From the very community which increasingly produces IT engineers and Marketing Executives comes Gulab jaam – a movie which shatters some of this glory. All in a good measure.
Not to be taken personally – Engineers can be cool. What isn’t cool is the rat race where the kids who may become something they desire to end up becoming something else, from sheer parental ambition and societal pressure which puts some professions – and a lifestyle that comes from being in that profession – above the others.
One of the scenes that thus stands out in the film is when Radha, over a petty fight with Aditya (who belongs to the above mentioned category) picks up his laptop and throws it down the balcony. Aditya is stunned. For a few minutes, he is unable to react. And then it dawns on him. The machine which had enslaved him to the job he hates is shattered. The thread that had tied him to the competitive, consumerist, voyeuristic world is broken. The one thing that had stood between him and his lifelong aspiration to be a cook is no longer there. He is liberated.
Gulab jaam traces the journey of a young man Aditya (Siddharth Chendekar), a NRI banker who lies to his family about going back to London for this job and instead goes to Pune to learn how to make Marathi style vegetarian cooking. He isn’t really a rebel uptil now – but what triggered this act is his parents announcing a surprise (and unpleasant) engagement with his childhood friend. The childhood friend turned fiance follows one philosophy in her life – “we work for money on our weekdays, so that our hobbies, like cooking, can be nurtured on the weekends” – which she spews on Aditya later in the movie, when she catches him in Pune wearing a chefs hat and serving her friends.
After a few unsuccessful attempts in searching for a cook to teach him, he happens to taste the gulab jaam in tiffin which is delivered to his friends house. A ratatouille moment ensues. He is literally transported to his childhood where he takes the first lessons of cooking from his mother, standing in the kitchen with her. He decides, he will learn cooking only from the person who made this Gulab jaam. Enter the eccentric – and yet immensely lovable Radha (Sonali Kulkarni) – the Master Chef.
The story begins here.
In the course of Aditya learning from Radha, the film delicately brings out the chemistry between them. In the process of taking on the role of a reluctant teacher to being an ally, to being his professional partner and falling a little in love with Aditya, Radha makes her own inward journey. Aditya, on the other hand starts from being intrigued about her tough exterior to being frustrated at her unwillingness to teach him – and ends up becoming her very good friend. He understands her. He begins to dream with her – taking steps for a career he had never dared to embark on on his own. In the quiet lanes of old Pune, the unorthodox couple strike a perfect camaraderie.
The rest is about their journey in discovering each other – and rediscovering themselves, as they begin a start – up of serving Maharashtrian cuisine to the food lovers of Pune.
The movie is much more than their budding chemistry. It also scores in its portrayal of mental illness and the society’s way in dealing with it. This is evident from the fact that Radha is driven out by her own family to live in a crumbling Chawl on her own, because they are unable/unwilling to deal with it. We see it also in the void left in her mind (owing to her lost years) that manifests in everything – from letting the shopkeepers deal with the accounts to her social anxieties and her increasing dependence on Aditya. We get a tiny glimpse into the mind of people who are going through a mental illness – or depression, through Radha’s inability to deal with the ‘functional’ world and with ‘normal’ people who turn their backs on her.
It is heartbreaking and unfortunately real, and if anything it should make us more empathetic to those around us facing issues that we are unable to comprehend and hence chose to shun.
The film has mostly received favorable reviews. However, one of the criticisms leveled against it is that because of the specific, ghee laden vegetarian dishes that the story hinges on, it narrows down to catering only to the upper caste community of Maharashtra. I cannot disagree. However, because I belong to the same community, I also feel, in a very subtle way, the movie criticizes its practices. The pressure that young men like Aditya has to achieve a certain status – by taking a technical education which lands you in a corporate company, a corporate job which takes you to a first world country – and coming back from there only to marry a woman from your own caste – its inescapable, insufferable. Aditya throwing away a job which gives him everything that he has been taught to aspire – money, status, marriage and green card only to follow his dreams is thus, the filmmaker’s own way of breaking the ground. It inspired me, for one.
If someone still feels that vegetarian dishes are an issue, let us not be hostile to Radha and Aditya or thalipeeth and ukdiche modak, who are also trapped in the same stereotypical, cruel world. Let us break the monopoly of brahmanical kitchens on the dishes, let us let Radha and Aditya reclaim their lives!
The film ends on a very, very hopeful note, where Aditya not only fulfills his dream of opening a restaurant for Maharashtrian dishes in London but also retains his friendship with Radha. More importantly, Radha moves on. She does not remain trapped in the abyss of time or his unrequited love. She explores and he dives, both in territories unknown but with each other’s support. He still writes to her for cooking tips, and she updates him about her dates. The Gulab jaam melts way in our mouth, leaving a lingering sweetness for a long, long time