A famous (and probably untrue) story about the first screening of a film claims that when the audience saw a shot of a train moving towards the camera, several ran out in fear that the oncoming vehicle would crush them.
True or not, this anecdote is still popular largely because of the tension it depicts between two planes - the ‘reality’ we live in, and the fictive reality we see on the screen. Audiences today may know better than jumping out of their seats at the sight of a looming body on the curtain, but filmmaking has and will always be tasked with the same job - minimising the reality-fiction divide by generating 'real' emotions in the audience.
The New Wave movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and the more recent Dogme 95 manifesto are prime examples of filmmakers attempting to cross this divide more effectively. It's intriguing to note that the genre of “Reality Television” has appropriated the stylistic decisions of such movements – the use of handheld cameras and what is known as ‘documentary style shooting’; the use of non-celebrities in featured roles; the showcasing of non-scripted events – while at the same time, seeking to create something that sticks to the ideals of the most scripted of experiences.
It is important to note that what we end up seeing on the screen is not in any way a faithful telling of ‘reality’, but audiences today seem to consciously want to be shown a certain ‘illusion’ of reality. And this weekend’s episodes of MasterChef Pakistan brought together the best of these elements to make for some compelling ‘reality TV’. Crafty editing, flamboyant characters, dramatic flashbacks and narrative cliffhangers in the form of eliminations and immunity, all with a final happy ending, where someone completes a highly prestigious achievement. Very movie-like, very reality TV-like, and very entertaining.
Also read: Adding the desi tarka to MasterChef
Saturday’s episode was the first time the show had an outdoor challenge, and it was set in Port Grand in Karachi. The participants were split into two teams, with one having to make bun-kebabs and jalebis, while the other had to make kebab paratha rolls and gulab jamuns.
Madiha, the contestant with the most wins so far, was captaining one of the teams and the fact that her arch-rival Rayyan ended up on her side made it seem like hers was the team to beat. Her choice of going with bun-kebabs immediately seemed like a bad call to both the judges and participants, and it wasn’t the first one she would make. Her blue team seemed behind the pace throughout the show.
In contrast, her rival captain Saad finally had a chance to come out on his own. Saad had been getting a bit grumpy in the previous episodes, at one point claiming that the other contestants didn’t want to see him doing well. Chosen as a leader in this episode, he was able to embrace his eagerness and did a remarkable job of rousing his team. Despite the best efforts of the editors to try and show an even keel, it was pretty clear that Saad’s team had the better of it during the preps.
Once the food began to be served, Saad’s team was again notable for its more energetic and cohesive outlook, shouting out their wares, while the other team was reduced to spreading mock rumours about hair being found on the gulab jamuns. Even the judges preferred the food they made, but all these things are never a reliable measure of what kind of food the crowd prefers.
However, the voting confirmed what the narrative had implied and Saad’s team took a decisive victory.
Sunday saw the losing team play out an elimination episode, and the challenge was to either recreate or improve upon Chef Zakir’s signature dish – Reshmi Karhai. The pressure of the elimination told on most of the chefs, and the bottom four included the two best chefs in the show so far, Rayyan and Madiha. With them were Mariam and Aneela – the former having gotten consistently weaker through the episodes, while the latter always part of the bottom three save for one episode. Eventually, Aneela was chosen for the drop at the end of the show.
The two episodes displayed some very smart production, most notably in the editing. The final break-to-commercial on Sunday’s episode was cleverly edited to create the impression Mariam had been eliminated, and both episodes were given a lot of heightened suspense, an example being Rayyan’s naan-crisis.
It was also very rewarding to see Pakistani dishes and techniques being brought out to the fore, with the discussion on the cuts for the chicken in Chef Zakir’s dish a very enjoyable and insightful observation.
The show has also been around long enough now for the contestants’ characters to come through. Saad was the breakout star in these episodes, but the loss of Aneela does present a dilemma. Along with Adnan and Ali Shah – the contestants to be eliminated before her – she was one of the most vivacious personalities on the show. Her loss has left quite a few cookie-cutter personalities left, but that impression could easily change as the show progresses. One person to definitely focus more on would be the lovely Gulnaz – her claim about being able to cut up an entire goat in two hours was one of the most endearing moments of the episode.
Of course, the dishes themselves are also small characters, particularly in a Pakistani society, and this week’s choices spoke quite eloquently about the inherent diversity of our people. Chef Zakir’s dish was a combination of Delhi classic (Reshmi tikka) with a Frontier specialty (karhai). Kebab rolls, most likely inspired by Calcutta’s kati rolls from the 1930s, used to be largely unique to Karachi until a few decades ago but have now become ubiquitous in urban Pakistan. And the bun-kebab, which is mistakenly understood as a response to western-style burgers, is almost definitely an evolved version of the ‘vada pao’, a popular street snack originating from Mumbai.
In a world full of politics and at times ferocious nationalism, the idea of living and learning from diversity often seems impossible. But the latest episodes of this cooking show have disproven just that.
Quality reality TV and food combine in MasterChef to remind us we are a far more experimental and syncretic people than we give ourselves credit for.
- Photographs courtesy of MasterChef Pakistan