A smart young man, driven by reasons beyond his control, leaves London for his roots in a Punjabi village speckled with the yellow flowers of mustard fields. There, he’s enveloped by a largish family. He’s an instant hit with almost all of them, except the stern and suspicious patriarch. And then there’s the looming wedding of the girl who makes him whistle the tune to Tujhe dekha hai to jaana sanam… It’s hard not to leave Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana wondering whether the director, Sameer Sharma, saw Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge as a child, and, unimpressed, vowed that he would one day show the Bollywood establishment how a Punjab-based romance should really be made. And in the process, he’s made the quintessential anti-Bollywood movie, hitting the same notes as a family-friendly crowd-pleaser but underplaying each one. Even the customary Lohri song (one of which was in another Yash Chopra production, Veer-Zaara) isn’t choreographed with synchronized steps, but as a lived-in celebration that a family member could have captured on a handycam.
Family is the motor that revs up this wonderful romance, which is as much about the ways we love people as the ways we love food – and this is only fitting in a film whose title embraces both “luv” and “chicken.” At times, the reignited romance between Omi (Kunal Kapoor), a wastrel who stole from his family and sped to London without looking back, and Harman (Huma Qureshi) seems an afterthought to the lusty love the people around them have for food, especially for the Chicken Khurana whose recipe is known only to Omi’s daarji (Vinod Nagpal). Omi’s chachi is defined by her failures in the kitchen, which drive the rest of the family to the langar in the gurudwara or else to vendors of sweets for midnight snacks of jalebis. And when Omi returns to his family and has his first meal, there is so much talk of butter on parathas that your stomach may begin to rumble.
And how do Omi and Harman find their way to each other again? By cooking together, of course. Theirs is the quest to find out – after daarji’s demise – how to prepare Chicken Khurana, whose recipe will make Omi a rich man. Or at least, rich enough to return the money he owes a hood in London, the sum of “Queen di photo wali pachaas hazaar pound.” (These early London scenes are the weakest in the film. Thankfully, we’re soon transported to India.) Omi and Harman sit around drinking cups of tea and lassi, while Omi bonds with his cousin Jeet (Rahul Bagga) over bottles of beer – Jeet, who has one glass eye, is the man Harman is engaged to – and writing this, I feel pangs that compel me to warn the viewer: “Do not see this movie on an empty stomach.”
Or a cynical heart. It’s been a while since we’ve been ensconced in so much familial love – in our yuppie multiplex movies, there are hardly any parents anymore. Sharma’s vision of the great Indian family isn’t just that they fuss around you at the dinner table or while you’ve just stepped out of a bath, in a towel, looking for a way to dry your damp underwear. (Omi packed his bags in a hurry; hence the lack of innerwear options.) What ensues is one of many hilarious scenes that show how rural India still swears by the motto of the Musketeers: All for one, one for all. I nearly bust a gut when Omi’s chachiremarked about his “V-shaped” briefs. The film’s minor fault is that it doesn’t clue us enough to Omi’s life in London to show how much this lack of respect for personal boundaries is affecting him – after all, he isn’t here on a nostalgia-fuelled holiday – but compensation arrives in other forms.
The flashbacks, especially the one that shows how daarji accidentally stumbled into Chicken Khurana, are simply lovely. We’ve seen this man as a senile wreck, given to unabashed flatulence, and to be transported to his vigorous youth, alongside his beautiful wife, gives the feeling of flipping through pages of a family album. And a chance remark by the wife – that she’ll haunt him as a crow – develops into a running riff in the present, courtesy a bird that roosts on the Khurana terrace. This, of course, is just another way of saying that the great Indian family isn’t just with you while alive, but also after death. Will Omi learn to love and respect this family, which has welcomed him as if his transgressions had never happened? Does the sun rise in the east? But predictability isn’t the same as passionlessness. The quiet scene where Omi whips up a meal for his family reminded me of the closing stretch of Big Night, another movie whose priorities were aimed at the palate, where a man prepares an omelette for his brother. The act comes to feel as atonement.
This quietness is characteristic of Sharma’s approach elsewhere too. When Omi realises he belongs here, with this family, we are not subjected to a jangling-violins shot with tears, but a near-wordless epiphany that involves seeing people and finally seeing them for who they are. And where a traditional Bollywood romance would punctuate his relationship with Harman with outbursts of rage – after all, he abandoned her ten years ago and never bothered to keep in touch – we have, here, just one high-pitched scene where she says she had the right to expect at least a call from him. Afterwards, even when she begins to warm towards him, we simply see them sitting side by side, sipping tea, or else standing in front of a stove, slicing tomatoes and onions. Huma Qureshi is well-chosen for this part. Apart from her graceful presence, she also carries the kind of curves real women have – and next to this grownup, Kunal Kapoor provides an unwitting visual joke, looking as if he stepped into an age-machine and transformed himself into an anorexic teenager.
In the first half, Omi is a man without a plan, and the film, accordingly, is content to amble along, delighting in the quirkiness of its characters. (Luckily, not everyone is drenched in colour. Omi’s chacha, played by Rajendra Sethi, plays it straight; the conflict of emotions on his face upon Omi’s return is a sight to behold.) And then, as Omi gains focus in the film’s second half, the film too attaches itself to a plot that builds towards a finish that left me laughing through tears. The tears came from the honest warmth in a scene where everyone makes a confession around the meal Omi has made, and the laughs came from Titu Mama (Rajesh Sharma), who can see why people are getting so emotional, but cannot see why they can’t eat at the same time. That’s the other characteristic of the anti-Bollywood movie – that the heroes and heroines often end up looking like supporting characters to marvellous performers who keep us laughing long after we’ve left the theatre. Bas karo gyaani-ji.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.