Anwar Rasheed's Ustad Hotel is a gem in Malayalam cinema with its beautiful soundtrack and an Anjali Menon script that tugs at your heart strings. However, it may not fit into your typical perception of a motivational movie because the protagonist never ends up achieving his great dream.
Ustad Hotel brings together 3 generations and explores the conflict between modernity, tradition, and love. As the story opens, we meet Abdul Razaaq who is excited by his wife's pregnancy because he hopes to have a son to carry on his legacy. Abdul is disappointed as his wife bears 4 daughters one after the other and he continues his pursuit for a son. In this very instance, we can see the patriarchal standards which motivate Abdul's actions. He doesn't see his daughters as capable of carrying on his name and feels that only a son can fill this role. He disregards the potential health risks of consecutive pregnancies in his desire for a son, and his wife played by Praveena suffers the consequences.
Through this small detail, Ustad Hotel calls attention to how women and their dreams are often sidelined because of their expected role as mothers. Praveena's health is not prioritised because it is more important to Abdul that he has a son. Thus, Praveena dies, leaving Abdul to be the father to 5 children. Even following his wife's death, Abdul does not let go of his misogynistic mindset.
We see that while he yells at Feyzee to go study, he expects his daughters to complete household chores like cooking. While Feyzee enjoys his time in the kitchen with his sisters, his father wants him to adhere to the expected gender role of a man and focus on his education and career. However for Feyzee who is largely influenced by his sisters, cooking is a way to bond with his siblings and express his individuality. Thus, knowing his father would not support his ambition of becoming a chef, Feyzee lies to Abdul that he wishes to study hotel management abroad and instead enrols at a culinary school.
After Feyzee returns home from his studies, his family brings him a marriage proposal with Shahana, an interior designer, from a conservative family. The meeting between Shahana and Feyzee marks a turning point in the film as the proposal falls apart upon her family learning about his occupation with one relative commenting "we were looking for a husband, not someone to cook biriyani for her".
Feyzee sees being a chef as a respectable career and envisions working in upscale European restaurants, however his decision triggers Abdul's childhood memories of being mocked for being a cook's son. Now as he is trying to rebrand himself as a successful, wealthy businessman, Abdul cannot understand why his son would want to pursue what he considers to be a menial job. The conflict between Abdul and Feyzee highlights a generational and cultural difference because chefs are rarely given great admiration in India, where white collar jobs are always seen as superior. However, in Western countries popular chefs are given a celebrity-like status. From Gordon Ramsey to Bobby Flay, chefs are appreciated for their unique styles and dining at their restaurants is an upper class affair. For much of the young Indian generation, Feyzee's dream of "freedom" – of living with his white girlfriend, escaping from family obligations, and having a flashy lifestyle with an unconventional career – may ring true.
If this was a cliche movie, I think it would end with Abdul realizing his mistake and Feyzee moving to Europe to pursue his dream job, but what makes Ustad Hotel unique is that it forces us to look at how we define success.
When his father takes away his passport and visa, Feyzee is forced to live with his grandfather who runs a small restaurant, Ustad Hotel. Upon returning to India, Feyzee realizes that much of his dream is built from illusions. His girlfriend, Christina, doesn't fit into his world not because she is white but because Feyzee has hid much of himself from her. She only knows the rebellious and modern Feyzee who wants to be a famous chef, but he doesn't seem to share with her the side of him that is connected to his culture and family. Furthermore , his relationship showcases a desperation to be in control. After witnessing his sisters be married off to "appropriate" grooms, Christina represents non-conformity but he fails to examine if he really loves her or if he just loves the idea of defiance.
When Kareemikka finds him a job as a chef at the nearby five-star joint, Feyzee is excited to work in a place which he feels matches his calibre more. However, Feyzee realises that beneath the glitz of five star hotels there is actually an insidious corporate greed and that the refined exterior hosts customers who are often snobbish and elitist.
In a pivotal scene, he meets Shahana's new fiancee who talks down to him and splashes sauce across his face without so much as a sorry. Feyzee then realises that Kareemikka enjoys much more affection and appreciation from the customers at his much smaller restaurant. This arc comes to a climax when the corporate friends of the CEO claim that their chicken isn't "fresh" enough and Dulquer quits his fancy job after dropping a live chicken at the table. This scene exemplifies his choice to stand by the passion & love of his grandfather and Ustad Hotel rather than the prestige of the Beach Bay Enterprise.
Later, Shahana who had initially rejected him recognises her mistake in making a haste judgement and realises that she can be herself around him. Shahana sneaks out of her house and sings with a band to feel the same freedom that Feyzee hopes to find in Europe. Yet, through Feyzee, Shahana recognises the potential for a relationship where her desires and opinions are respected. Her love for Feyzee is actually an escape from the confines of her restrictive household and the hope of a future where she doesn't have to lie to enjoy herself.
Yet, even after Feyzee helps his grandfather save Usthad Hotel from debt and falls in love with Shahana, he still holds on to his earlier dream of becoming a chef in Europe. When he gets the dream job in Paris, we wonder how Feyzee could be so excited to leave behind the love and support he has in Calicut. This is because Feyzee still doesn't understand that cooking does not only revolve around his own personal connection to food and the atmosphere.
Finally, by meeting Narayanan Krishnan who has dedicated his life to feeding the poor, Feyzee finally understands the meaning behind Kareemika saying "anyone can fill a stomach, but only a good cook can fill the heart as well". When he returns home to find Kareemika has left for a pilgrimage, Feyzee takes over Ustad Hotel, recognising that his rightful place is not where he will get the most fame or money but where he can touch the most hearts.