Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch. If one were to lose any of these senses of the human body, the loss of smell would have the lowest impact on us. But life would definitely be a lot blander without it. In the food that we eat, it is actually the smell that gives it the flavor while the taste has only four sensations—salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. Psychologist Rachel Herz has researched that the smell is the only sense that triggers an emotional response in the mind. The smell of the rain on parched land, the aroma of the coffee, the fragrance of jasmine, the scent of hair—every smell brings with it a unique feeling.
The films that one watches in childhood leave an indelible impression on life on the mind. One of my earliest memories of smell in films is from Agni Sakshi which was inspired by Julia Roberts-starrer Sleeping With The Enemy. There is the extremely mercurial Vishwanath (Nana Patekar) who, at one point, admonishes an employee in his tannery firm for using a handkerchief to cover his nose. The employee was struggling to bear the foul smell of leather. Vishwanath is offended because, to him, the smell is his bread and butter. He immediately fires the employee as he believes that people should not work at a place where they feel they cannot breathe.
Writer Caryl Rivers famously said, “Smell is the closest thing human beings have to a time machine.” A photograph can trigger memories but a smell can take one back to the time and the place when the memory was created. While setting up her new apartment in Wake Up Sid!, Aisha (Konkona Sensharma) receives some of her old things from her hometown. The first thing she does is to smell them. She opens a book and closes her eyes, and takes in the smell of the paper. The ebook might be the future but the physical book will continue to be romanticized for its smell.
Films have primarily shown smell to be associated with the lover. In Fitoor, the new-age artist Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur) keeps the scarf of his childhood lover Firdaus (Katrina Kaif) with him and smells it when he thinks of her. Later in the film, Noor tells Firdaus that he wants to go back to the old days where he could smell the fragrance, “Phoolon vale, khushboo vale din.” Firdaus’ mother Begum (Tabu) tells her daughter that it was her fragrance that brought Noor to her. “Kheench hi layi na tumhari khushboo use,” she says. In her earlier life, Begum’s one-time paramour Mufti (Akshay Oberoi) was also enamored of her smell. When he meets Begum, he says, “Pagal kar degi yeh khushboo humein.”
In Hamari Adhuri Kahani, a fragrance takes Aarav (Emraan Hashmi) to his death. On his way back from Bastar, Aarav smells the khushboo of the flowers that remind him of the time he met Vasudha (Vidya Balan). He follows the khushboo and goes deep inside the jungle to a secluded spot resplendent with lilies and landmines. Unaware of the danger, Aarav steps on one of the mines and immediately dies. In a moment earlier, Aarav had said, “Inke liye toh main mar bhi sakta hun.” His prophecy turns out to be cruelly true. Years later, Vasudha’s ashes are scattered over the same field of lilies where she is finally united with Aarav.
In Lootera, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) tries to feel closer to Varun (Ranveer Singh) by smelling his jacket and wearing his hat. In Devdas, love turns the golden-hearted Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) into a devotional Meerabai worshipping her Dev Babu (Shah Rukh Khan). When Paro (Aishwarya Rai) comes calling for Dev, Chandramukhi says, “Hamari nazar se dekhogi, toh chaaro taraf paogi unko. Aaj bhi mehehkta hai yeh kamra unki khushboo se.” If she sees from her perspective, she will find Dev everywhere. His fragrance still lingers in the room.
The Non-Resident Indian is often shown to fetishize the smell of the motherland—desh ki mitti. Chaudhury Baldev Singh (Amrish Puri) in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is transported to the fields of Punjab after he smells the letter of his childhood friend from India. He even asks his wife to smell the letter that has the scent of sarson ka saag and makke ki roti. In Hum Tum, Bobby Aunty (Kirron Kher) returns to India from Europe and says, “Khushboo hi aur hai iss desh ki,” and then points to a bunch of children defecating on the road. Even in Swades, Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan) is reminded of his country by “Mitti ki jo khushboo, tu kaise bhoolaayega.”
In Sniff!!!, a young boy Sunny (Kushmeet Gill) suffers from anosmia where he is not able to smell anything. After an incident in his school laboratory, Sunny is miraculously cured and is able to smell things up to two kilometers away. His newfound olfactory power turns him into a superhero where he solves the problems of many people. He even becomes a detective and helps uncover a car-stealing racket in his society. The film also has some philosophical moorings where it wonders if there is a unique smell of fear and pain.
In Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, a Punjabi family struggles to recreate the aroma of their patriarch Daarji’s (Vinod Nagpal) famous Chicken Khurana dish after his death. His grandson Omi (Kunal Kapoor) tries everything but fails. An accident leads to the discovery that the secret ingredient in Chicken Khurana that gives it a unique scent and flavor is nothing but marijuana. In October, like her namesake flower, Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) falls from a hotel building and is left debilitated in a state of coma. Her friend Dan (Varun Dhawan) brings the shiuli flowers for her in the hospital and she starts reacting to their scent. The fragrance of the night jasmine has a medicinal (or a miraculous) effect on Shiuli.
In the Oscar-winning Parasite, smell is used to represent the class divide between the rich and the power. Early in the film, the young son of the Parks remarks that their new driver and the housekeeper smell the same. Later, Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) mentions to his wife that he cannot bear the smell of Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho). When his son has a seizure at the birthday party, Mr. Park is disgusted by the smell of Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon) even in that situation. Seeing Mr. Park’s reaction, Mr. Kim stabs him in anger. In an interview, Parasite‘s director Bong Joon-ho shared his thoughts on the use of smell as a device in the film. He adds, “Talking about one’s body odor is taboo even among close friends because doing so is viewed as very aggressive and rude. By talking about different smells, the film puts the class issue under the microscope. Through smells, the film’s tension and suspense mount, which eventually makes a multi-layered foundation for the upcoming tragedy.”
If Parasite talks about the classism through smell, Axone uses smell as a representation of racism. Axone is a fermented soybean paste used in many parts of Northeast India to give a unique flavor to food. It has a strong aroma that smells like heaven for people who use it. Those who are not familiar with it are repulsed by it. In the film Axone, a group of girls wants to surprise a friend on her wedding by serving her axone-flavored pork. The film depicts the challenges and the mockery they face while trying to cook the strong smelling-food as they live on rent in Humayunpur in Delhi. The smell becomes a metaphor for the racism that the people of North-East routinely face in their own country.
Films have also used smell to depict the atrocities of the caste system. In Bhavni Bhavai, King Chakrasen (Naseeruddin Shah) smells a foul odor at his palace. He is informed that the cause of the smell was shit including his own. The palace was not cleaned because the lower-caste people who were assigned for the task went on a one-day holiday for a wedding. An angry Chakrasen angry and calls them and orders them to be flogged. In Article 15, there is a similar sequence when the lower-caste workers went on a strike and started dumping garbage outside government offices as a mark of protest against the botched up investigation of the murder of two girls.
Writer Sachin Kundalkar made an entire film Gandha on the theme of smell. The national award-winning Marathi film comprised three short stories based on smell. The first story is about a girl who feels physically attracted to a man because of the way he smells. The second story is about a separated couple who reminisce about their old days together. The wife is bothered by a rotten smell in the house while the husband seems to have lost his sense of smell. The final story is about the four days of a woman’s life as she is separated from her family because she is on her menstrual cycle. She tries to live life vicariously in those difficult days by smelling things. The first story of Gandha was remade as Aiyyaa in Hindi which over the years has found acclaim for its depiction of the female gaze and desire. In Aiyyaa, Meenaxi (Rani Mukerji) has a heightened sense of smell and is drawn to Surya (Prithviraj), a student studying arts in the college where she works as a librarian. Like a bee attracted to a flower, Meenaxi follows Surya whenever he is around. At one point, she even enters the men’s toilet while being mesmerized by his smell. Meenaxi’s other suitor is Madhav (Subodh Bhave) who has an interest in gardening. However, the smell of his roses is not strong enough to attract Meenaxi as she is completely hypnotized by the fragrance of Surya’s colors.
In Rajnigandha, Deepa (Vidya Sinha) faces a similar dilemma, like Meenaxi’s, where she is stuck between two men. Her choice is between Sanjay (Amol Palekar) with whom she is in a relationship presently and Navin (Dinesh Thakur) with whom she was in a relationship in the past. Sanjay and Navin are the exact opposites of each other in terms of their character traits. But just like Meenaxi, Deepa chooses the man who brings a fragrance to her life. Sanjay used to bring rajnigandha flowers for her and she decides to choose him. As she says, “Rajnigandha phool tumhare, meheke yun hi jeewan mein, yun hi meheke preet piya ki mere anuragi mann mein.” These tuberoses that you gave me spread their fragrance in my life, I wish your love brings the same fragrance in my life, too.
There are countless songs in films that use smell to describe the lover. In Chaiyya Chaiyya (Dil Se), the poet compares his lover to a fragrance. “Woh yaar hai jo khushboo ki tarah,” he serenades. In Do Pal (Veer Zaara), the lover imagines his beloved as a fragrance. “Tum they yaa khushboo hawaaon mein thi,” he wonders. In Kajra Re (Bunty Aur Babli), the poet compares his lover’s talks with the fragrance of qimaam, an ingredient used in the preparation of paan. “Teri baaton mein qimaam ki khushboo hai,” he sings. In Yaaram (Ek Thi Daayan), the lover wants to smell the beloved in her absence, “Jo tum gaye tumhari khushboo soongha karenge hum.” In Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (1942 A Love Story), the poet compares the girl he saw to a fragrant breeze, “Jaise khushboo liye aaye thandi hava.” In Mann Kasturi (Masaan), the poet imagines his heart to be like a musk deer that goes mad seeking the scent of musk without realizing it comes from within—”Mann kasturi khoje apni gandh na paave.” One of my favorite songs mentioning smell is Tera Zikr from Guzaarish where the lover feels intoxicated by the mere mention of his lover’s name. He calls it itr (perfume)—”Ke tera zikr hai, ya itr hai, jab jab karta hun, mehekta hun, behekta hun, chehekta hun.”
While many songs use smell to describe someone, Aiyyaa has a lovely song on the sense of smell itself. Sung beautifully by Shreya Ghoshal, Mahek Bhi appears in the film whenever Meenaxi thinks about Surya. The opening lines are wonderful. “Mahek bhi kahaani sunati hai, sunlo agar. Hawaaon ke zariye batati hai, samjho agar.” Even the fragrance tells a story if you listen; and it says it though the breeze if you try to understand. The latter parts of the song are a bit perplexing where the lyrics are easy to understand but I struggle with the imagery that it is trying to convey. It is something to do with the mélange of colors that get together on a canvas to become a painting.
The Lunchbox uses smell to convey two different emotions of its protagonists—Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan (Irrfan). Ila’s suspicion about her husband having an extra-marital affair is confirmed when she sniffs the smell of a lady on her husband’s shirt. And, it is the smell again that makes Saajan realize his own fragility and mortality. On the day he is to meet his epistolary friend Ila, the smell in his bathroom reminds him of his grandfather. It strikes him that he has become old. “Just me and the smell of an old man,” he writes to her after he could not muster the courage to meet her in person. Time has passed for him to dream of a future with Ila who is still in the prime of her life. Death is probably waiting somewhere nearby for him.
I could not stop but also think of a post by Sutapa Sikdar who wrote a few words about her late husband Irrfan recently. “Yaad tumhari aati rahi raat bhar, yeh khushboo mehakti rahi raat bhar.” Rahe na rahe hum, mehka karenge. Even if people are gone, it is their smell that will linger around.
[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]