It is hard to entirely dislike any film starring Saif Ali Khan. He has such a likeable personality and such natural ease before the camera, that he ends up adding charm to any project he is a part of, however flimsy or dismal it might be. Chef is not dismal, but it is flimsy.
Airlift director Raja Krishna Menon’s new film is an official remake of the Hollywood film Chef directed by and starring Jon Favreau, in which a once shining star on the American culinary scene has a meltdown when a critic skewers his restaurant. The video clip of his moment of weakness turns viral and ends up almost ruining him professionally. Instead of allowing that trough in his career to translate into a complete full stop, he uses the opportunity to find a new road and simultaneously bond with the son he had with his ex-wife.
In the Hindi Chef, Khan plays top chef Roshan Kalra who is plateauing and loses his job at a plush restaurant in New York when he hits a dissatisfied patron. At first feeling sorry for himself and angry at what he perceives as an injustice, he soon realises that he had indeed allowed his work to qualitatively decline. The customer, it dawns on him, was, in fact, right.
On the urging of his good friend and former colleague Vinnie, (the lovely Sobhita Dhulipala from Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 last year), he uses the hiatus to visit his son in Kochi, where the boy lives with his mother Radha Menon, a successful classical dancer who was once married to Roshan. Without going into the details of how it happens, it can be told that like in the original, the father and child end up on a road trip in a food truck Roshan has decided to run.
What Chef has going for it is that Saif is as seemingly effortless as always before the camera. So is Janakiraman who, as it happens, is a hottie. Seriously, she is exquisite. Janakiraman is a pan-India actress with a filmography dominated by Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. She is not a known face in Bollywood though, which is truly Bollywood’s loss.
Both lead actors share good chemistry with debutant Svar Kamble who plays Roshan and Radha’s kid Armaan. And in a small role, Milind Soman reminds us that there are few creatures in this world sexier than a well-built man in a well-draped mundu.
The thing about Kerala is that it is so spectacular, that wherever you aim your camera you will automatically see beauty, and director of photography Priya Seth takes full advantage of the picturesque landscape at her disposal to lay out an array of stunning visuals for our consumption. That becomes particularly important because after a while, Chef transitions into a road film, taking us along from Kerala to Goa and finally Delhi. What Seth does not serve us though are food visuals, a fact that turns out to be this film’s death knell since it is – wait for it – a food movie.
So yeah, Chef is a slick production, with everything and everyone looking good from start to finish (I particularly enjoyed Anuradha Shetty’s designs of the interiors of Roshan, Radha and Soman’s character Biju’s homes – each one markedly, and interestingly, different) but when viewed as a whole, it is an extremely frustrating experience. The joy of watching any road movie is to see the changing geography and cultures of the places the protagonists pass through. We get a decent serving of the former and a teeny bit of the latter here. What is truly unforgivable though is Chef’s lack of fervour for food.
It is hard to believe that Menon is not well-acquainted with the genre. If he was not, all he needed to do for inspiration and education was to look within Kerala, where most of Chef is set, and from where, just this year,Angamaly Diaries dished out a plethora of thoroughly exhilarating food scenes on screen, set in the roadside eateries and kitchens of a small southern Indian town. Alternatively, he could have sought out reference material from the film industry in which he operates. Although Bollywood does not frequent food films, just recently in 2013 director Ritesh Batra brought home to us the enticing sights and sounds of cooking in The Lunchbox– oil bubbling in a pan, the whoosh when fresh onions meet the surface of that oil, the crackle of mustard, human hands affectionately putting it all together. Forget these two films — all he needed to do was watch the original Chef for guidance.
Favreau’s film was not earth-shatteringly brilliant, but it had clarity about what it wanted to do and no hesitation in doing it. It told a heartwarming story, and was almost meditative in the way it captured the lead character’s intense romance with cooking. To see him slice, chop and dice vegetables, select meats and veggies, fry, bake, boil and roast, and then plate up as a painter would work a canvas or a dancer would work a stage was enough to get any normal viewer’s mouth watering and heart racing. That is, after all, the primary mission of any such film.
Throughout the Hindi Chef, I wanted to shake my fist at the screen and scream at it in anger when large passages went by with no reference to food at all, interspersed with scenes where people were shown cooking, serving and eating in long and medium shots, with little to no focus on what lay on their plates, the processes that got it there or their pleasure while tasting the end product. It took almost 45 minutes for Chef to give us an entire scene devoted to the hero conceptualising and cooking a complete dish, with the camera closing in on his ingredients, his methods and his invention. I am not even a particularly obsessive foodie, but the moment that scene was over, I immediately felt the urge to rush back home to my kitchen and try out that thing Roshan christens a rotzza.
That is the effect that any good food film should have on its audience.
When Armaan tries chhole bhature for the first time and the camera gingerly watched him at arm’s length, I almost yelled, “Oh, for God’s sake, zoom in on that bloody bhatura, will you?” Somewhere, there is a mention of idiyappam, a.k.a. string hoppers, a steamed rice-noodle preparation with a coconut filling that is a popular part of Malayali cuisine but little known in the north – again, no close up. Was this the DoP’s failure, or did she take those shots and did the editor remove them, or was it the director’s call not to feature such shots at all? Whatever be the reason, Menon’s film takes the chefing out of Chef which is pretty much like taking the music out of a musical. What’s the point then? Huh?
Raghu Dixit has come up with some agreeable background music for Chef, but his songs are surprisingly bland, with the exception of an up-tempo number called Shugal laga le that revs up the mood as soon as it is played. Dixit himself makes an appearance to sing it, and his introduction is one of the film’s most awkwardly constructed scenes. The other comes in the interactions between Roshan and Biju. Both appear to be the most hurriedly written, poorly developed parts of the screenplay.
There is some sweetness to be experienced in the interactions between Roshan and Armaan and separately between Roshan and Radha, some insights that emerge from the story of Roshan’s early struggles and poignancy in his experiences in Amritsar, but it is just not enough. Besides, the lethargic pace of the narrative underlines the flimsiness of the screenplay by Ritesh Shah, Suresh Nair and Menon.
Ankur Tewari’s lyrics for Shugal laga le, “Ghoomey awaara se / Mere kadam jahaan / Bantaa gaya bas rastaa / Rahi miley jahaan bhi / Pagley manmauji jo / Badhta gaya bas kaarvaan” (Wherever I wandered, wherever my path took me, I made my own road / Wherever I encountered fellow travellers, crazy whimsical beings, the caravan got longer), capture the essence of what this film wanted to be and might have been if it had explored Roshan’s relationships – with the owner of Galli, with food, with Radha, with Armaan and with himself – in greater depth.
On the plus side, the blending of Hindi, Malayalam and English in Ritesh Shah’s dialogues is neatly done, though the writing team’s lack of research is shocking in a scene where a character informs Roshan that he knows Hindi, which he describes as “the national language”. Err, India does not have a “national language”, Team Chef. Have you not read the Constitution or the history of the country’s language movement? It is bad enough that Hindi propagandists work hard to spread this lie, but such ignorance from a screenwriting crew is grossly inexcusable.
This is not to say that Chef has nothing to offer. It is pleasant in parts, pretty almost throughout, and the cast is appealing. In the absence of heft and a commitment to its genre though, it remains an ineffectual film.
A close scrutiny of the credits reveals that there was actually a food stylist – Sandhya Kumar – on the rolls. What the heck? Why bring her on and then waste her work? It also turns out that the chefs at Galli Kitchen, Roshan’s New York eatery, were all drawn from JW Marriott, including some leading names from the world of gastronomy. Umm, why bother with such detailing in the casting if you ain’t gonna show them cook? Oh lord, I want to bang my head on my table in exasperation as I write this.
Saif Ali Khan, who I believe is one of Hindi cinema’s most underrated actors, needs to choose better.
It does not speak well of Menon’s latest screen offering, that I felt the need to compensate for the deep dissatisfaction I felt after watching it by coming home and watching an entire episode of Masterchef Australia. To see Gary rustle up a simple plate of roast chicken with pea custard and fondant potatoes was a yummilicous and sensual experience. That’s what Chef should have been but is not.