Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ustad Hotel

Surprise, surprise, is this an Anwar Rasheed film? So, Bridge in Kerala Cafe is not a fluke after all – the man can make cinema that is both entertaining and artistic, without making too many compromises. With Anjali Menon wielding the pen here, Anwar creates an engaging, though at times uneven (especially in the second half) tale of a young man who discovers his passion and love in life, as he stumbles from the peaks of a cosy life in Europe to a more grounded life in Kozhikode.

Ustad Hotel takes our olfactory nerve to a delicious fusion of Western and Kerala cuisine as it tells the story of young Feyzee (Dulquer Salman) who becomes a chef, much against the wishes of his ambitious father Razzaq (Siddique).  Circumstances force him to reach out to his grandfather Karim (Thilakan) who runs a small but renowned restaurant called Ustad Hotel along Kozhikode beach. Under the tutelage of the old man, the grandson and grandfather form a bond that teaches him valuable lessons in life. Just like the waves lashing along the beach, the movie has a fluidity that keeps you engrossed to its narrative as it sets about to give a meaning to young Feyzee’s life. It is a three-generational story and as it happens, the first and third generation find a stronger bond between themselves than the in-between one.

Feyzee is a bright, young man who is not sure where his heart lies. Being brought up with no elderly guidance around him, except his four elder sisters (fondly referred to as Ithatha Company), he is confused and takes steps hesitatingly in life, without being sure of what the future holds for him. The presence of Karim in his life at a critical time helps him to take stock of what he needs in his life and what are his true valuables. He is a chef who has graduated from Lausanne but he has to learn the basics that go into the business and profession before he can enter the kitchen.

Cinematically, Feyzee learns the trade from his grandpa but I suppose even outside the canvas of the film, young Dulquer will find himself in the same situation when in the company of an acting powerhouse like Thilakan.  Didn’t Thilakan also act like a godfather to Prithviraj in Indian Rupee? And the camaraderie between the two generations, when they talk about his grandpa’s love story and the failed father-son relationship,is very appealing. Keep in mind that it does not go overboard; when Karim is admitted to hospital, the first thing that strikes Feyzee is whether his grandpa will emotionally blackmail him to stay back!

Just as in Salt N’Pepper, food has a special relevance in the movie but here it goes beyond being just a metaphor and makes its presence practically everywhere – to that extent, it must be truly called India’s finest food film. It is omnipresent – In the Five Star Hotel which buys the Ustad Hotel Biryani at 35 Rs and sells it at Rs 350, the sulaimani whose secret ingredient is Mohabbat, the Fusion Food Festival where Feyzee makes a mark but is also insulted by a haughty customer, the parothas that are intricately shaped in Ustad Hotel, the biryani served at a Hellen Keller Institute in Madurai, a rock band named Kallumakayi (inspired by Avial?) – it is a film that has its eyes firmly fixed on one’s taste buds. Anjali Menon, in a recent interview, mentioned that most of the story was written when she was pregnant and the conspicuous presence of food in the movie maybe partly due to that!

Anwar is at ease when he takes a dig at the orthodox Muslim families in vadakkan Kerala, referring to their dressing, large family size and polygamy but it is all in good taste. Two scenes stand out here – a glimpse of the family photograph with Razaq and his burkha-clad wife (in contrast to a similar shot of his grandparents) and another a long shot which shows the fours sisters fully clad in burkha standing on the beach while everyone else around there else is present in beach attire! There are no stereotypes here in the movie's representation of Muslim characters; it eschews any such nonsense and becomes a rare instance, where the religious identity of the Muslim community is never brought to the forefront. Anjali and Anwar are on home turf and know Kozhikode and their cuisine well; when did a Malayalam film associate a city other than Kochi with rock music and a night life and create a foot-tapping rock number like Appangal Embadum Ottakku Chuttamayi?  Here, a girl like Shahana can be part of a rock band outside, travel with a stranger at night but be mostly burkha-clad and agree to an arranged marriage in keeping with the family conventions.

Both Diamond Necklace and Ustad Hotel struck me as movies which have a more literary feel, with the movies like screen adaptations of books. Possibly because they drew larger canvases around them and are structured very well in an unhurried, uncomplicated manner. But where Ustad Hotel wavers a bit is in its attempt to draw a finale or closing loose ends in a very convenient but not so satisfying manner – like the father-son strained relationship, the repayment of the bank loan, the seemingly scheming Big Hotel guys vs the poor restaurant folks, Fayzee’s foreign girlfriend’s character or Shahana’s (Nithya Menon) fiancée – some of these aspects seemed written only to close specific chapters in the plot. You don’t need to make one character bad only so that the main character emerges as the sympathetic one or audience favourite, right? Maybe it is an odd observation but a story penned by a lady does not have sufficiently strong lady characters!!!

It has everything going for it in the first half and as much as I wished that this growing of age film of a young man becomes a classic, the sudden pedantic shift to a convenient ending and the Swades touch, (including scenes that remind you of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film) was a tad disappointing. It is like the director suddenly realized that there are loose ends to be tied and so opts for an easy out but I am not entirely convinced by that sudden diversion. It has been widely reported that the Madurai episode was inspired by Narayanan Krishnan who runs Akshaya Trust but while that makes it very heartening, I’m not entirely at ease with its absolute relevance in the plot. Did his trip to Madurai make him change his mind not to leave – I don’t buy that point entirely, though it did get a few moist eyes in the audience.

I must say that it is a very well-made film and that is where it soars beyond Anjali’s script alone. Lokanathan’s camera gives the Kozhikode beach a surrealistic feel and makes you feel a part of that silent ambience that pervades its environs as Sufi Dervishes whirl in meditation. Gopi Sundar adds to that aura, capturing the vibrations of the city and the aroma of the various dishes that permeate at many intervals in the movie.

Specially glad that Mammootty’s son has avoided big-bash superstar movies and both his forays have so far been attempts at intelligent cinema. He brings a certain earnestness to the character and is believable as a foreign-educated confused young man who traces his roots (inadvertently, ofcourse) with the eminently-likeable Nithya Menon for company while the colossus Thilakan effortlessly brings home the convictions of an old man who sticks by his principles and lives without any regrets.

It is significant that for a movie that deals almost entirely with Muslim characters, religion hardly makes a presence here (the presence of a moderate Sufi-stance may explain this). This by itself itself may not be an achievement but it is pretty rare for a movie to divorce the script from religion, especially when it deals with a Muslim milieu. Anjali and Anwar, coming together to craft a movie is indeed a rather unusual combination, especially if you look at their career graphs but then maybe, we have been underestimating Anwar and if Bridge and Ustad Hotel is any evidence to go by, we Malayalees can smile as more and more directors join the bandwagon of good cinema. What makes it more heartening is the tremendous response that the movie has received amongst audience, making it an overwhelming success.  Serious cine-goers may also want to keep an eye on producer Listin Stephen – with a track record like Traffic, Chaappa Kurish and now Ustad Hotel, you know he’s a name to be followed…


  1. Sounds good, Pradeep. Will look out for it when I go to Kerala in a couple of weeks.  (Will keep your assessment of the ending in mind.)

  2. Definitely worth it, Anu. Time's passed quickly; felt like you had just returned from Bombay and now you are going to Kerala!

    Will mail you across a few more movie recommendations to look out for in Kerala..

  3.  You have no idea! I'll be back again in October. My bank balance is taking  a hit this year. By the way, two things - replied to you at long last. And secondly, disqus is acting up on my blog. I get no notifications absolutely and some comments just dont appear. :(

  4. Again in October - that's a quick return trip, 3 trips to India within a year! Busy Anu's taking more time to reply nowadays, but that's fine - gives enough time for each of us to reply in detail. Think you have done some template changes in Disqus, was a bit confused myself while posting the comment. These tech challenges do not disappear  so easily, I guess....

  5.  What to do? Eldest niece is getting married in October. Ist wedding in the second generation. :)

    I haven't made any changes in Disqus - they made it all by themselves! I haven't had the time to go rooting around the template. Now, it doesn't tell me when someone comments, so I have to keep checking the blog itself. :(

    I know I delayed replying, but it's been extremely hectic. By they way, "pot, meet kettle' - where have you been writing???

  6. ..and possibly many more such weddings to come, please do come to India!!!

    The new comments template on your blog looks confusing enough even though you have not tampered with it. Maybe some Beta version being tested and so all these complications - can't see too much of a change at my end, though. But even if Disqus doesn't tell you when a comment comes, Blogger does, so it shouldn't tamper. I normally come to know of comments through Blogger only.

    Busy with the family back, as I said hardly ever even connected to the net in this past month; slowly trying to limp back to normal writing, though don't know much of it is possible with the little one around! But the mailing will continue, thanks to the mobile...

  7. Am going to watch Ustad Hotel today (matinee). Will tell you what I think of it.

    And no, Blogger doesn't let me know  there are new comments either. :( And I went back to Disqus and manually changed the template back to the old one!

  8. Waiting to hear from you; appol nattil etthile..

    Everytime I get a comment on my blog, I get a mail and it comes from Blogger only. You will get that option in the settings - ofcourse, since a lot of tweaking has been done, maybe it doesn't work!

  9. Saw it, agreed with almost everything you wrote about the movie - the stereotypical character was the 'western' woman (hence, bad). I liked Shahana's character - an odd mix of tradition and modernity, though I wish she had more to do in the film. I heartily disliked the Madurai episode - it seemed forced, and it seemed like a forced plot point to make him stay. I wish they had kept to the grandfather-grandson relationship and that he had left for Paris as originally planned. Why would that have been so wrong? Somehow, success is seen as a pejorative in our films.

    All that said, I liked the film, and I liked Dulqar Salman (Suleiman?). He has talent, is not going to remain long in his famous father's shadows (his father's 'Thappana' is running to packed houses here!), and is very comfortable in his own skin.


  10. Yeah - we are agreeing on a movie perspective  - nice! A few cliches and shortfalls and it falls short of so much more than it could have been. But then it's a still a giant step for Anwar Rasheed. 

    Dulquar Sstalman in 'Ustad Hotel' while Mammootty in 'Thappana' - what contrasting choices!! Looks to be an actor who will stand out on his own...