As Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan bites into the tangy roadside snack, chhole bhatura (fried bread with spicy chickpea curry), the real-life prince remembers the time when, as a child in Bhopal, he used to nip down from his mansion to the servant quarters and eat all those flavourful Indian snacks like paani puri and bhel puri.
“Our food was boring… chicken cutlets, tomato sandwiches. I had to run off there and play with them, eat all that amazing food,” said Khan.
The son of veteran Bollywood actress Sharmila Tagore and cricketing legend Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi was even admonished by his maid who threatened to tell his mother about his culinary transgressions, but that didn’t stop him from being adventurous with food. While this anecdote tried hard at normalising aristocracy, Khan was underlining the belief that food was the best leveller in this world as he plays a Michelin-starred cook in his latest film, Chef, out in the UAE on October 5.
Directed by Raja Krishna Menon of Airlift fame, this is the Hindi adaptation of Jon Favreau’s 2014 indie hit, Chef. But the makers claim it has been tweaked heavily to suit Indian sensibilities.
Khan plays Roshan Kalra, a highly skilled chef running an Indian fine-dining restaurant in New York, who returns to his country to re-connect with his teenage son and estranged wife in Kerala (Padmapriya). Kalra has lost his mojo and is feeling disillusioned in life, but running a food-truck business with his family re-ignites his zest for life. The food-truck, that travels across India, becomes a symbol of his journey of self-discovery.
“It’s nice to work with smart people… There’s something nice and fresh about this story. Conflict is what drives a story forward and there’s plenty of interesting conflicts in this film. And I didn’t mind sweating it out a bit for a role, but not in the food I promise,” said Khan, laughing heartily at his own joke.
But working in a kitchen as a chef can be “explosive” and isn’t all fun as it is cooked up to be. Khan spent weeks learning knifing skills and julienning vegetables at the Marriott chain of hotels in Mumbai.
“There are certain professions that tend to make you more temperamental and create that diva syndrome. I believe neurosurgeons are quite temperamental too, prima donnas… Certain jobs make you a bit volatile. Kitchens in restaurants are high-pressure environments. It’s a bit like an emergency room in a hospital; there’s so much chaos and you need to get it right,” said Khan.
The extras in the film are real-life chefs too. A ’90s kid in India, when the country had just opened up to the idea of professions that went beyond engineering and being a doctor, will identify with the crisis showcased in the film.
“Jon Favreau’s Chef has been tossed on its head. That was a film about a man fighting for its integrity, he didn’t want to be a sell-out. Here, in this film he has become empty, his passion has run out. He has become a star chef, but is asking: ‘so what’?,” said Menon.
For the director, Khan and Padmapriya — who plays a Bharatnatyam dancer and his ex-wife — were the natural choices for the roles. Khan exudes a certain charm, despite his flaws, while Padmapriya displays a quiet confidence, which makes them a good fit. What’s interesting about Chef is that it is good to see the 47-year-old Khan play an age-appropriate role, especially at a time when Bollywood superstars are still romancing women half their age and traipsing around Europe. In Chef, he is flawed and fabulous.
“I made benchmarks in my mind, when Pierce Brosnan gets old, it’s time to look at life differently. When I joined movies, Salman, Aamir and Akshay were on top and I decided that when they get old, I will start playing old roles. But they are still killing it. I don’t think age is an issue. Because of them our longevity as an actor has increased,” said Khan, adding that it is a relief that he doesn’t have to play a college-goer anymore.
“I have come to the conclusion now that you just have to be the best version of yourself,” said Khan.
For Padmapriya, who has featured in South Indian hits such as the thriller Pazhassi Raja and the period epic Iyobinte Pusthakam, her character’s strength of identity was the biggest draw. She plays a woman, who has moved on from her ex-husband, but is magnanimous enough to enjoy an amicable relationship with her soured partner.
“She’s an interesting mix of an urban, modern and a humane woman. What is interesting is the way in which Raja has treated a mother. She is not someone who cooks or makes son do her homework, she’s more of a friend to her son. There’s a strong sense of intimacy with her ex-husband too, but she knows her space and is a commanding person,” said Padmapriya over the phone.
Director of the Bangalore Days blockbuster, Anjali Menon, had informed her that Menon was looking for a South Indian talent for his new film and the rest is history. Understanding her character’s strong sense of self-worth took some
time. Physically too, the role was demanding.
Like Khan, working on a film dominated by knives, food and a sweltering kitchen was a challenge. She compares filming in a food truck to a passenger on a flight attempting to lug three bags through a narrow aisle on an economy aircraft. It was tough and stuffy. Barring a cosy, coveted spot that had a seat in the food truck, navigating through shelves inside a crammed space wasn’t always easy.
On the plus side, the cast got to eat some fantastic Kerala food like idiyappams (rice noodles) and puttu (rice-cakes).
Khan, who loves to occasionally indulge in a burger or a pizza or a fine meal, claims its all about striking a balance.
“I would feel awful if Taimur [Khan’s nine-month-old son] became an actor and he had to live in the gym and just eat protein. I would feel awful for him because he wouldn’t have a life. But that’s not just what being an actor is all about. Balance is a good thing. You shouldn’t give into your every craving to eat a pizza or a burger. Life of an actor is much more than that,” said Khan.
Don’t miss it!
Chef is out in the UAE on October 5.
Did you know?
- Chef was shot over 60 days spanning six Indian cities starting from Kerala to Amritsar. The food that you see in the film is real and not dressed up to look good.
- Saif Ali Khan loves to eat a good burger, which reminds him of Jughead. The one that he ate from The Oberoi had the right mix of bread and burger, claims the actor. He also loves sushi and pasta.