In a film titled “Chef” which strangely makes you miss out on the guilty pleasure of watching some food porn, there is one lovely sequence on the art of making tomato chutney.
Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan) is visiting Amritsar with his son, Armaan (Svar Kamble). Sharing his own childhood journey of how he became a chef, and having given some great gyaan on how it’s a privilege to feed people like the people doing seva in Langar at the Golden Temple; he takes Arman to a local dhaba. After all, how can a trip to Punjab be complete without gorging on those butter laden parathas and wholesome, thick lassi? As soon as their food is served on the table, Roshan asks why there is no tomato chutney with rightful icredulousness. The dhaba was known for the chutney some 30 years ago. Since the glorious chutney had not been made, our New York return chef gets going to work his magic.
Red, big, juicy tomatoes are stuck on a huge rod and turn gold and black as they are roasted on the big earthen cooking fire inside the dhaba kitchen. The camera transfixes you to the piping hot tomato pulp getting squashed, other ingredients being chopped and Roshan mixing it all on the big, smoking pan with the deftness of the practiced chef that he is.
The scene is the best part of the film for three reasons. Firstly, it deals with the character’s passion for cooking and traces it to the actual roots of learning. Secondly, it shows the character passing on the quintessential Indian culture to the next twitter hooked generation. Finally, it is all about the good, old, simple, and absolute must food for the soul. That thing called chutney.
However, such moments are far and few. The original Hollywood film, ‘Chef’, too had missed out on those basic ingredients of real moments with food and worse: the lack of a conflict; a more vital requirement of any story. Instead, a massive food truck took centre stage, as in this Indian remake.
Director, Raja Krishna Menon who had shown his refreshing storytelling craft in ‘Airlift”, does a great job of retaining the feel good factor of the original film. He even takes a minor segment of the estranged couple and makes it more Indian and palatable for the audiences unaccustomed to the dynamics of a broken family. Menon turns it into a father- son bonding story with lots of parenting lessons thrown in. One gets to see a Saif not seen before—a kurta pyjama clad guy from Chandni Chowk and one with a temper. Only, it gets unintentionally hilarious at points because Saif’s unconvincing acting wherein he punches a restaurant customer in the beginning, is the most awkward scene. Clearly Saif Ali Khan is no Albert Pinto. You get a glimpse of the old, self effacing Saif-the butt of all jokes-- in a nice tete a tete with his ex wife’s current boyfriend, Milind Soman (who could write a book titled “How to go Grey and Look Fabulous in a Dhoti”). Then, of course, there is that cute little reference to his younger ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ days in Goa when he was robbed by a foreign woman.
While focusing on Saif in this unassuming, simple role along with his interactions with a lovely fresh cast like the beautiful and ever smiling Padmapriya Janakiraman and the natural Svar Kamble in the lush city of God; Menon overlooks the essential food journey and the cinematography required to bring out that spark in the cooking fire; both visual and metaphorical.
Here is a beautiful cinematic opportunity of capturing the utter meditative quality of preparing a seven course meal or simply a fine salad which looks like a work of art. Instead we see lots of onion chopping and unappealing, repetitive dishes of pasta. Something that requires a baawarchi, not a chef—a distinction Roshan loves to point out. So, instead of a kitchen journey of a man whose soul is one with aroma and spices; we get a food and culture tour of India. From Kerala to Amritsar. From Goa to Delhi. From Kochi’s idli appam to Chandni Chowk’s chole bhature. Which, actually is a great way to Indianise Jon Favreau’s Chef. After all, India is a land of the most divergent food culture and what better way to show this through a road journey in a food truck? As is the case with a trip through Miami, New Orleans and Texas in the Hollywood original.
The only hitch is that you end up longing for the scenic Kerala roads surrounded by tall, coconut trees and rivers; instead of feasting your eyes on a mouth watering hot, bubbling pot of saambar. To make you fall in love with food and spices and watch the artist create with their knives and hands, one needs more of “Julie and Julia” or “Chocolat”. And less of chicken soup gyaan.