, Annapoorani”
Her friends try to smuggle her into their paying guest accommodation. When the landlady says that she needs to pay rent, Annapoorani attacks her and walks out. Outside in the night, the same friends whose living situation she has endangered with her misbehaviour beg her to return. The Brahminical fantasy is hitting way too hard.
Born-to-greatness Annapoorani needs no introduction
Then she walks right into the kitchen at a 5-star hotel run by a top chef, demanding a job even though she hasn’t even completed a year of her studies, has no proven credentials, nothing. Miraculously (because that’s apparently what happens when you’re a Brahmin), the top chef undermines his son (the sous chef) and hires her. I was hoping that this was just a nuanced plotline about toxic fatherhood and daddy issues. But the film just turned the son into a caricatured Bollywood villain so consumed with rage that he becomes self-sabotaging and murderous.
If it smells like Brahmin propaganda, it probably is. Remember the sense of smell? Okay, so our great Annapoorani is baking alone in the kitchen. Her magic nose can’t detect that the oven is malfunctioning or that her cake is burning. But let’s blame her phone call instead. Don’t professional kitchens ban mobile phones for reasons exactly like these? It happens to be the main kitchen of a hotel that hosts foreign dignitaries. What are the chances that there would be NOBODY else around and no fire alarms in the kitchen?
Thereafter the mess just goes on with some mad plotline about Helen Keller but in the kitchen. The film reminds us that she can smell but she has lost her sense of taste. Did the filmmakers not bother researching what goes into being a chef? Especially on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, where hundreds of people lost their sense of smell and had to find ways to navigate their professional lives. The ending suddenly swings into a social message, which I guess was the PR team reminding them that this film was going to be sold on that premise. TamBram ex machina.
A Brahmin voice on caste
Brahminism treats itself as superior to all other human beings by some unknown act of god. It cannot be tainted, broken or even questioned. Caste privilege is founded on disproportionate power and lack of accountability. Dismantling caste means acknowledging this. There is no recognition of Annapoorani’s elite status as a Tamilian Brahmin with a priest for a father. Instead, the film plays on her sense of assumed victimhood throughout.
Annapoorani lives through no major hardships except not getting what she wants exactly the minute she wants it. She suffers a minor inconvenience in the form of an accident. Miraculously all it does is leave a few scratches on her face and loses her taste buds. All her other senses are intact, her boss takes the fall for her mistake and quits the company. Her father pays her hospital bills and shames the now jobless boss into continuing to carry her.
She shows no grit or courage in facing situations as she’s constantly held up, praised and allowances are made for her. She faces no repercussions for her lying, her abuse of the people around her, and her complete indifference to their problems. Annapoorani also shows no growth from the start of the film to the end. She starts the movie tearing down an adult for his cooking and ends the movie scowling because she can’t taste the same dish again. That makes a non-story.
Brahmin victimhood is not a caste issue
Brahmin superiority is founded on the idea that knowledge of scripture makes for wiser, morally sound leaders of humanity. Annapoorani shows none of this. Unlike the only daughters of many conservative Indian families, she’s allowed an education and a career. She quits this on a whim with no appreciation for the chance she’s throwing away. Then she enrols in catering college and lies to her family. She does not attempt to reason with her father whose only objection is the proximity to non-vegetarian food. Let’s remember that this world also includes eating joints that proudly advertise being ‘Shudh Shakahari’ and ‘Brahmin-cooked food only’.
The conflicts of her story would not even be minor inconveniences for a caste-oppressed person. They wouldn’t even be allowed into the spaces that Annapoorani traverses and discards on a whim. We still live in a society that metes out brutal punishment to Dalits whose shadow falls on an agraharam. As recent as a few decades ago, such Tamil Brahmin societies would not even serve water to a child who wasn’t Brahmin (even if they were from another privileged caste).
Annapoorani’s Brahmin supremacy
ANNAPOORANI never once questions the caste system. We don’t see her engaging with any non-Brahmin factions to understand their issues. In one scene she tastes a dish made by her classmate’s father. It takes her longer than usual to identify the ingredients. As the class starts laughing, she angrily retorts that the dish is made incorrectly. Her classmate protests that his father is famous for this dish. She insults the cook. The class laughs at the classmate whose father she is publicly humiliating.
What self-respecting Indian society allows a child to disrespect an adult? Only if the child is Brahmin and the adult is not. The classmate looks darker skinned – often observed in non-Brahminical communities. Why this insistence on ‘one correct recipe’? That’s the Brahmin superiority complex in positioning the self as gate-keeper to the rest of society’s lives.
There is also a Brahmin saviour ending of kitchens for underprivileged girls. Wait, the film doesn’t even mention a single caste other than Brahmin. It’s erasure and it is the exact opposite of representation – the goal of any responsible story about a social issue.
If the film had only not promised a caste conversation, I would have dismissed this as so many other narratives – blind to caste issues means supportive of caste. Like ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha‘ that sold itself as feminist only to reveal itself as quite anti, Annapoorani leaves an awful taste in my mouth with its casteism propaganda pretending to be woke.
Magical Muslim Noble Savage Farhaan
If the film left me horrified, the current news cycle is deadening. The union of political agenda and marketing plans is so blatant. Amidst all the Brahminical mayhem of ANNAPOORANI is a nondescript character who happens to be Muslim. This has no relevance to the story.
Farhaan isn’t the skullcap-wearing, Urdu Shayari-spouting Muslim that Bollywood likes to project (South Indian Muslims don’t look or sound like that). He is Annapoorani’s childhood friend, a fact that nobody comments on in a quite unrealistic depiction of fanatical Hindu Brahmin families. It’s also quite unconventional as far as the gender dynamics go even for today’s India. Annapoorani is in and out of their home watching his mother cook biryani (which is Brahmin code for non-vegetarian food), something her family never brings up.
This token Muslim character exists for no reason but to give her comfortable access to catering college, ward off creepy admirers who might distract her, be her one-man hype army and on the rare occasion when she is questioned, replenish her narcissistic supply of attention.
In the one scene where she faces the wrongness of her lies to her father, he steps in to assuage her conscience. He speaks of Hindu deities who have consumed meat. This is all it takes for her to let go of her moral dilemma. Later in the film, Annapoorani uses the recipe taught by Farhaan’s mother. In an unnecessary scene, reads namaaz before she begins cooking. This is because when she asked the lady the secret of her tasty biryani, she replied that with a prayer in her heart, all cooking turns out well. If this is hurtful to Hindu sentiments, does it mean Hindus can’t tolerate anyone else cooking?
It’s not a real caste party till the right wing shows up making some noise
One of the many problems with saffron politics is how the entire Hindu belief system and its followers are replaced with a single idea of Hindi-speaking Brahmin Hindutva.
Islamophobia as a descriptor of Hinduism is a political message more entrenched in North India than South India (since Partition). Farhaan’s affection is never addressed in the film. Annapoorani, the blessed narcissist that she is, uses him at will with zero commitment. How is this love jihaad?
Not all Hindus are vegetarian, even by the ‘rules’ of religion. The class system of vegetarianism makes this brand of Hindutva an elitist and thus poor leader of a mostly impoverished, non-Brahmin population. Even the biggest epics contain stories of years spent in wilderness and jungles. The Kshatriyas were hunters and warriors. How would they have sustained on a blessed-by-Brahmins-only diet? A film like Annapoorani is a poster child for Brahminical superiority. Why does it offend the right wing? My guess is that nobody watched it before drawing up the cancellation plans.