Director: Ranjan Ghosh
Cast: Rituparna Sengupta, Arifin Shuvoo, Paran Bandopadhyay
Did you know that the ‘malai’ in prawn malai curry has nothing to do with cream – that the word derives from Malaysia? Or that in 1899, Swami Vivekananda, driven by the desire to eat pui saag (vine or Malabari spinach) with the Padma’s famed ilish (he had bought twenty of these for the princely sum of Re 1), had to initiate the man providing the saag as his disciple – the enterprising man laid that down as a precondition. Or what we Bengalis call khichuri (porridge) originated with Emperor Seleucus. Or how the dish chicken daak bungalow came to acquire its name?
If you are a non-foodie quiz aficionado like me, these titbits might serve as delectable entrees to whet the appetite. If, however, you are a film buff, Ahaa Re might just end up a disappointing fare because the sumptuous main course one is expecting never quite materializes. Why sumptuous, the film fails even to provide the quotidian delights of plain daal-bhaat.
Director Ranjan Ghosh ticks all the right boxes when it comes to an unconventional premise. A rich Bangladeshi Muslim, Farhaz Choudhury (Arifin Shuvoo), ditched by his girlfriend, comes to Kolkata as head chef of a four-star kitchen; a middle-class Hindu (that too a Brahmin), Basundhara Ganguly (Rituparna Sengupta), who runs a home food catering service, is older than Farhaz, and nurses a dark secret from her past. And using the medium of food, the fusion of Epaar Bangla and Opaar Bangla (East and West Bengal), the film charts the course of their love story.
However, that’s as far as the unconventionality goes – the narrative that plays out is as flat as Coke that has lost its fizz. In an early sequence in the film, Farhaz tells his colleagues, ‘Cooking is not about rules but imagination.’ The director could have done well to follow the axiom – unfortunately for the film, he breaks some rules when it comes to the premise, but the execution is utterly lacking in imagination.
There are two fundamental flaws that afflict the film. One, the total lack of chemistry between the two protagonists. Here, I am not even looking for ‘sizzling’ vibes – I understand that Basundhara is the sort of character not given to overt displays of passion, what with the shadow of her past hanging over her. Also, Arifin Shuvoo’s largely one-note performance does not help the cause of the relationship either. In fact, there’s more spark in his interactions with Basundhara’s ‘father’, Atanu Ganguly (a delightful Paran Bandyopadhyay), than with her.
Two, at 150 minutes the film is fatally overlong. There are large passages where nothing really happens – and these are not even mood-building moments. And digressions that almost make one wince, like the Holi bhaang sequence between Farhaz and his Punjabi friend (stand-up comic and author Anuvab Pal in a woeful case of miscasting – the friendship and empathy between them is as unconvincing as Pal’s faux Bengali-Punjabi accent). And what is that bit about a property dealer doing in the film? And why does everything need to be spelt out? Was that flashback to Basundhara’s past really necessary, after we have been told about it? Why does Atanu Ganguly have to underline the oneness of Hindus and Muslims, citing examples like Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri, Sharmila Tagore and Tiger Pataudi, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Promila Devi – in a sequence that ends up being unintentionally funny? And the cliché-ridden, melodramatic last three-quarters of the film – including a seemingly interminable climax – after Basundhara’s past is revealed eventually sinks the film. Which is as much a disappointment as a surprise given the control over his craft Ranjan Ghosh demonstrated in his previous outing Rong Beronger Korhi.
In the end what you are left to savour are two performances. As the old patriarch who bristles at being addressed as meshomoshai by strangers, who partakes of tea and ghoogni at the roadside stall with visible relish, who is disdainful of eateries serving ‘Bangali pizza’ mushrooming all over, who yearns to learn magic at this ripe old age, and who is accepting of the hand fate has dealt him and of the possibility of a relationship between Farhaz and Basundhara, Bandyopadhyay is by far the best thing about the film. Sengupta, who is also the film’s producer, delivers with considerable restraint right through only to falter in the film’s closing moments.
There are a couple of understated sequences in the film where Farhaz explains the mystery of what we call chocolate flavour as a mix of taste and smell, underlining how cooking is an art that blends theses senses with touch and sight, and another where Atanu talks about the magic of love. Unfortunately, the film lacks insights on both counts. In an interview in the run-up to the film’s release, Ranjan Ghosh had described it as one where ‘food is the body, love is the soul’ – well, for me, the body here is rather shapeless and the soul sadly missing.
Watch the trailer: