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,it 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 that abound when films try to portray 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 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…