Kolkata of the 1990s was a difficult place when it dawned upon us that we had been denied our share of the capitalism pie. Bangalore had a KFC, Delhi had its Appu Ghar and Bombay had all its shiny things while we made do with hurtling tin buses and sooty, load-shedding evenings. But liberalisation brought us cable television, our window to the world. Thanks to our local cablewallah, night shows were about Govinda, Aamir Khan and Sanjay Dutt. And the evenings were for Bengali films.
It was during one of those evenings that I discovered that a spoonful of Horlicks can change lives. A generation of Bengalis will attest to the fact. If you are a hapless daughter-in-law, whose husband doesn’t earn as much as he should, your dojjal (harridan) mother-in-law will fling the spoonful of Horlicks you were about to feed your ailing son and send it flying across the room. “Coz, you should live within your means, bitch!” We were also familiarised with the doleful sound of fingers scraping the bottom of a rice pot. All thanks to one man and his vision, Anjan Choudhury.
The Tollywood director burst into the scene in the early 1980s, when the Bengali film industry was in mourning. Its reigning deity, Uttam Kumar, had passed away. That gaping hole was filled by Choudhury, who delivered one weepy blockbuster after another. His first few hits, Shotru (1984) and Guru Dakshina (1987), were tearjerkers with a dose of action, but it’s his bou (daughter-in-law) trilogy that made him popular in Bengali households. Choudhury resided in our cavernous kitchens, our plastic-sheet covered dining tables and our mosquito-net covered beds. He knew his target audience, the Bengali middle class, and the thing that made their world go round — who gets the bigger piece of fish at the dining table. If Rituparno Ghosh, with his carefully-choreographed dining room sequences, was about a restrained emotional aesthetic, Choudhury singularly focused on the melodrama. Cue, suffering bahu crying silent tears as her mother-in-law chose to give her son the least-preferred lyeja (tail) cut of the fish for lunch.
In the seminal Chotto Bou (1988), people are rebuked and insulted for eating more than their share of the mouthwatering spread laid out by the boro bou (eldest daughter-in-law). When a guest arrives unannounced, she, of course, goes hungry in order to feed him. The almost-blind patriarch wants to have kochu shaak with hilsa head? The dutiful elder son borrows money from a colleague to buy his father’s favourite fish. Never mind that he will now have to forsake his tiffin for the rest of the month. Bengalis are known to make greater sacrifices for the fish. There were three-four types of women in his hits. The dominating mother-in-law, who, by dethroning her husband as the head of the household, has ensured that chaos prevails. The eldest daughter-in-law, who comes from a poorer home, is chided for not bringing TV and fridge as dowry.
The modern and greedy daughter-in-law hides ketchup bottles and jam jars in her wardrobe, ensuring that the prime pickings of the household is reserved for her husband. Then there is the no-nonsense youngest daughter-in-law, who is there to ensure that the erring women are cut down to their size and the men manage to grow some backbone. When asked about the rampant misogyny in these films, Choudhury’s daughter Chumki, who acted in a number of his films, is irritated. “I would say my father was a true feminist. He spoke against dowry system and also showed the reality of middle-class India.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headine ‘Kitchen confidential’