Maska is the kind of self-indulgent nostalgic piece that does little to convey its intended nostalgia to the viewers. It is a film that intends to look at the Irani Cafés in South Bombay with melancholic reverence. These cafés, the film suggests, carry a legacy that needs to be protected and cherished in times of rampant capitalism and erratic erosion of anything that does not fall under the structure of a ruthless, modern world. Sadly, the film never becomes about the café it celebrates and somehow focuses more on an ignorant, privileged teenager and his struggle between choosing his legacy and passion.
Rumi Irani (Prit Kamani) is the heir of Café Rustom, a place that his forefathers have run for decades. The cramped café in South Bombay, though, is not for Rumi what it was for his father Late Rustom Irani (Javed Jaffrey), who appears inconsistently throughout the film as Rumi’s hallucination, and his mother Diana Irani (Manisha Koirala). He is the kind of young man who creates a crisis for himself when there is no real chaos in his life, to begin with.
It all begins when Rumi wins a local beauty pageant. This ignites a sudden, thoughtless dream in his mind of becoming an actor. He moves in with his girlfriend, starts giving auditions and does little except pretending to be an award-winning actor in front of his mirror. His love for acting is less about him finding his passion and more about him looking out for an escape that can take him away from the life of a café owner.
A better film would have used this flashy dream of Rumi as a good, light-hearted first hour. But Ishita Moitra’s writing and Neeraj Udhwani’s direction limits these scenes to a forced repetition of Rumi’s arguments with his mother and conversations with his girlfriend Mallika (Nikita Dutta), an aspiring actress who seems to be dating Rumi-the-aspiring-actor and not Rumi-the-person. She is sketched as an inconsistent, eventually insignificant romantic partner in Rumi’s life who never outgrows that one-liner to become anything substantial as an individual.
This is a small cog in the larger framework of Maska. The film’s female characters lack any arc or action divorced from Rumi. They exist in the movie as a prop – a plot-point. While Mallika is conveniently taken out of the narrative when the movie wants Rumi to experience what Café Rustom has to offer, the film’s leading lady Persis Mistry (Shirley Setia) remains absent from the narrative for almost an hour before popping up in Rumi’s life with an opportunity for him to converse with Café Rustom and in extension his legacy as its heir.
She shoots for Bombay People Project, a fictionalized version of Humans of Bombay, capturing stories of people that otherwise go unheard. This entire process is served for Rumi to realize that a café is not just about serving food, it is about being a part of some beautiful stories. These experiences make him realize his calling. His ikigai (a term is thrown casually in the film for no reason except to show that the makers have read the bestseller of the same name). However, the growing intimacy between Rumi and Persis never feels passionate enough to pass for a romantic relationship. They gel well and for most parts interact as friends before the film takes a problematic take on infidelity to force their relationship as a romantic one. This graduation of their feelings for each other is again all done to support the larger cause of Rumi’s journey. We see how it impacts Rumi and the film’s trajectory, but we are never made to feel Persis as a multi-dimensional character.
The most well-known and charismatic face in Maska is that of Manisha Koirala, who is underused as Rumi’s mother. She stands for Café Rumi, but like other female characters her characterization is limited to how she impacts Rumi’s story. We do not get to know her as an individual. Like every other character, Diana is written in broad, generic strokes. Koirala struggles to find momentum in the early part of the movie but shines in the emotional scenes, which is where we see the actor that she is, making her squashed role in film even more disappointing.
Similarly, Javed Jaffrey is wasted in an underdeveloped role as Rustom Irani, Rumi’s father. He is a charming, assured presence on screen. But the film does not do much to dwell on his camaraderie with Prit Kamani. Koirala and Jaffrey come closest to imbibing the nostalgic tone of the film. Sadly, we do not see them enough to realize the past that makes the present nostalgia worth our time.
Maska is named after the bun-maska that is served at Café Rustom, but honestly, the film could have been named anything and it would not have mattered. The film does not use the title as a metaphor in any way. Maska is a strangely confused film. It does little to make its viewers understand the beauty of the Irani Cafés it looks at with reverentially. If only the film spoke more about the journey of Rustom and Diana instead of a privileged man-child, Maska could have been a better, more endearing watch.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.