Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Padmapriya Janakiraman, Svar Kamble, Milind Soman, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Sobhita Dhulipala Director: Raja Krishna Menon
As feel-good films go, Chef, starring Saif Ali Khan, is inoffensive and frequently charming. It’s a decent but far-from-spectacular remake of the Jon Favreau starrer from 2014, about a celebrated culinary genius whose sudden fall from grace leads him to question where his heart truly lies. Airlift director Raja Menon remains more or less faithful to the blueprint of the original film while ditching its scrappy, indie feel for a broader, glossier approach.
In a case of terrific casting, Saif plays Roshan Kalra, a top New York chef who flips out when a patron criticizes his cooking and is fired when he refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Jobless, and confused about what to do next, Roshan travels to Kochi to visit his ex-wife Radha (Padmapriya Janakiraman) and son Armaan (Svar Kamble) who he hasn’t seen in some time.
One of the best things about the film is the refreshingly mature handling of Roshan and Radha’s post-divorce relationship, even if the reason for their break-up is never explained, barring the frankly lame suggestion that his obsession with his work might have driven a wedge between them. There are some laughs to be had from Roshan’s mixed-but-never-melodramatic response to the presence of a new man in Radha’s life, namely the mild-mannered, salt-and-pepper haired art collector Biju (Milind Soman), who by all accounts appears to be a better catch than Roshan himself.
While in India, Roshan gets a chance to bond with his son when he decides to remodel a rundown double-decker bus into a hip food-truck. Joined by a friend from New York (Chandan Roy Sanyal) and a temperamental driver, father and son hit the road, serving up their exotic roti-pizza concoction at multiple stops between Kochi and Delhi, even as Roshan routinely imparts life lessons to the kid in scenes that come off a little ham-fisted.
The writing, in fact, is the weak link here. There is little surprise or unpredictability in the narrative, and aside from a handful of smart moments – a reference to Saif’s character in Dil Chahta Hai for one – very little flies of the page.
Menon and his writers conceive the film as both a mouth and eye-watering showreel for Indian food and travel. The portions filmed in Kerala are especially evocative, but as a film with food as one of its key themes, Chef leaves you wanting.
The cooking scenes never come alive with passion or flair. They’re adequately shot, but the love and magic is oddly missing. You only have to watch Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox or even Amole Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba to see how skillfully those filmmakers elevated the mundane task of cooking into a sumptuous sensory experience. After watching Favreau whip up a pasta in the original film, I wanted to rush out for an Italian meal. This film leaves you with no such cravings.
If the film isn’t completely derailed by its shortcomings, it’s because it’s a light, breezy watch. A big reason for that is clever casting. Saif Ali Khan does some of his best work lately as an angry, insecure, middle-aged fella at the center of this belated coming-of-age tale. He’s flawed and clearly a work-in-progress, and the actor brings out the character’s contradictions and complexities with empathy.
Smartly, the filmmakers surround Saif with an ensemble of mostly unknown faces in order to ground the film in authenticity. The lovely Padmapriya Janakiraman has a luminous presence as Radha, and Svar Kamble has none of the annoying affectations of so many child actors.
Chef isn’t perfect; it lags in places, offers quick-fix solutions to characters’ problems, and feels wholly familiar. But at a little over two hours, it doesn't ask much of you, and offers some pleasure in Saif Ali Khan’s return to form as an actor hard to look away from. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.