Chef Review

Saif Ali Khan in and as “Chef” delivers his finest performance since those dark turns in the last decade. (photo provided)

T-Series Films, Abundantia Entertainment & Bandra West Pictures’ “Chef”

Produced by: Bhushan Kumar, Krishan Kumar, Vikram Malhotra, Janani Ravichandra & Raja Krishna Menon

Directed by: Raja Krishna Menon

Written by: Raja Krishna Menon, Ritesh Shah, Suresh Nair & Jon Favreau

Music: Raghu Dixit & Amaal Mallik

Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Padmapriya Janakiraman, Svar Kamble, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Dinesh Prabhakar, Milind Soman, Sobhita Dhulipala, Ram Gopal Bajaj, Avtar Singh Sahni, Pawan Chopra, Michael Kelberg, Tanya Thompson & others

Once in a long while comes a Hollywood remake that is so perfectly Indianized and adapted that it seems like an original. “Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha” (1998) was the last I remember, though there might have been a good partial or entire rip-off or two later that escape memory. Among the “official” (read licensed) ones so far, the less said, the better, as we have seen from “Bang Bang!” and “Dobaara: See Your Evil.”

“Chef” happily gets into that infinitely small list of remade foreign films that nourish your soul and make you feel – sorry to infringe on Hirani’s copyright – that “All is well” with the world even when things go a shade wonky. This time, I have yet to watch the original Californian “Chef, ” but from what I see here, this film is sure to match up.

Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan) is taken by his olfactory senses to his destiny. He runs away from his Chandni Chowk, Delhi, home to become a chef (the detailed backstory is told later) and lands up in America when his father disparagingly terms him a “halwai.” A divorcee already with a son (Svar Kamble, a delightful natural), he is fired from his job when he socks a customer (Michael Kelberg), who complains about his food.

At the advice of his colleague (Sobhita Dhulipala), he moves back to Kochi in India for a break as well as to please his son who wants him to attend a dance he is participating in at a school concert. Kochi is where the teenager stays with Roshan’s ex-wife Radha (PadmaPriya Janakiraman), who is an ace classical dancer and also coaches students.

Her businessman friend (Milind Soman) suggests that Roshan start a mobile restaurant in a dilapidated bus (!) that he has lying around in his house, and after an indignant refusal, Roshan agrees. The rest of the film explores how Roshan sees the truths of life and realizes its real pleasures and priorities that he had chosen to sidetrack in his quest for success.

This threadbare detail of the story is enough for even those who have not watched the original. Roshan, his ex-wife and son, a loyal friend and a derelict bus simply coalesce into a kind of potent glue that hooks and bonds (not just binds!) us to this story of very human people, complete with their foibles and endearing qualities. We are, as audiences, thrust and taken into the flow of this lovely, simple and warm story as the events in their lives unfold and an additional old unresolved story is brought to emotional fruition.

The writers deserve high marks for the script, which at no point falters or drags. Director Menon, Shah and Nair create a lovely feel-good ambiance that also reaches deeper than the routine feel-good romances or family dramas best experienced in the ‘90s.

This one’s as classy as it is contemporary and natural, and so we find the local Keralites conversing in Malayalam (no subtitles but clearly understood when needed) while there is also quite a lot of English (which fits like a glove in the situation, but Menon could and should have managed Hindi subtitles so that the charm is not lost to those who do not understand the language).

To digress, we can only wonder how Nair, who just a week or so back penned a potboiler that was a needless and negative glorification of a don’s sister, could do so superbly here. Nair may take a bow for his versatility!

Raja Krishna Menon reconfirms his understanding of Hindi cinema after “Airlift,” showing that the older film was no one flash-in-the-pan. His iron grip on the emotional quotient narrated with humor is wonderful. The subtle ways in which Roshan guides his son when he goes wrong has mercurial outbursts and makes heartfelt apologies, and the way he even now yearns for the love of his ex-wife are brought out beautifully and yet naturally.

Special highlights are the houseboat sequence, the small rendezvous in the Amritsar ‘dhaba’ where Roshan used to work and now whips up a long-forgotten recipe of the house, and the way he cooks a dish to please his angry son stand out to show Menon’s surefire grasp of the grammar of mainstream cinema.

Sadly, Raghu Dixit’s songs are wasted, except for “Shugal Laga Le,” because lip-synch may have stretched the story by a few minutes but could have enhanced the dramatic quotient of the film and thus its mass appeal. A beautiful creation like “Khoya Khoya” and even “Banjara” would have worked wonders, though “Darmiyaan” could have remained in the background. Speaking of that, Dixit’s BGM may very occasionally be a tad loud but is in refreshing sync with the film.

Saif Ali Khan, simply put, delivers his finest performance since those dark turns in the last decade. Note-perfect in his nuances, there are so many occasions when we feel we are watching him in real life! Thank god (and Menon’s film!) for this straight, serious but not dark Roshan that we have seen so rarely as Khan would alternate dark with nerdily humorous characters, or delve into straight action a la “Race 2” and “Phantom”!

Svar Kamble should take home all the best child actor awards this year for his unassuming, completely guileless turn. Padmapriya is a known talent in the South, and may not fit much in today’s Hindi cinema world, but is difficult to imagine this authentic film without her charm and acting skills. Chandan Roy Sanyal appeals after eons, and we must put in a word of big praise for Dinesh Prabhakar as the bus driver and Ram Gopal Bajaj for the cameo of Roshan’s father. Another and completely unexpected delight is Milind Soman in a very different role, expressing a lot with his eyes alone.

Happily, Menon seems to have been given free reign (big thanks to co-producers for letting us have an undiluted gem) and the seamless touching upon quintessentially Indian aspects such as the North-South clash, the son’s love for Punjabi food and those lovely touches in and around the Kochi home help provide a mass touch to this classy entertainer. This is one film that should appeal across the country, and well, it’s still not too late to put in the subtitles for the English dialogues!

Don’t give a miss to this Indian ‘Chef’ if you want delectable fare.

Rating: ****

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