‘If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change” is one of Mahatma Ghandi’s most famous maxims and in Punjab, India, there’s a temple that’s a living example of those words. A documentary about that temple, titled “Himself He Cooks,” is both empowering and humbling, a paradisal trip for the senses to a destination so exotic it makes fictional-travel movies look tawdry.
“Himself” takes us to Harmandir Sahib, the “Golden Temple” in Amritsar, famed for its breathtaking architectural beauty and its often violent history. In 1984 for example, the Indian Army clashed with rebel Sikhs whose headquarters were in the Golden Temple, leading to the deaths of several hundred civilians. On that day — like other days of turmoil leading up to this moment — the temple has served a total of 50,000 meals a day to anyone who’s hungry, regardless of religion, class, gender, whatever, for 500 years. The meals are handmade, prepared and served by 300 volunteers that work with an astonishing amount of food (which is all donated): 2,300 kg of flour, 830 kg of beans, 644 kg of rice, and on and on.
The kitchen is enormous, and spills into the temple’s main entrance and out to the sacred pool that the temple is built besides. The volunteer cooks are everywhere, each toiling at their designated task: A gentleman in a gleaming white shirt and elegant slacks sits on the steps peeling garlic; rows upon rows of ladies — sitting in what appears to be a vast, open corridor — chop vegetables and grind spices; a man hops inside a wok the size of a jacuzzi and starts scrubbing away.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Director||Valerie Berteau, Philippe Witjes|
|Run Time||64 minutes|
|Language||Hindi, English (subtitled in Japanese)|
Any way you slice it, “Himself” is a sublime piece of filmmaking. The directors are the husband-and-wife team of Philippe Witjes and Valerie Berteau, who ate at the Golden Temple every day during filming. Witjes is a professional chef and food critic, and has cooked at various volunteer kitchens, including ones in Senegal and Madagascar, which explains his feel for what’s going on. He understands the cooking process, and gazes appreciatively at the way each piece of food is deployed to its fullest potential. Nothing — not even a drop of milk — is wasted.
There are plenty of documentaries about waste and plenty more about food, but “Himself” hails from another planet. Looking at the numbers, the sheer bulk of foodstuffs and effort required to feed more than 50,000 people a day is astonishing. Looking at the completed meals and the people assembling to eat them, you’re assailed by a deep respect, the same that perhaps comes over you when contemplating a zen garden.
The meals are all vegetarian — mainly beans, chapati, rice and curry. The dining hall seats 5,000 people and the only rules are: Clean your plate and make room for the next person. The good news is that anyone can ask for seconds and every meal comes with a cup of hot chai. In this age of food shortages, junk food and obesity, the scenery depicted in “Himself He Cooks” is nothing short of a continuing, ongoing miracle.
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