Happy Birthday Saif! Your Other Light Happy Mature Movie That I Didn’t Appreciate Enough at the Time, Chef!

I reread my review, and I think I might have been a little too hard on the film. Yes, it was an almost line by line remake, yes some things didn’t really work, but it was harmless, and it had a mature hero trying to figure out how to be a father, and just generally some good stuff we don’t usually see in Hindi film.

The thing is, this whole time I was watching the movie thinking “this is such a great idea and an original scene and heart touching moment!  But wait, is this an original moment or is this just from the original film?”  I really really wish I’d watched the original first!

Because, the good parts of the movie, could have just come from that.  The idea of a chef who traveled back to his home neighborhood, reconnected with his son, and just generally found himself again through going back to his roots and making simple food out of a truck.  That’s all in the original, I think?

There is some stuff that must be new, the idea of New York versus India, of this cross-India journey that happens at one point, and the subtle bits of Indian culture (Delhi versus Kochi, etc.).  But I think the heart of the film, that’s from the original.  Which makes it hard to know where to give the credit.  To Saif for buying the rights, to the director for respecting the original story, or for them creating something totally new?  Heck, even down to Saif’s performance, I just don’t know!  Something about how he is moving in this film, somehow it really really reminded me of Jon Favreau.  Who I haven’t even seen in that many things, and yet Saif walked into a room and I thought “Jon Favreau!”  But maybe I am imagining that?  Maybe it is just in my head because I know it is a role that Jon originated?

But no matter what, I do have to give credit to Saif for picking out this story.  Not just because it is a good story, but because it is good for him.  He found a human level story to tell, that would work well in an Indian environment, and he also found a character that would work for him.  Older, intelligent, a father, connected both to his Indian roots and to his international success.  This is a great launch of Saif Ali Khan 2.0.

And I hope it is Saif Ali Khan 2.0!  This film was a little rough around the edges (the ending in particular is rushed), but it is exactly the kind of film I want him to make.  Mature character, small story, great non-famous cast surrounding him.  I want to see him do more films like this, both as a producer and a star.  I want to see everybody do more films like this, really, but Saif is especially well-suited for them.  Experienced and famous and powerful enough to get them made, but not so big that he will over-shadow the intent of the film.

And not so big that he will over-shadow his co-stars either.  Padmapriya Janakiraman gets some meaty scenes.  And, more importantly, isn’t made into either the superficial villain or the perfect saint, the way ex-wives in films tend to be.  She is a person who wants slightly different things than Saif does, but she can still learn from him just as he can learn from her.

Saif isn’t a superficial villain either!  Yes he has to go on a journey of self-discovery and all of that, but he isn’t terrible to start with.  Just has a ways to go to learn things.

No one in this movie is really terrible.  They are all just trying and growing and learning as best they can.  That’s the best part of the film.

The worst part of the film are just the little details of how it is put together.  This is the stuff that makes me think the most that the “good stuff” came from the original, not the new filmmakers.  Because the distinctly Indian touches to the film, the songs and the Interval, both fall flat.  I have seen Airlift, and was very impressed by it, and I have also seen Argo, and was less impressed by that.  Airlift was by Raja Krishna Menon, so I had faith that he knew how to take the spirit of an American film and turn it into something much more.

But in this movie, while the central idea is good, the songs feel forced and unnatural, whether it is a “spontaneous” dance in the dining room with his ex wife or a song with Raghu Dixit randomly in Goa, it just doesn’t seem like these are people that normally would be dancing.  The film would be stronger without those sections entirely.

And the Interval is terrible!  I am getting more and more used to “bad” intervals, ones that just spontaneously appear exactly halfway through the film, but this one is really bad.  Because there is no natural middle to this film.  It doesn’t have the 6 act structure an Indian film should have (opening, conflict, twist! re-opening, new conflict, conclusion), instead if feels like a simple 3 act western type film (opening, conflict, conclusion).

Of course, now that I think about it, the conclusion is kind of terrible too.  Just like the interval felt like them saying “woops, halfway through, let’s freeze-frame!” the ending felt like “woops, out of money, let’s stop filming!”  Only, before they started filming, they had to throw in the most ridiculous ending.  I just wiki’d the original and it looks like it has a similar ending, only possibly less rushed.  And with the most unbelievable part of it (to me) removed.

The sad thing is, the way the ending happens, all dramatic and stuff, is the part that feels the most “Indian”.  But also the worst part of the film.  I don’t think the dramatic stuff has to be bad, it just looks bad in comparison with the grounded stuff that is in the rest of the film.  They should have done a better job mixing the two flavors.  Oh oh!  I have a pun!  Which will probably be used by about a dozen other reviewers, but whatever, it still makes me happy: this is a failed attempt at fusion cuisine for movies.

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Whole Plot Very Quickly:

Saif is the head chef at a successful New York restaurant.  A (white) customer criticizes his food and Saif punches him.  He is arrested, his boss bails him out then tries to force him to take a vacation.  Saif refuses, shows up for work the next day angry, and is fired.  He goes to Kerala where his ex-wife and son live.  He spends time with his son and eventually is offered an old double-decker bus by his wife’s boyfriend, and with his son’s help, and the help of his faithful cooking assistant, they turn it into a food truck/mobile restaurant.  He struggles with his relationship with his son, and with his own father.  In the end, he and his son take off for the last few days of his son’s school vacation to drive the truck cross-country from Kochi to Delhi.  They land in Delhi and his ex-wife arrives to take their son back home.  Saif says good-bye, then has a last minute change of heart and runs after them, catching their car in traffic, and makes a passionate plea for them to stay and give him another chance.  And that’s the end?

Before getting into the “real” discussion, there is one small thing I found kind of fun.  Sort of.  The reason Saif loses his job and has his breakdown and leaves his because he punches a customer and gets arrested.  Which is exactly what happened to him in real life!  That scuffle at the Taj a few years back.  And I think that is a change from the original film, a nice little nod to the star’s real life identity melding with the character.

Okay, now real discussion!  I’m going to start at the end.  Because that’s where it really goes bad.  What is this ending exactly?  We don’t even know if he is making this passionate plea for his wife to come back to him, or his son.  And is he asking them to stay with him in Delhi forever, or just temporarily?  Kind of seems like he is the more mobile one, with his restaurant truck, versus her with her huge very nice house and dance school.

And then we see that same night his father, who never understood or appreciated him, who always had a strained relationship, showing up at his food truck and proudly calling him a “chef”.  Where did THAT come from?

Especially because, until now, the Saif and his father relationship was one of the best drawn in the film.  It made total sense to me.  Saif ran away when he was 15, because his father would not let him study cooking.  He survived on his own and went on to success.  And when we see him visiting his father years and years later, it is not overly dramatic or heartbreaking or any of that.  It’s just sort of settled.  His father clearly knows some loose details of his life, just as he knows some details of his father’s life.  We can fill in that his mother or other relatives must have served as a bridge over the gap, certainly it seems as though Saif had returned at least once before, his father recognized him and vice versa.  There was no shock at knowing that he had a grandson, or even what the grandson looked like.  But they still couldn’t spend any time together without pain rising up between them.  This is an okay kind father-son separation that we don’t really get to see in films, Indian or otherwise.  It doesn’t have to be “fixed”, sometimes this is as good as it is going to be.  You swallow your pain and try to be happy with the little you can manage.

And then with no explanation or build up whatsoever, his father shows up at his outdoor restaurant food truck at the very end of the film and proudly calls him a “chef”.  How?  Why?  They could have maybe put in a scene showing the neighbors talking about Saif, or a news reporter, explaining that he is powerful and respected and so on.  Interviews with people who trained under him, with his ex-employer, something.  Instead of the father just magically showing up, after having been forgotten for the last hour and a half of the movie.

I have kind of the same problem with his ex-wife.  Padmapriya is wonderful in the role and I like them together.  But they never really sell me on the passion that drove them apart, or brought them together.  They are calm and happy as exes, Saif charms her and makes her smile, which makes me think she is over him.  She is no longer bothering to resist because there is nothing to resist, she knows he is charming and all of that but he is not what she wants.

The “other man” is set up as the anti-Saif because he is tall and handsome and smooth and worldly and wealthy.  But that is too simple, there are little clues in the film that it isn’t just his tall handsome worldliness that Padmapriya finds appealing, it is that he is there, he spends time with her son, he is responsible and reliable.  The tall and handsome part, that we can believe Saif would overcome, he is charming and they have a history.  But the reliable part, they don’t really sell me on that.  If that is the reason that Padmapriya left him, and is staying away, that he fully overcame it now in a way that would win her back.  Sure, he sticks around for a few weeks and seems to have made over his life, but would that overcome years of neglect?

I am focusing on how things end because that is the only area that I have any major complaints.  There are a few slightly slow bits in the middle, conversations that felt like they could have ended more quickly.  The songs feel a little forced, as I mentioned in my last review.  But over all the performances are top notch, the characters feel real, and the setting is gorgeous!

The setting and what comes with it is the best part of the film, I think.  Going all the way back to Saif’s decision to leave New York.  His boss at his restaurant is a fellow Indian, and the firing isn’t a petty mean thing, he is trying to help.  He sees that Saif is drowning where he is now, that he has lost something.  His friend/assistant in New York sees the same thing and tells him to go home and restore himself.  There’s something there about India, and Indians abroad, and needing to feel that identity inside, which is very interesting.

And in the end, that is what makes the difference.  It’s not just bonding with his son, it’s telling his son his life story and thereby remembering his life.  Growing up in the streets of Delhi eating street food, hiding out at the Golden Temple and enjoying their free food, working in the kitchen of a Dhaba while he learned how to cook, and then enjoying as a young man at training college in Goa.  And yes, there is a Dil Chahta Hai joke “20 years ago I was in Goa with 2 friends, met a beautiful white woman, and she robbed me and left me tied up!”

That’s why it has to be a mobile bus they use as a restaurant.  So it can travel the length and breadth of India, can somehow tie the whole country together and tie together Saif’s soul at the same time, return him to where he was meant to be.

That should have been the ending, Saif realizing he has to stay in India, not take the new job offer back in New York.  And that, in addition, he has to stay in his son’s life, not disappear again.  That was the drive of most of the movie, Saif’s own rediscovery of himself.  Taking on this family and romantic reunion, it kind of retroactively destroyed what had come before.  Not entirely, the film is still a pleasant watch, but a little bit.

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