Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Padmapriya Janakiraman, Svar Kamble, Chandan Roy Sanyal
Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Jon Favreau’s 2014 Hollywood hit Chef of which this Saif Ali Khan starrer is an official remake (how refreshing it is to see filmmakers go about it the legal way than just be ‘inspired’!). It was one of those films that fetched positive reviews all around and had everyone recommend as a nice watch, but somehow it just slipped off my must-see radar. In retrospect, it was a good decision as I could watch Raja Krishna Menon’s version with a fresh perspective without any bias or expectations. The only point of comparison being the previous ‘family dramas’ that Bollywood has churned out in the recent past. The recent past, in fact, is an important reference because 2017 has been all about small-town romance (Bareilly ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha). The urban, Hinglish-speaking Rahuls, Rohits and Tinas of Mumbai, New York, London had given way to the simple Pritam Vidrohis, Bittis and Keshav Sharmas of Bareilly, Mathura and Varanasi. It’s amusing, therefore, that a film about urban Indians, dealing with situations through an upper middle-class prism (be it divorce, single parenthood, career issues or exes and current flames) actually seems a pleasant change! And it’s just fitting that Chef stars the poster-boy (okay, make that poster-man) of urban romance – Saif Ali Khan.
Saif plays Roshan Kalra, a talented but passion-less chef in New York who has to come to Kochi to his friendly ex-wife Radha (Malayalam actress Padmapriya Janakiraman) and estranged son, Armaan (Svar Kamble), after being fired from his job post his run-in with a diner. Here, he finds meaning to life again after taking on a mobile food truck assisted by his son and supported by the said ex. Saif in his comfort zone here – the urban sophisticate - and after a long time, he seems to enjoy what he’s doing. Yes, he could have done this role in his sleep but it’s still a joy to watch him being the charmer who can win your heart with a goofy smile. There is also a cheeky reference to hisDil Chahta Hai character when the film moves for a bit to Goa (spot it if you can!). He is easy-going and subtle, be it when tossing casual one-liners (what’s this ‘gehra gyaan’ he asks at one point?) or being churlish when confronted by his ex-wife’s current man (a dishy Milind Soman). Wish the film had done more justice to Radha too as Padmapriya has a strong, earthy presence despite the film being entirely a father-son bonding exercise. And then there is the food. Food as a metaphor for repairing broken relationships or building new ones is a cinematic cliché but even so Bollywood hasn’t done enough justice to this theme. Save for a Baawarchi in the past or Cheeni Kum in recent times, we haven’t had ‘food films’ as such. One hoped Chef would fill in the gap but herein lies its small failing. I wanted more of food in the film. I wanted to salivate at the sight of a fluffy omelette (The 100-Foot Journey) or swoon over a bar of chocolate (Chocolat) or get nostalgic about soft chapattis and stuffed karela (The Lunchbox). Unfortunately, Chef doesn’t have enough of it. A few shots of Chandni Chowk chaat or egg curry and idiyappam in Kochi or a delicious pasta in New York doesn’t quite suffice! The pace is also languid and takes its own sweet time to come to the point. At 2 hours and 10 minutes, Chef is shorter than most Hindi films but the not-so-hummable songs actually seem to lengthen it. But these are minor quibbles in a film that is light, frothy and oozing warmth. Chef also gets Kerala, right. Raja Krishna Menon is clearly a man in love with his roots as his cinematographer Priya Seth lovingly captures the vast green fields, tall palms, brown, muddy bylanes and gorgeous traditional homes. (I am booking my ticket to Kochi right now!). This film is a huge departure from his previous venture, the gritty Airlift but Raja proves he is adept at handling a warm family drama too. Watch Chef for its simple yet beautiful take on modern relationships. Watch it for good, clean fun on a weekend. Watch it for Saif. And yes, ladies, also watch it for Milind Soman in a mundu.