Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Padmapriya Jankiraman, Svar Kamble, Chandan Roy
One of the cheesiest ways to talk about a film about food is to use food metaphors – did you notice the cheesiest there? But I can’t resist so here goes.
Chef, an adaptation of Jon Favreau’s 2014 film, is sweet but not tangy. Its flavours are slow to take hold. Like the original, the film is amiable but it never becomes essential.
Saif Ali Khan is Roshan Kalra - a 41-year-old, three Michelin-star chef who finds himself in the throes of an existential crisis. Once upon a time, Roshan was so passionate about cooking that he ran away from home because his father insisted on more appropriate professions like doctor and engineer. Roshan slept on kitchen floors and worked his way up to a New York restaurant.
But now he has lost his mojo. Roshan’s food is functional but the taste no longer transports his customers. There is little joy in his life. Early in the film, Roshan has a melt-down in his New York restaurant and is promptly fired. The break turns out to be a blessing. He returns to India where he reignites his relationship with his son and ex-wife. Roshan realises that work, relationships and family are intertwined. An artist in isolation is an artist without inspiration.
These are not spoilers – all of this is in the film’s trailer. And that perhaps is the problem with Chef. Even if you haven’t seen the original, you know exactly where the narrative is heading. The beats are familiar. But it doesn’t become comfort food because the pacing is slow and and the energy flags, especially in the second half. Despite the gorgeous food visuals and Kerala landscapes, a certain blandness remains.
The fatal flaw is the inconsistent writing, by Ritesh Shah, Suresh Nair and director Raja Krishna Menon. There are lovely, sharp moments, including a sly reference to Saif’s character in Dil Chahta Hai but these are bogged down by stilted scenes, including a half-baked climax. Too many scenes have life lessons attached and every issue is so quickly and easily resolved that it’s hard to stay emotionally invested.
It’s frustrating because there’s also enough to enjoy here. Firstly, Chef works as food porn. The film is a celebration of food, of what it means to cook a meal and to serve people you love with your own hands. As food sizzles on pans – it’s been lovingly shot by DOP Priya Seth - you will start to get hungry. I was dying to eat the roti pizzas that Roshan concocts. Chef also works as a picturesque travelogue - Raja, who earlier made Barah Aana and Airlift, gives Favreau’s story a nice Indian spin. So Roshan is from Chandni Chowk while his ex-wife Radha is Malayali. Which means we get to savor a variety of foods – from chole bhature to iddiappams. And we get to do road trips from Kochi to Chandni Chowk.
The actors – Padmapriya Janakiraman as Radha, Svar Kamble as his son Armaan and Chandan Roy Sanyal as the faithful aide, are uniformly good. There’s also Milind Soman, looking delectable with salt and pepper hair, as Radha’s new partner Biju. Biju is handsome, rich and sophisticated – he knows that Botticelli is an artist and not virgin olive oil. His scenes with Roshan are some of the best in the film.
And then there is the pleasure of watching Saif Ali Khan get his groove back. Roshan is portly, angry and insecure. He is also completely out of shape – in one scene, he gets so out of breath after running that you worry that he will keel over. At one point, a character tells him – asli khatara tum ho Roshan. Saif doesn’t play Roshan as a hero having a bad day. He gives us a flawed, fumbling man who is trying to repair the broken chords of his life.
His performance imbues Chef with more depth than the script has. Ultimately, the film is too bumpy to leave you satiated. But it is a pleasant enough diversion.