Sunday, July 31, 2011

Salt N' Pepper

With a name like Salt N' Pepper and a tagline like Dosa Undakiya Katha, you have a broad idea on what to expect as you step into the cinema hall. But despite all pre-conceived notions of the movie, the movie pleasantly surprises you as it takes you through an appetizing sojourn via a variety of tastes as it tries to tell a rather understated romantic tale which has its origins in the humble dosa.

The movie cooks a romance between a middle aged couple – a graying archaeologist and a dubbing artiste, both of whom find solace in food. Age old insecurities and frustrations ensure that they are unwilling to face each other until the very end when they finally agree to meet in a museum (actually expected a restaurant) and accept the fact that they share something in common which goes beyond gastronomic juices.

Kathali Parambil Kalidasan (Lal), is an unkempt archaeologist who likes old things: he uses an old Premier Padminini ‘Mandakini’ car (Mandakini even features in the film’s closing credits!!!) that has a life of its own, along with a dysfunctional radio that works in spurts. His house has a beautiful antique look to it and the furniture, paintings, telephone and other appliances all have an archaic look to it. He lives in the past and digs out the history of others while his story is buried somewhere down there with cooking and food being the only bright sparks in his life.

At the other end is Maya Krishnan (Shwetha Menon), a bespectacled spinster who has a chovva dosham jatakam and so her marriage remains an unfulfilled dream. As a dubbing artiste, she remains perpetually in the background just like her aspirations, lost in the wilderness of her age. A wrong number mobile call for a Thattil Kutti Dosa brings these two foodies together but their insecurities leads them to use younger substitutes in the form of Manu (Asif), Kalidasan's nephew and Meenakshi (Mythili), Maya's roommate. This creates misunderstandings, confusion and conflict which is eventually resolved in a slightly contrived ending.

The Thattil kutti dosa brings them together and the Joan’s Rainbow Cake, a delicious multi-layered cake created by a French housewife waiting for her soldier husband to return during World War II, helps them in discovering their affections for each other. As the cake gets baked, the Second World War comes to an end and the world around Kalidasan and Maya also turns sweeter. (While the Joan’s Rainbow cake certainly looks appetizing, just wondering wouldn't it have been more appealing if the movie had referred to maybe a forgotten dish from rural Kerala?).

What works for the movie is the wonderful humour that has gone into the writing of the movie. It is crisp, flows freely and crackles effortlessly without requiring the actors to perform any antics of their own. The film has an unabashedly urban youth feel (though the protagonists are middle aged) and scores handsomely over a plethora of movies masquerading as hep, youth movies nowadays. The script distinctly tries to distance itself from old world Malayalam cinema (Nammal enthada engane was so aptly used ironically by Shwetha Menon and dubbed by Bhagyalakshmi) but creates a language of its own without ignoring its roots.

Food morsels are sprinkled regularly in the dialogues and its aroma wafts across for a greater part of the movie.Every sad or happy occasion has a layer of food around it; almost as if the writer wrote the script the first time and then in repeated iterations brought in the element of food into all the dialogues. The movie starts with the food chain and finds its presence everywhere – pazham pori in the beauty parlour, the impact of a steaming hot tea after a drunken night, the kitchen secrets of Babu and the Moopan (even when Maya pours water over the director’s food, he tries to laugh it away saying kanji nallatha!!!).

The first half works itself beautifully as it smartly intersperses food and the romance in the narrative. Kalidasan’s pennu kannal chadangu is a stand out act; an example of a scene which may not sound great when you read it but is simply brilliant when it undergoes a visual translation. There are attempted gay overtones in the Master and Chef relationship but the movie gladly shies away from any form of unwarranted or cheap humour and makes their bonding one of the highlights of the movie.

Vijayraghavan plays an interesting cameo as a fellow colleague of Kalidasan who tries to reclaim his old lost love. Reminded me of an O Henry story where the protagonist causes a massive traffic jam just so that his daughter is able to express her love. His story brings about the turning point and makes Kalidasan realize how simple the problem is and how complex people perceive it to be but I wished that the director had given more screen space for the lead pair to communicate and not abruptly disconnected their interaction. Though they have very few scenes together, their chemistry glows and the moments that they share are funny and even awkward at times, making it so much more believable; recollect the scene where Kalidasan is unsure of how to react and puts down the mobile when she starts crying or when his idea of small talk involves listening to old audio tapes of leaders. Now if only Shweta and Lal had more such delightful moments together, wouldn't the serving have tasted that much more savory?

Honestly, it had all the makings of a mini-classic (an almost Dil Chahta Hai moment) but Aashiq Abu eventually decides to play safe and not skip the opportunity to go the whole hog. The second half mysteriously bids adieu to our taste buds and shifts the narrative totally to the budding romance between the youngsters (Rather than a Dosa undakiya katha, it becomes a Dosa thodangivecha katha). A random song in between sticks out as an odd element added in the proceedings and a forced attempt to bring relief when the script does not demand it. It hurries towards a climax which is kind of funny but looks planned and does not flow as smoothly the rest of the plot.

The supporting cast plays commendably in a movie whose strength lies primarily in the script and less in its characters. Baburaj is definitely the surprise package of the movie, even though the director had cast him in a funny role even in Daddy Cool; just goes to show how under-utilized many of our character artists are. Ahmed Siddique as K T Mirash (was the name modeled on mirage?) is delightful with his dead pan expressions and his natural ability to irritate by doling out free advice. The tribal Kelu Moopan and the human right activists do not really contribute to the plot and I think they could have been left out of the script.

When you watch a particular type of film that you haven’t seen for a long time, you probably overlook everything else in the movie and focus all your energies on the exciting material that is brought to the table by the director. Salt N' Pepper is essentially an urban romantic comedy that has its heart as well as stomach in the right place; it serves a cuisine which is slightly uneven but you still want to fall in love with it because it presents a modern writing that has not been seen much in Malayalam. Something’s definitely cooking!!!!


  1. A delicious film indeed,nice to see such expirements in malayalam film industry.its truly said that the director played safe by winding up the film quickly (running time almost 2hrs).Ashiq abu could have included some more food sequences to keep our mouth watering.The Title song is really a visual treat.

  2. The second half mysteriously bids adieu to our taste buds and shifts the
    narrative totally to the budding romance between the youngsters

    Exactly! I could have done without Anwar Ali! (or whatever his name is!) Both he and Meenaxi should have acted as the deux ex machina without becoming involved - or if they did, then without overwhelming the salt na pepper love story which was *far* more interesting! I hated (absolutely hated) the climax and Shweta's dialogue in that - that part about her bringing in her roommate because she was insecure, but why did *he* have to? As if only a woman is allowed to feel insecure! Somehow it left a bad taste in the mouth - it became very 'traditional' there.

    As for the rainbow cake, I think it's because as foodies, it doesn't matter where the food is from; also, that these stories play out cross-country, and cross-borders. All in all, this was a good attempt, though I wish we could have a film that was uncompromising in its integrity. Is that too much to ask for?

  3. Could not quite recollect the dialogue that you were referring to, so had to check it out on Youtube. I think that Shweta's Ente kaaryam potte, Ningal enthina olichirinnathu was probably meant only to elicit the remark Ningal udakkatha glamouralle which was just a nod to that famous dialogue from Lal's earlier movie 'Thenkasipattanam'. Lal does confess that both of them suffered from the same problem, so the director gives him that opening to admit his folly. Not sure there was any chauvinistic idea there in that conversation, ofcourse the question of integrity still arises because of what we interpret it to be. 

    My issue with the ending was with the way it was rushed through in a movie where pace was never a consideration...