Samosas and Mimosas: Authenticity and Feminism in Hot Mango Chutney Sauce
Words by Aiman Rizvi; Illustration by Samia Singh
Welcome to Punjab: Food, Music and Resistance, a Vittles series on food imagery, themes and lyrics in Punjabi music, from boliyan to protest anthems.
If you wish to read the rest of the essays in the series, you can find them below:
If you wish to receive the Monday newsletter for free weekly, or subscribe for £5 a month, please click below.
Samosas and Mimosas: Authenticity and Feminism in Hot Mango Chutney Sauce, by Aiman Rizvi
‘Hot mango chutney sauce / te naale lip gloss’ may sound like an odd assortment of words to some, but for many women in Pakistan, it is a cleverly coded reference. Woven into the chorus of the popular Meesha Shafi track, which was released in September 2021, the phrase, and the song that contains it, is testament to the several unsayable things that South Asians are able to articulate to one another through invoking food. ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ has been hailed as a feminist anthem, a critique of capitalism, and a celebration of all that makes us desi. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the song is how it puts Shafi’s ethnographic abilities on display – using instances of food (both real and imaginary), she comments on class, identity and cultural belonging, stringing meaning together with the various social values that Pakistanis attach to different kinds of food, from daal chawal to sushi and samosas.
The track opens with Shafi’s take on a popular South Asian tongue-twister, ‘Chandu kay chacha ne’, which is remixed with the phrase ‘Jimmy Choo ki chutney’. At first listen, this is an incongruous and somewhat bizarre choice of words, but it sets the general tone for the song, which includes odd jumbles of taunts and references that, when combined, satirise the aspirations of a subset of Pakistanis obsessed with westernised markers of wealth: expensive handbags, imported cars and designer shoes.
The song also features Lina Aunty, an emoji-esque virtual avatar created by swineryy, the anonymous feminist comedian on Instagram. Swineryy is widely celebrated across Pakistan and South Asia for her caricatures of people that are usually upholders of exploitative systems of power (such as the patriarchy). Lina Aunty is perhaps the funniest, and also most emblematic of the cultures swineryy takes on; her primary obsession is her friend Shazia’s daughter, who she constantly polices and judges for not abiding by the gender rules prescribed to women by Pakistani society.
In her cameo on the track, Lina Aunty mentions a ‘disaster’ of a lunch party: ‘I see a lot of Samosay,’ she quips, ‘but where are the Mimosay?’ This is interesting when contrasted with the other persona in the song – Shafi’s own – who, decked out in desi bling and oversized jhumkay, croons ‘te saaday naseeb shukar ay / daal chawal achaar’ (‘But I’m grateful for my fate / daal chawal achaar’). The tension between these two sensibilities – a posh aunty who puts down desi food, and a woman grateful for her daal chawal achar – captures the play at the heart of the track.
Pinning down a singular cultural value to ‘daal, chawal, achaar’ is a reductive endeavour – the breadth of possibility far too overwhelming. The concoction, which comes together to make the hallmark desi meal, can be as comforting as it can be monotonous, as exciting as it can be staple, as varied in flavour and texture as it can be predictable. But Shafi’s intention here is perhaps to present it as a juxtaposition to opulence – daal, chawal, achaar as a symbol of accessibility, simplicity, comfort, and community all at once, markedly different from the taunt that is ‘Jimmy Choo ki chutney’.
The years leading up to the release of ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ were volatile for Shafi. In 2018, she accused a powerful male colleague, the pop star Ali Zafar, of sexual harassment. Her allegations served as a turning point in the MeToo movement in Pakistan, encouraging many women to come forward. But when Shafi spoke out, the country’s conservative ruling elite – from owners of media houses to many celebrities – popularly narrativised her actions as a betrayal to her ‘culture’ and gender. Since then, Shafi has been on the receiving end of immense vitriol and targeted hate-campaigns from supporters of Zafar, who aligns himself with the country’s political and cultural establishment.
Most of Shafi’s original music since 2018, like ‘Amrit’, ‘Mein’ and ‘Leela’, has been soulful and angry – a space for solidarity among survivors of sexual harassment across Pakistan. But ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ marks a tonal shift in her work. With it, Shafi takes on her critics with humour and clever satire, turning their assertion on its head, asking: What makes their claim to culture stronger than hers? Who are they, she seems to ask, to declare her less deserving of her identity? Food becomes the turf upon which this question is settled. Shafi uses it to illustrate the many betrayals to this very “culture” that its gatekeepers make to consolidate class power.
Amidst this commentary, the music video for ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ maps the ‘vibe’ of Pakistani feminism, a guide to what being a desi feminist can look, sound and taste like. In the video, some of Pakistan’s top models dance at the back of a truck, dressed in crop top blouses and shalwars. They wear denim jackets adorned with patchwork of desi fabrics, matched with a wrist full of yellow, glass bangles; with parrandas in their hair, they eat mangoes and drink chai. The guide suggests a vibe “desi enough” to signpost authenticity but “with an edge”. It embodies the aspirational cultural in-betweenness increasingly giving shape to the aesthetic of desi, feminist swagger – one that is easy fodder for market forces intent on transforming political movements into marketable commodities.
Over the past decade, the feminist movement in Pakistan has burgeoned into visible resurgence. In 2015, what started as a collective called Girls at Dhabas, which negotiated the presence of women in public spaces has today become a country wide (albeit primarily urban) movement that challenges rule-setting around gendering, respectability politics, and the patriarchal policing that occurs in the private sphere. Since 2018, feminist groups have begun to organize marches that embody these politics, like the Aurat March, to mark International Working Women’s Day. But as the movement has started to become organised around this singular annual march, it has also garnered its own share of criticism for not being able to innovate beyond momentary, performative protest.
Given these dynamics, the Pakistani feminist movement has also been vulnerable to commodification, with corporations, clothing brands, cab services and restaurants across the country trying to cash in on the aesthetic it offers. And so, interestingly, the subversive “authenticity” of the quotidian things that Shafi invokes to taunt elite cultures of patriarchy, can become susceptible to being viewed as markers of certain kinds of wealth and access. This tension raises interesting questions: as popular artists are drawn to the feminist movement in Pakistan, what pitfalls do they face?
When ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ arrived on the internet, it was to palpable hype. Little snippets and teasers were celebrated across all the online communities I was a part of. And yet, in the days leading up to its release, I found myself equal parts excited and wary. Shafi has possibly become the most recognisable contemporary feminist icon in Pakistan and, while this is understandable, it is often when collective movements birth individual icons that they are at their most precarious.
As victims of abuse in Pakistan are silenced with defamation suits, Shafi has done the important work of finding creative ways to say things that build solidarities, challenging the upholders of patriarchy. ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ is many things: it is clever, fun, and feminist and, in a soundscape dominated and controlled by men, it provides welcome reprieve. Authenticity, however, is murky terrain for political commentary; and even while ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ is all these things, it faces the danger of aligning itself with the processes of commercialisation set on turning feminism into a product, an aesthetic, and even a flavour.
Aiman Rizvi is a writer and community organizer with an interest in gender politics, visual cultures and climate justice. She has organized for Aurat March and Karachi Bachao Tehreek in the past, and is currently working as an Editor for Qatar Museums and Archive Books.
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.