Raja Krishna Menon’s Chef, an official remake of Jon Favreau’s 2014 Chef, is, at its core, an update on a coming-of-age drama. Here, the hero, Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan), has already fought against the odds – locking horns with his father, choosing a career against his wishes, running away from home – to pursue his calling: becoming a chef. But years later, in the present day, when the film opens, Roshan’s life is far from perfect. At the age of 41, he’s a divorcee, living thousands of miles away from his son and has just been fired. This kind of implication – that following your dreams doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness, that things can go wrong despite all audacious choices – is mostly alien to mainstream Hindi cinema, which often deals in binaries, erroneously suggesting that pursuing a career of your choice can lead to absolute irreversible happiness.
When Roshan gets fired from a restaurant in New York (because he punched a complaining patron), he moves to Kochi to spend time with his son and, consequently, his ex-wife, Radha (Padmapriya Janakiraman). Bollywood filmmakers have set the bar so low that certain elements in the movie, which should be taken for granted, stand out, appearing as merits. For instance, one of the first things you notice about Chef is that Khan plays an atypical hero: He almost plays his age (he’s 47 in real life); he has a pre-teen son, Armaan (Svar Kamble), whom he calls “beta”; he struggles to match up to his ex-wife’s love interest (Milind Soman). If Chef seems credible, then a large part of that credit goes to its filmmaker, Menon, who, debuting with Airlift last year, a fine historical drama, has proven to be engaging and entertaining without insulting the audiences’ intelligence.
Menon also infuses a lot of heart and humour in the smallest of scenes. Chef’s central conceit – Roshan floating a restaurant on a food truck – doesn’t appear till the second half, but even then, the film doesn’t suffer from a lack of plot, or seem to drag, for it’s alive with minute details, brimming with humour and (occasional) pathos. He also gets much needed help from his actors. Khan’s easy charm (it’s difficult to not like a character who says “yaar” a lot), Janakiraman’s sharp performance and Kamble’s quiet aplomb lend a breezy air to the film’s initial portions; as a result, the chemistry shared by them (either in pairs or as a group) is entertaining and enjoyable. Menon also understands the importance of capturing the pulse of a place, so be it Kochi, Delhi or Amritsar, the settings in Chef are always alive, through food, mannerisms or language (presented to us, thankfully, without subtitles). It’s good to see a mainstream film getting small details right, where the intricacies of scenes are carefully thought out and things don’t just happen for the heck of it.
Besides, like Airlift, Chef has side characters who are imbued with dignity and don’t just exist with respect to its protagonists. Many Bollywood filmmakers, owing to their privilege, like to believe that they live in a society devoid of caste or class, and it reflects in their films’ side characters, who are mainly used as sidekicks, as objects for comic relief, acting subservient to the heroes. But Menon, thankfully, is different. Chef has peripheral characters, too – in Nazrul (Chandan Roy Sanyal), Roshan’s longtime assistant, and Alex (Dinesh Prabhakar), the moody driver of the food truck – who have their own quirks, but aren’t defined by them, or looked down upon.
Primarily unfolding like a comedy, Chef isn’t sheepish when it comes to tackling weighty themes – the generation gap in Indian families, which causes fissures between father and son for they have different expectations from life; the differences between “need” and “want”; the different layers of following your passion – that materialise easily through just a line of dialogue. Roshan’s father wanted him to pursue a career in science. He rebelled and ran away, ultimately becoming a chef. When they meet years later, early in the film, his dad recounts Roshan’s childhood, saying his ambition embarrassed him, especially because he lives in a locality where people gossip (and judge). “Sapna bada ya ghar (what’s more important: dream or social standing)?” He asks. It’s just a small line, but it tells you where Roshan’s father, however old-fashioned, is coming from. Later, when Roshan’s food truck takes off, allowing him to bond with his son on a vacation of sorts, he has to, at some point, pause and wonder, whether he’d like to do this full-time. As if the film seems to be asking of Roshan, and of us, “Is it possible for life to be a long vacation?” Somewhere around the halfway mark, the film slyly questions the kind of father Roshan has been. “Aren’t you supposed to be a role model?” He’s asked at one point. But Chef smartly deflects that question, causing you to think about the difficulties of living your own life well, let alone painting it as a picture of clarity for others (including your own son).
Chef, however, remains, at the end of the day, a regular commercial fare. Which is fine, but, in crucial scenes, it necessarily sees itself as one and hence, conforms to conventions, refuting, quite ironically, its central theme. Towards the end of the film, Roshan suddenly gets a moment of clarity, making the film dart towards a happy climax, making you wonder, “Is it so easy?” Bijju (Soman) insisting on collaborating with Roshan on the food truck business rings false. So does Radha giving him a dressing-down when he refuses the idea, saying he’s wasting his time wallowing in self-pity (if he was, then we didn’t get any sense of that; in fact, the film hardly spends any time delineating his professional challenges or worries). Even the flashback song, ‘Darmiyaan’, showing the reasons behind Roshan and Radha failing to work as a couple is heavy-handed.
But Chef is ultimately saved and elevated by its joie de vivre. It hardly preaches or panders; it doesn’t deign to please or impress the audience. It is concerned with a few essential life truths, but it doesn’t make a big deal out of them. It is, on the contrary, too busy just having a good time, and it prods you to come along. For the most part, you enjoy the ride and smile.