Director: Neeraj Udhwani
Cast: Manisha Koirala, Prit Kamani, Javed Jaffrey, Nikita Dutta, Shirley Setia
Writer: Neeraj Udhwani, Ishita Moitra
Producer: Seher Aly Latif, Shivani Saran
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Duration: 1 hour 52 minutes
I think it’s time Netflix India rethink its nostalgia-tinted high-brow attitude of entertainment. It’s quite adoring to indulge in it, but ‘nostalgic’ needs an and-adjective to endure. Nostalgic and cinematic. Nostalgic and gripping. Nostalgic and provoking.
Maska is a sweet little story of a Parsi widow in Colaba (Manisha Koirala, whose charms I’ll speak of in a bit) who is in charge of both, her late husband’s ailing Parsi cafe, and her ambitious son, Rumi (Prit Kamani, whose good bad-acting confounds), who wants nothing to do with the cafe. Instead, he wants to sell this piece of nostalgia to fuel his ambitions- to be an actor. His dead father (Javed Jaffrey, the Naseeruddin Shah to this Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, a nostalgic and funny film) erupts as apparitions only he can see.
The film morphs into a tale where Rumi reconciles his dreams with his nostalgia. Along the way, he encounters two girls, one representing his dreams, (an immigrant) and one his nostalgia (another Parsi). Their identities are important to what they represent. You cannot have someone who has left her home behind to pursue her instincts to be representative of nostalgia. Similarly, you cannot have someone inbred (literally) into a culture that fears for its extinction represent dreams and ambition. It’s all very strategic; clearly, time has been spent on characterization.
Nostalgia here is needed currency. It is true that Parsi cafes, clustered in South Bombay are a dying relic, the progeny of the current owners willing to rather sell the prime property instead of enduring the long hour shifts owning such a place would entail.
Berry pulao, custard, bun maska, brun maska, and chai that reeks of lemongrass- how to sell this idea to a newer generation? By hiring a food stylist (Shubhangi Dhaumade in this film) making the construction of bun maska almost pornographic in its allure. And of course, pitting it against ambition; from the very beginning, you know exactly whose side you are on.
But the makers of Maska shove it too deep down our throats. (Something Parsi men can’t, as Cyrus Sahukar who makes a brief appearance would joke if he wrote this review. Maska has some great one-liners) There are entire scenes randomly strewn about to make the point that selling your inherited legacy is bad not just because of the need to conserve relics of our existence, but also because it will put people out a job (an old immigrant), because it will displace the lovers who meet here regularly, and people’s realities would just become stories. There are heartbreaking moments here, sure, but the coated contextless melodrama seems too obvious to be taken seriously.
Now when I mentioned high-brow, I didn’t mean intellectually stimulating per-se, as much I meant the pretense of intellectual stimulation. The passing lazy references to Stanislavsky during acting classes, the forced intrusion of Ikigai, which is also brought up in a pivotal break-up scene. The last thing anyone wants to hear when their heart is being broken is unnerving pop-philosophy. Philosophy is for the aftermath. It’s really no surprise then that you have a character who takes photos and records people without their consent, romanticizing their struggle for her blog; the Humans Of Bombay angle. (At one point, Persis, this character says “The universe is not made up of atoms, Rumi. It is made up of stories.”) It reminded me of the banal and almost childish philosophical musings in Taj Mahal 1989, something someone would have written after watching a few ‘The School Of Life’ videos. (Great addition to your quarantine watch-list)
Perhaps, this film will take a little while to get used to. Manisha Koirala’s accent, though jarring initially, you get used to. She looks resplendent in the Parsi gara sarees, her possessive pain as palpable as it is problematic. Kamani, who plays Rumi, bushy eyebrows and charming, is supposed to be a bad actor. It’s part of this universe where you can only be good at your heritage, never your ambitions. But his emotional staleness flows into the scenes where he isn’t supposed to act, but be Rumi. The charm can only hide so much.
The same goes for the film. I rooted for nostalgia to win, just because of how flaky ambition looked. But the charm of the past lasts only so much; the failure of this film speaks to a broader failure of the culture of nostalgia. I remember an old broken cafe (that featured in the movie The Graduate) I used to frequent in my college days that one day just shut down. On its doors people put up notes of farewell. One of them read “Dear Cafe, It was a great ride. I spent much of my high school (1966-1970) here drinking good coffee and writing bad poetry… I am forever grateful for the time I had here. This community of strange and often wonderful people became a family to me when I’d forgotten that I’d needed one…” The owner spoke of how they couldn’t commercialize this nostalgia successfully. It hurt, in the same way the failure of this movie hurts. You can try to win the war of history, but to march into the future you need a little more than the currency of the past. To endure, you need to entertain.