How Daawat-e-Ishq Wins Viewers Over With Its Delicious Food
Image Credit: Aditya Roy Kapur and Parineeti Chopra in Daawat-e-Ishq

This column is part of Slurrp's weekly series, #TheSeasonedScreen, by culture writer Arshia Dhar.


WHEN you watch a kohl-eyed Aditya Roy Kapur sing the words “dil ne dastarkhwaan bichhaya, daawat-e-ishq hai,” you’re inclined to forgive him for his severely undercooked acting chops in lieu of being eye candy who serenades you with the promise of a royal repast. Really, does it get any better than this for an Indian cinephile-gastronome, who also happens to be a woman?

In 2014, when the Habib Faisal-directed Daawat-e-Ishq starring Roy Kapur, Parineeti Chopra and Anupam Kher released, it was (unsurprisingly) declared a damp squib. The wafer-thin love story that lies like a palimpsest atop the food-lore — which, I suspect, is the actual plot — soon fades into the background, and instead, mercifully shines a spotlight on the splendacious culinary cultures of our country.

When a feisty Gulrez ‘Gullu’ Qadir (Chopra) — daughter of single father Abdul (Kher), who is a humble high court clerk in Hyderabad — encounters repeated disappointment from prospective grooms who lie, grovel, manipulate and coerce them for hefty dowries, she decides to stick it to the patriarchy, and hatches a devious plot. An aspiring shoe designer who has been forced to work as a small-time store manager in a mall owing to her dire finances, Gullu pledges to never get married, and instead, wishes to trap a dowry-seeking man in his own snare, with her reluctant father for an accomplice. The endgame? To make the man pay her an out-of-court settlement after she marries him for a day. She would then go on to book him for the non-bailable offence of seeking dowry under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, and use the money he pays her to fund her education abroad. 


This scheme, however, can only be executed in disguises and aliases away from their hometown, in a city where no one knows them. And what better place than Lucknow, the home of nawabs and kebabs, for a father-daughter duo that eats their worries away? Here, they meet Roy Kapur’s Tariq ‘Taru’ Haidar, our rustic but swashbuckling male lead, who is the head chef and prince of a culinary empire. In a rather interesting inversion of normative gender roles, it is now Taru who tries to win over his lady-love by cooking his way to her heart, which evidently, is also through her stomach. Soon enough, Gullu forgets all about her crusade against societal oppression, and consequently, all hell breaks loose.

Food As A Character

As the wheels are set in motion, she brings her unsuspecting ‘Booji’ to their favourite Hyderabadi haunt for biryani and “boti with baghaare baingan”. Abdul realises that he cannot physically refuse this kickback, regardless of what lies on the other side of it. “Toh Booji ke favourite restaurant ke favourite khaane ka anaesthesia de kar, phir surgery karenge. Toh chalo, bolo kya hona hai?” he asks, without looking away from his plate of fragrant meat-rice for even a second. Gullu reveals her ploy, and is initially met with resistance from an indignant senior Qadir. “Dinner ki rishwath de kar apna danger plan pass karwane ke liye laai tum yahan humein?” he inquires, flustered. However, after three scenes, with a minor road accident that leaves Abdul shaken and disenchanted, we see him do a quick one-eighty and tell his daughter: “Agar saari duniya beimaani ka khaa rahi hai, toh hum kaaye imaandari ka phaakka karenge?” Clearly, it is the language of food that holds this story together, and somehow, it is both the medium and the message in Daawat-e-Ishq.

It is also no coincidence that the film travels from Hyderabad to Lucknow, two of the three cities in India (the third one being Kolkata, of course) renowned for their distinct biryanis that cater to vastly different flavour profiles. And it is at this point that I realise that the more elaborate the nosh-up in a scene is, the higher the emotional stakes at hand are. So, when the Qadirs — masquerading as billionaire Habibullahs from Dubai — round up half of Lucknow’s bachelors to audition for Gullu’s suitor (and prey), Taru arrives with boxes of kebabs for his “brothers” and rivals to feast on, as they await their turn in the corridor of a flashy five-star hotel.


This sequence comes right after the lead pair’s first encounter at Taru’s restaurant, where he refuses to accept his “sasur uncle’s” payment for their meal, to which Gulrez revolts and feigns anger, saying that his “appoint” the following day stands cancelled. “Areh! Hum appoint ke liye thodi aaye hai, madam,” Taru declares, as he barges into the Qadirs’ suite the next day, chivalrously disregarding his lady-love’s threat. Armed with a boxful of luscious-looking kebabs, he eventually — much like Gullu — brings out his choicest weapon, the biryani, to persuade her into letting her guard down by the end of the sequence. And like her father, she too relents, because in a battle of biryanis, there are no losers.

This sequence, however, reveals more than what meets the eye. It subtly portrays the existing class divisions through the ways in which the characters interact with their food, which, in this case, is the silent puppeteer. For instance, Abdul momentarily forgets the charade and uses his hand to eat, which earns him a stink eye from his daughter who reminds her “daddy” (not Booji) to pick up the fork before their covers are blown. All the while, the Haidars watch on with hawk eyes and do not partake in the binge, which is an ordinary affair at their place. Their gaze here is almost pitiful — like watching the needy eat — and this is further underlined by the way Abdul and Gulrez guzzle down the seven-course meal offered by the Haidars. In this moment, the camera reminds the audience that the Qadirs are impostors, who, in their everyday lives, cannot afford such a spread. Their caricatured Western table manners are an overt sign of their aspirations — to be better accepted socially, and to be secure financially — especially as middle class citizens who depend on education as their sole means of emancipation.


For the Haidars, a feudal business-owning family, relationships are largely transactional, and in that regard, the Habibullahs are perfect for their optics. Education is obviously not a priority, as they urge their son to fake a BA degree to become eligible for marriage, and they do not shy away from seeking dowry either, despite being among the wealthiest in town. The Haidars too, therefore, have donned the mask of civility as a means to their end, and their lack of surprise at the “fork” exchange — when the Qadirs came closer than ever to exposing their subterfuge — in turn blows their own lid off being merely monied, morally corrupt, and not even worldly wise.

Food As Expression

For Gullu, love arrives and departs with food. Whether it’s in the opening sequence, where she outs a fraudulent family and their “bilu (blue) film”-watching son over a table-full of samosas, or spotting her American-accent crush at the mall’s food court — and later dumping him by throwing cold coffee on his head — food is in the foreground of every key moment in her life, including the unpleasant ones. Ergo, it’s rather fitting that she was destined to fall in love with a chef, who asks for only three days to win her over with love, laughter, and a whole lot of Lakhnavi fare (which honestly was punishing to watch, as one could only salivate all over the screen).


But when Gullu realises she has fallen in love with Taru, and that he might just not be the bad guy she thought he was, she panics and decides to go ahead with her plan anyway. “Ab hum iss raite mein poori tarah doob chuke hain! Nikalne ka ek-ich raasta hai — stick to the plan,” she snaps back at her Booji, who warns her against the consequences of swindling an honest man. The plan? To run away with Taru’s money after feeding him kheer laced with sleeping pills, and then booking him under Section 498A, even though he had secretly paid her back the dowry money his parents had demanded from her.

Expectedly, Taru does not take this betrayal well. He channelises his rage into chopping up an entire farm’s worth of vegetables in one go, while looking for ways to avenge his humiliation. Gullu, on the other hand, is guilt-ridden and lovelorn for Taru, especially every time her taste buds revolt on not being pampered by his Midas touch. “Itne din se Taru ke mazze ki lath padh gayi hai, ab toh sab doosri cheezein bad maza lagengi,” she tells her father, after almost spitting out the unappetising railway food.


In the end, when Gullu’s conscience fully catches up with her, she decides to forsake her American dream and return Taru his money, while Taru lands in her city to bring her to book. Their final encounter happens in the railway station, when the father and daughter are being comically chased by cops and loan sharks. Here, we see Abdul holding on to boxes of junk food — which he had bought for their second journey to Lucknow — for dear life. It marks their fall from a false glory, back to a life of humility and acceptance of what they can and cannot afford.

The subtext in Daawat-e-Ishq is lucid, which is that food is a universal language like no other. What the characters struggle to articulate in words, they do through their interactions with food — from cooking, eating and dreaming about it, to feeding and even lobbing it at their subjects of disapproval. There is a dish for every mood, emotion, and pain, which are not reduced to mere plot-points, but are fleshed out as fully-formed characters in their own right. The film may not have been critically acclaimed or a box-office winner, but it does manage to create an appetite for a story that had much unexplored potential, and thankfully, even more unexplored food.