Director: Raja Krishna Menon
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Padmapriya Jankiraman, Svar Kamble, Chandan Roy Sanyal
In the first few minutes of Chef, we are reminded of what it doesn’t want to be. We hear Saif Ali Khan’s (as Roshan Kalra) voiceover quickly skimming over his ‘80s Chandni Chowk childhood. “Forget Masterchef, those were the days even 3 Idiots hadn’t released; children continued to follow their parents’ dreams,” he says, before unflappably declaring that his father disowned him for his unorthodox “rasoi” ambitions. His tone is very unfussy – unlike the blockbuster he mentions. There is no nostalgic background score, and no lavish flashbacks. Later, there is a fleeting (and very clever) Dil Chahta Hai reference, too. It’s almost as if the maker, Raja Krishna Menon (Airlift), is dropping hints about the kind of punctuated Bollywood language Chef will forsake; after all, only “real” characters speak about movies like they’re movies.
And for most part, Chef – an adaptation of Jon Favreau’s middling Chef (2014) – is that sort of no-nonsense, clean film. It can’t be disliked, but doesn’t work too hard to be liked either. Traditionally dramatic events – a New York based Indian chef getting fired for punching a customer, his inbuilt arrogance, his “break” to visit his son (a perceptive Svar Kamble, as Armaan) and ex-wife (Padmapriya Janakiraman, as Radha) in Cochin, his rising camaraderie with the kid, his ambiguous interactions with the ex-wife, his gastronomical travels across North India with the boy, his estranged-father syndrome, his daring food-truck journey – are not so dramatic here. They pass by without the kind of theatricality we are programmed to expect from a “lost” hero rediscovering his soul.
By the time this film begins, Saif Ali Khan is already positioned as a fallen star that we are supposed to invest in. It’s difficult when everything we know about him is a result of the incessant life advice he is offered. Everyone around him seems to know what’s best for him.
In fact, there seems to be such a conscious effort to stay away from a melodramatic template that this film becomes a curt one. It doesn’t really stop to let you digest any silences or key moments. For example, the bitter food-critic spat from the original is turned into an estranged-father setup (technically, fathers are the ultimate critics) here, but the strange absence of gravitas to this age-old conflict makes the resolution feel too formulaic. It happens, but isn’t felt, because the focus is squarely on the other father-son equation.
Eventually, for a film about Indian food, Chef ends up looking quite bland – as if it were simply satisfied by translating Jon Favreau’s Cuba-California food culture into a tasty Cochin-Delhi dichotomy. Even his street-food “invention,” a Rottza (roti+pizza), feels a little hurried. This no-frills approach doesn’t totally work for a story that naturally lends itself to the heat, the passion, the frustration and pleasure of artistic reinvention.
Maybe some of this is down to Favreau’s original material. He is a fast-talking, unemotional character in general, and his rapid American journey doesn’t fit the aristocratic pensiveness of Saif Ali Khan’s gait. He is in an Indian story told in a non-Indian way. Some of this is also down to the way Roshan Kalra is written as a protagonist. By the time this film begins, he is already positioned as a fallen star that we are supposed to invest in. It’s difficult when everything we know about him is a result of the incessant life advice he is offered. Everyone around him seems to know what’s best for him.
In his own words, they all go “chicken soup” on him – as if he were a unique psychiatry case-study subject presented for evaluation to onlookers in white coats who dissect his personality by scribbling into their notepads. Every single character – from his former restaurant boss to his part-time Manhattan squeeze (Sobhita Dhulipala) to his curiously unsentimental ex-wife to her hunky boyfriend (Milind Soman) to his smart-alecky son to his Bangladeshi sous chef (Chandan Roy Sanyal) to even the new driver of his truck – gives him “gyaan” about his deficiencies. Just like everyone is a film critic these days. I mean: he isn’t really that messed up, is he? No wonder he cracks the world’s worst puns (which are kind of funny-lame) and struggles to identify his own path. There are too many unsolicited voices in his head.
Especially strange is the frighteningly calm way in which Radha keeps dropping a line or two about his life. I can’t quite tell if she is dignified or sly about their situation. It’s like all of them exist solely to guide his genius back into order – irrespective of what a prick he has been for years together. This can, of course, only happen in a predetermined “script” – ironic, given this story’s impatience with cinematic storytelling.
Khan, though, has his moments. He excels at being wry, especially when he poker-facedly voices things that should have remained in his head. He is adequate as a flawed human, a father and an ex-husband, but doesn’t quite “cut” it as a professional chef. There is a lot of handwork he has to look at ease with – scenes where he has to chop, fry, mix, grill and even open champagne bottles in complete silence. But it’s one thing to learn how to do them for a role, and another to do them as if he belongs in a high-pressure kitchen. The seasoned “suggestion” of his craft is missing, even if the physicality isn’t.
Chef, as I mentioned earlier, is not a bad film at all. What could go wrong with food, travel and second (or fourth) chances? It is safe, watchable, and even elegant in spurts. But this is the one time the garam masalas needed some “masala” filmmaking. By the time some of it appears towards the end – that of the airport-running scene variety – there is reluctance to its sterility. It happens because it has to, and not because Kalra’s nature merits it.
Also, I believe the marketing team of the film might have blown a golden opportunity. Imagine welcoming every viewer – or stacking cinema snack counters – with Chef’s signature rottzas. Or at least, sell the meals (oh, those chana bhaturas) displayed in the darned movie. Has nobody heard? A critic’s tired samosa-popcorn-ridden stomach is the only way to his/her heart.