Ustad Hotel was like the second Malayalam film I saw. First Bangalore Days, then Ustad Hotel, then Ohm Shaanti Oshana. At the time I saw it first, I had nooooooooooo idea what was going on for long stretches of the film. But now I have seen like 30 Malayalam films in 6 months, so I know everything!
The big thing I learned in the past 6 months is how many connections there are between the Gulf and Kerala! The first time I watched this movie, heck, the first time I even heard the plot of this movie from the friend who lent it to me, I was very confused by that connection. First, because the Indian movie heroes are always from cool Western countries like Australia or England or America, not fellow Eastern countries. Second, because the only mass guest worker immigration to the Gulf I had heard about was from Kashmir and Pakistan, not Kerala.
I was also very confused by the Muslim hero. The hero is never a Muslim! The heroine, MAYBE, but it is a HUGE deal! And that part got even more confusing while I was watching it, because not only was his religion not a HUGE deal, the Muslim community in general was different from what I was used to seeing. More burkas, but also more freedom, which was strange.
But, now, I have learned so much more! First, that Kerala has a decades old relationship with the Gulf, which is commonly shown in films, so the whole Gulf upbringing thing wasn’t actually an unusual defining trait for our hero, it was just kind of normal. Second, that Kerala is really nice and open about religion. Not perfect, of course, no place on earth is, but way way more willing to have a Muslim hero character than a Hindi film would be. So that wasn’t a big defining trait really either. And third, that because of this large comfortable Muslim community, and the Gulf interactions, being a Muslim in Kerala is slightly different than in other states, just like the film shows.
Which isn’t to say I have learned everything I need to learn yet, I still have loads of questions. Speaking of! Why do the hijabs look so different? I noticed it with Moideen’s mother in Ennu Ninte Moideen, and then I noticed it again in this movie at one point when Nithya Menon puts her Hijab back on, I was able to see it clearly. The fabric is big and loose, and tied down around their head, with a front part that flips back and up from their forehead. It’s really flattering, actually, and interesting to look at, but it is also something I haven’t seen before, in films or real life. Is it a Gulf style? Or something that is unique to Malayalam/Southern Muslim women? Or is it not even a Hijab, just a scarf style from the region?
I have also learned that Thilakan is the Worst. Father. EVER. (thanks to Spadikam and Kireedam. And hey! He was in Punjabi House too! He wasn’t the greatest there either). I was kind of dreading this re-watch, trying to find him loveable here after learning to hate him elsewhere. But, strangely, it kind of worked! I mean, his character had these layers, and one of those layers was that Dad from Spadikam.
All the characters had layers, actually. This is one of the things I learned early on with Hindi films, that the audience is expected to bring in all sorts of outside knowledge to the characters. I mean, the characters and films work fine in isolation, but with the extra background, they are even stronger.
In this, it’s not just Thilakan, but also Dulquer and Nithya Menon and all the many many character actors that have a greater depth thanks to all the other films I have watched by now. Most of the character actors, I didn’t recognize their names and I couldn’t tell you what part they played in other movies, but I know I have seen them before. And before in, like, older films. The same kind of films where I saw Thilakan. Because of this, there was a vague sense of Thilakan and his employees sharing the same universe for years, all of which just served to heighten my sense of what a safe and stable and long term relationship all the characters they were playing had to each other.
There were little things like that with Dulquer and Nithya as well. His story of a son trying to break away from a father, just picked up meaning knowing that he is the son of Mammootty. Nithya playing the traditional girl with hidden depths picked up on my knowledge of her later roles, as the modern carefree girl with no fears.
(And also as the carefree confident olden times girl in Urumi)
But Thilakan was the best, let me swing back to him for a moment. I thought I would have a hard time seeing him as the sweet grandfather, after seeing him as the hard line unforgiving father in so many things. But it all worked together, didn’t it? The film only briefly touched on Thilakan’s relationship with his son, just enough to show that it was strained, that his son felt like he had to leave, like they couldn’t relate. And that, possibly, Thilakan was trying to make up for those mistakes with Dulquer. The film didn’t need to do more than touch on this, because the audience could fill in the gaps with all the many many authoritarian father roles they had seen Thilakan play. They could understand what kind of a father he might have been when he was young, and why he would have driven his son away.
The best part about having all this background now is that instead of being distracted by all the things I didn’t know and actors I couldn’t recognize, I could watch the film just for the film. And there were so many things I picked up on this watch that I missed the first time around! Like, Dulquer’s father re-married? Totally missed that!
And now I need to put in a SPOILER warning, I guess? Although it’s not really a SPOILER kind of movie. Regardless, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
The opening is FASCINATING. Well, the very very opening is just the camera moving through a house, starting in the kitchen, which is going to be a recurring theme. But then the sequence continues, with Dulquer’s mother telling his father that she is pregnant. Only, the baby is a girl, and his father is disappointed. 3 more times this happens, and each time she gets pregnant again right away, trying for a boy. And finally, a boy is born, only the mother dies, worn out by so many pregnancies. Dulquer’s father takes his 5 children with him to Dubai, and leaves to work and make them rich while his daughters raise his son.
On the one hand, love the message of killing the mother to gain a son. I mean, the message that we shouldn’t do that. But I think there is something else going on as well. I think it is saying something about what we think we should want versus what we actually want. Dulquer’s father killed his wife trying to get a son. And then once he has him, he just leaves him to be raised by his sisters. Did he really want a son, or did he just think that he should have one?
There is also entitlement in there, that he will have a son because he has decided he wants one, and that the son will be exactly as he likes him. Despite no effort being made to turn him into that. It would be one thing if the film showed Dulquer’s father trying to spend time with Dulquer, to mold him into a businessman, to make him into what he wants from a son. But now, he takes the baby, abandons it, and then expects years later that the child will grow into exactly what he wants.
(See, in K3G, Amitabh was legitimately surprised when Shahrukh rebelled against him, because he had put in some real time making Shahrukh over into his image)
The interesting thing is, this is how Dulquer acts as well. He decides he wants to be a chef, he wants his white girlfriend, he wants everything right now just as he wants it. And he expects it all to fall into place. And, from the little we hear, that might have been how young Thilakan was as well, he wanted to be a pilgrim, so he ignored the needs of his wife and child and left, assuming his child would turn out fine anyway.
The film is making a fascinating statement on gender roles, that men are trained to assume it will all happen as they want it, it will all fall into place. And women learn to work around restrictions, to manage to get what they want despite fate. Dulquer and Thilakan exist in both places at once, by the end of the film. Thilakan because he is an old man who runs a small cafe, and he knows what it is like to be used and ignored by those in power, whether it is the nearby luxury hotel or his own son and grandson. And Dulquer because his father continually abandons him to be raised by those who have no power.
Dulquer moves back and forth in learning this lesson, we see early on his childhood in the magic place of the kitchen, the female realm where the women make the decisions that really matter in a household. He recognizes that once his father remarries and his sisters leave the home, there will be no place for him in that realm anymore. And he uses the subtle weapons he learned from his sisters to maneuver his father into helping him get what he wants, chef training overseas.
But that training teaches him to see the kitchen as a male realm again, as a place of power, and he decides he has the ability to marry who he wants, do what he wants, and he ignores the danger in his choices. That is what his sisters react to when they decide it is time to call him home. Not the white girlfriend, but what she represents, a rejection of any sense of limits or sacrifice.
(See also: Sarkar. Man, that’s a good movie! I’ve really got to re-watch it)
His lesson begins even before he meets his sisters’ preferred girl. When he arrives at the airport, he suffers through awkward hugs and greetings from his father and multiple other older powerful men. But then his one true greeting and open loving embrace is from Abdullah, the servant. This is where he truly belongs, far far down on the power balance. He should not expect his escape to the west to be so easy, or be so cavalier about his plans for the future.
The girl he meets is Nithya, and she is awesome in this, of course, more than capable of accepting his modern ways and girlfriend and everything else. But she also gives him another lesson on understanding his place and working within limitations, when she explains that she agreed to an arranged marriage because her family expects it, but she has certain requirements of her own. Again, Dulquer refuses to learn the lesson, and his confident declarations of love for a white woman and plans to move to Europe lead directly to his banishment to India.
The first time I watched this, I found Dulquer’s father’s theft of his passport shocking. What belongs to a person more than their passport? But this time, I almost cheered. Dulquer’s passport is not something he earned on his own, nothing is. He has his transnational life thanks to his father’s efforts and his sister’s sacrifices. He needs to learn to value it, not just enjoy the fruits of their labors. To learn how to move through the world humbly and cautiously.
Which is what happens when he meets Nithya again, in India. Now, she is in a rock band and he is driving a delivery van. He calls her on her brave talk of being traditional girl, and she is unapologetic and reminds him that he was supposed to be a top chef. This is life, being many things at once, and none of them at the same time. Dulquer forgot that, he thought he could create himself into the one thing he most wanted to be. He couldn’t erase his Indianness, his obligations to his father, his love for his grandfather, just by an announcement that he would be working over seas, any more than Nithya could erase her wild heart simply because her family would prefer her traditional.
(Also, I love this song)
Which is where Dulquer’s father comes back. Ages ago, in the middle of a fight over Dulquer’s chef dreams, he had mentioned that he had been running for years from being called the “cook’s son”, turning himself into a businessman, and now Dulquer just wants to be a cook again? His father did exactly what Dulquer wants to do at the start, run away and re-invent himself, pretend the past never happened. And it takes him 20 years to realize what Dulquer learns in a few months, that the past is always there, it is just a matter of accepting and integrating it into who you are today.
I love your new perspective on this movie! So interesting! Especially the layers of the actors since you’ve seen them in so many Malayalam movies now.
It’s like Dilwale would never ever be the first person we would show to someone who has never seen a Hindi movie. Because the only way to really appreciate it is after having seen all the SRKajol movies before to get the impact.
Yes, exactly! So far, most of the Malayalam movies I have seen have been so well-written and directed that I could enjoy them without any actor background, but there are so many Hindi films that don’t work AT ALL unless you know who everyone is.
Re: why hijabs look different in Kerala. I guess that’s just the fact that with both Islam and Christianity, when the locals converted to those religions they didn’t really change completely, they just made a few tweaks so that there was no real drastic change or anything. If you actually notice in most of them the common traditional factor is the mundu (the long skirt) and the long blouse. The older Muslim women would wear it with the thattam (veil) that you showed us in the Moideen poster, and the older Christian women would wear them all completely white, with thick gold hoops around their ears. You’d be amazed at how many local traditions have been integrated into Muslim and Christian wedding ceremonies, for example.
The more Arabic style of wearing it kinda came in when more Gulf Malayalis came back home to visit, with clothes and gifts and the latest fashions.
Re: Ustad Hotel. What I do love is that you see a lot of perspectives in cooking within the same film. Like you see the perspective Faizi has as a professional chef, treating it as an art form that he can play around with and experiment – like the fusion Spanish omelette versus Karim-ikka focus on community. For Karim-ikka, the food is all about the people who eat it, for Faizi it’s all about his personal relationship with it. Which is why I think Karimikka sends Faizi to his friend in Tamil Nadu, whose own story mirrors Faizi’s. Because without forming a relationship with the people who eat your food, your personal relationship with food can be incomplete. And the irony is that he needed that passport to further his own ambitions (going to Paris) etc, but eventually takes it back with the intention of settling down in Kerala and fulfilling Karimikka’s dream. And his father Rafiq decides to let go of that hang-up he has been carrying his entire life and embracing his culinary heritage.
I love your analysis of Faizi’s relationship with food! Now that I think about it, even in the early flashbacks, we see it as the way he got love and confidence and belonging from his sisters. They were giving food to him, but he was just enjoying the experience of cooking, and not giving to anyone.
The story of Thilakan’s friend is a real story. There is a real man in tamil nadu who left his luxury life for poor people.
I think I remember reading that the first time I saw the movie. He has the same name as the character, right?
If you search Akshaya Trust in Facebook you can see charity of real life Narayanan Krishnan
Some of the reasons why the muslim community in kerala is different from rest of India in because, it has a different past. Kerala had direct trade with Arabs (and others), as Calicut (Kozhikode) was a spice trading center, with traders from Middle East, China and others frequenting it. And now ~25% of the population of the state is Muslim (with significant concentration of this in North Kerala also called Malabar, around Kozhikide). This is markedly different from the brutal history of post 11th century invaders from the west, who introduced islam by the sword (for the most part). Also southern India was relatively unharmed by the strain of the India-Pakistan partition.
Also you should note ~25% of Kerala is also christian, and St Thomas (one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ) traveled to Kerala, and so unlike rest of India, where these religions were introduced more recently and by force, the history in Kerala is significantly different and a lot longer.
Just my 2 cents of Kerala cultural history.
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Interesting! I knew that Kerala had a “purer” strain of Christianity, similar to Ethiopia, because it had very early contact, not through the massive Northern European lead missions of the past 500 years. But I didn’t realize the same was true for its Muslim community.
I think I have also heard that it has (or had at one point) a similarly ancient Jewish community, not part of the more recent immigration that brought in people like Rosie Meyer, but going back over a thousand years.
I suppose, within Kerala, that would make these communities more like how the Parsi/Zoroastrians are in other areas of India? A recognizable minority, but one that has been around so long, it has its own traditions and history specific to the Indian-based community which would be unrecognizable to the larger global religious community?
I wonder why Kerala ended up having such strong and ancient connections and not, for instance, Gujurat, which is also a sea-facing state? Does it have a particularly good natural trade route to the Gulf? Or are there natural features that isolate it from the rest of the country so these immigrant religious communities would be isolated once they arrived instead of dispersing through out the rest of the region, and losing their unique qualities?
Yes, Kerala did have a similar ancient jewish community (apparently from as early as 70 CE), only a very small part remains because most have probably moved to Israel (most likely because of better economic prospects & easy route to citizenship there), I have met one person aged ~65 years, who had a jewish school classmate. The only instance of Jews being persecuted in India, happened in areas under Portugese rule.
I would not compare the Parsis in North India to Chirstians & Musims in Kerala. Primarily because Parsis are like less than 1% of the population with an outsized economic role (more like Jews in US). Whereas Muslims & Christians each at 25% of the population, are equal partners in the society at all levels (maybe more like Hispanics in US, with as much or more political power).
Kozhikode had a relatively out-sized role on world commerce during ancient time, primarily due to Pepper/Cardomom (top commodity of ancient times) trade. That explains why Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer looking for a sea route around Africa to India in the 16th century landed up in Kozhikode with the help of people he met in African coast. It does happen to be in the sea route you would take from Arabia to Indonesia/China.
Kerala is relatively isolated geographically from the rest of the country by the “Western Ghat” mountain range, which is even today forested and has lots of wild animals (Tigers, Elephants etc). And even when most of India and even most of neighboring Tamil Nadu was under Mughal Influence, maps show Kerala left untouched. Whereas Gujarat happened to be in the range of raiders from Afghanistan.
AA Thank you SO much for giving us this background on Kerala’s unique history, importance and geography. I am also relatively new to Malayalam cinema, but I love it. I can sense, especially from films like Ustad Hotel just how different Kerala is from other parts of India, but you’ve put in perspective for us why some of those differences exist. I really appreciate it!
Fascinating! So while other areas in India would have had contact with those very early Christians and Muslims, Kerala would have had more contact with them thanks to its natural sea coast and valuable trade elements, at the same time they would have been somewhat isolated from the later waves of Christian and Muslim influence that came over land.
Am very new to your blog and was really amazed the way you go about your reviews.. It’s mainly character and plot dissection, and the depth you achieve in that, hat’s off to you..
Just thought of adding a nickel to AA’s comment about Kerala history.. Historically, Kerala had more connection with rest of the world than with rest of India, which is understandable because it’s a sea facing state and there was no country as India before 1947. What made this world connection possible was the precious spices like pepper, cardamom etc. Kerala established trade relationships with middle eastern countries and Roman empire even before Christ. That’s the reason all the major religions reached Kerala shores directly at the time of it’s establishment, Christianity through St. Thomas, Islam during the Muhammadan time, and Jews claimed to be in Kerala from King Solomon’s time. For rest of India, Islam came through invading armies and by force, Christianity came through European missionaries, but in Kerala these religions flourished by conversions of local people over the period of time, and by having the same culture with assimilated elements.
The difference between Parsi/Zoroastrian group is that they came from other countries and settled in India, where as Kerala Christians and Muslims are indigenous people of the land.
These facts reflects in the social life of present kerala, where people from all religions live together, celebrate the religious festivals together, and stand together irrespective of religion; just like it happened during the recent Flood, where the temples, churches, and mosques were all converted to refugee camps, people helping and praying together..That’s why it’s quite normal for keralites to have heroes and stories from any religious background.
I know the discussion is a bit old one, but thought to leave it here, in case if it helps along with what AA has already provided.
Thank you so much for commenting!!!! I always love to get more information, and I am still learning so much about Kerala in particular.
And also thank you for commenting in general! I love new comments 🙂
Frist Christian church and first Muslim mosque in indian sub continent is in Thrissur district of kerala. Thrissur is known as cultural capital of kerala.
In ancient times Kochi port was known as queen of Arabian sea. Western people firstly came in India for spices. They came in India through kerala only.
So Columbus was looking for Kochi when he landed in the Bahamas? And he couldn’t tell the difference? He was really kind of an idiot, wasn’t he?
Pepper = Black Gold
Richest trade route in the world
Sailors used to rely on Monsoon winds…
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RE: About Thilakan – wait till you watch Namuku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal 🙂
Hopefully I can find a copy! I’ve been spoiled watching Hindi movies, they are all so easy to find and always have subtitles, but the Malayalam films from the 80s and 90s “Golden Era” are very very hard to track down. With subtitles, that is, a lot of them are on youtube without.
Part2: —can’t find!!!—
So frustrating! I won’t start it then, not until I am sure I can finish it.
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I go on with my “watching all important malayalam movies” resolution. This time was Ustad Hotel turn, and you know what, I didn’t like it. It wasn’t bad but I thought it will be so much better. Dulquer still not at his best, Nithya’s character was confused, part about the cook who feeds the hungry interesting, but a little forced to make the movie more melodramatic. Definetely a “could watch” and not “must watch” film.
I was very confused in the beginning about locations. First they live in Kerala, but then father and kids move to Dubai. All sisters married in Dubai. Then Dulquer goes overseas. But when he returns where he goes? And where Nithiya lives? I thought in Dubai, but then he runs away, and goes to Ustad Hotel in Kozhikode, and the girl is there too.
But the worst and most annoying part was the one about white girlfriend. I just can’t stand how indian movies portray us. Basically all white women are nymphomaniac and you can’t leave them alone for some days because they will find new sexual partner. I get angry everytime I think about it.
Ustad Hotal was one of the first Malayalam movies I saw, and I really liked it. I still love the songs. But coming back to it now, while it was a great first film (not that complicated, lots of food scenes), it’s not as good as other movies. Dulquer isn’t nearly as good as he is in later films, and the plot isn’t as tight and consistent.
Oh, and for the travel, Dulquer and Nithya are both from Malayalam families living in Dubai. He meets her there first, and then coincidentally she is in Kerala while he is also. It’s kind of a coincidence, but then on the other hand, the reason their families wanted them to get married is because they were both from the same place back in Kerala and so on.
I know this does not make it right, but this is exactly how we feel about hollywood’s portrayal of Indian men. Its still a BIG flaw of this movie, but realistically speaking I don’t think people getting back with their ex is that radical, especially when Dulqur has been home for weeks and he hasn’t contacted her which the movie clearly shows, he hits her up in facebook from a public internet cafe
There is a call back scene in the movie, one of my friends asked the director Anwar Rasheed what was the purpose of young Tilakan’s and his wife’s scene in the movie. His answer actually made me re-watch the movie
He says – Its for a call back later. Remember Tilakan’s dialogue goes ‘As my eyes wandered from the Biriyani pot, I saw an angel in window, like a caged bird, I felt like something started beating inside me from that moment..like everything has led to this moment’ This shows Tilakan meeting his wife for the first time as he is cooking biriiyani for her own wedding, through a window.
Later in the movie, Dulqur Salman asks Narayan (Chef who feeds the poor) what he should cook for the kids in the orphanage and he asks him to cook Kareem Ikka Biriyani, this recipe was passed on to Faizi by Tilakan. As he is cooking Biriyani for the kids, he looks up and sees some kids through the window, the first time he sees them, and you can see his emotions in that scene. The whole bigger purpose of Faizi was to go to Madurai in place of Kareem Ikka and feed those kids his biriyani.
The film has a lot of mystic elements attached to it, Tilakan’s character is very spiritual. In one of the scenes when Faizi tells him to sell off the restaurant, he replies there IS something as fate and nothing can stop it, we will see what happens
Thank you! That is a whole other layer to it. I was thinking the flashback was simply about falling in love with a girl who is already engaged like Dulquer did. But this is much deeper and more meaningful, that moment of love can come from anything.