Charlie (2015)

Charlie

Charlie is simply an amazing work of art. From the stunning apartment where Tessa (Parvathy) takes refuge from her interfering family to the many and glorious shades of green of the hill station she visits, the vibrant colours of Kerala radiate from every frame. The lead characters are equally colourful – literally, in their tendency to wear bright Bohemian clothing and figuratively in their offbeat personalities that blend seamlessly into the intriguing yet deceptively simple storyline. The film shows Tessa’s search for Charlie, a man she knows only through other people’s perceptions but someone who may be her soul mate, if only she can find him. Director Martin Prakkat does a fantastic job of keeping the film engaging right to the last frame, and with an excellent cast and beautiful music from Gopi Sunder, Charlie is a great start to a new year of cinema.

Tessa (Parvathy) is the unconventional daughter in a conventional family who arrives home just in time to celebrate her brother’s engagement but takes off again as soon as her own marriage is discussed. Tessa is part bohemian nonconformist and part spoilt brat as she refuses to contact anyone in her family apart from her grandmother, even going to the extreme of destroying her phone SIM to ensure her privacy. She gives up her job in Bangalore (money doesn’t ever seem to be an issue) and rents an apartment in an old hotel, but when she arrives finds that the previous tenant left most of his belongings behind. Since these include an eclectic mix of furnishings and artwork as well as an accumulation of rubbish, brewing equipment and a goat on the balcony, Tessa is unimpressed by her new surroundings, particularly when strange people appear in her apartment too. However the charm of her musical neighbours and the beauty of her surroundings soon begin to work their magic, persuading Tessa to stay.

Unlike Tessa, I totally loved this apartment from the very first moment and cannot wait for the DVD release so that I can pause, rewind and absorb every small detail of the room. Every frame shows yet another fascinating sculpture or curious work of art and it’s somewhere I could happily live – even with the goat on the balcony!

Apart from being visually spectacular, the exotic and surreal décor adds a fantasy element to the storyline that’s further enhanced here in the song Oru Karimukilinu

Once she deals with the disorder in the room, a photograph and an unexpected phone call kindle Tessa’s interest in the former occupant. When she then finds an unfinished comic strip describing the events of one night, Tessa becomes obsessed with finding the author and discovering what really happened and how the story ends. As part of her search she meets Sunikuttan (Soubin Shahir), the burglar who features in the drawings and who helps Tessa connect to other people in Charlie’s life.

As Tessa begins her search for the elusive Charlie (Dulquer Salmaan), she discovers that he’s a fly-by-night kind of guy who doesn’t seem to take life seriously. From various sources she learns that Charlie appears unexpectedly, interferes in peoples’ lives and then takes off again. The implication is that he’s a free spirit who appears only to do good, except that his actions don’t always have a happy outcome. The more people she meets and the more she finds out about Charlie, the more questions Tessa has, and the more connected she seems to feel to a person she has never met.

Parvathy is excellent as slightly dippy Tessa, and I love a heroine who wears glasses without losing them at the end in a ‘fashionable make-over’. Although some of her idiosyncrasies don’t quite come off, such as wearing unmatching sandals and her almost paranoid avoidance of her family, mostly her character is sympathetically portrayed. The obsessive nature of Tessa’s search for Charlie does fit in with her personality and her rather haphazard approach to her search also seems plausible. Parvathy strikes a good balance between hippy chick and modern independence and the hints of vulnerability she shows are nicely nuanced to fit with her current lack of direction in life.

Although Dulquer is excellent in his portrayal of the eccentric Charlie, his character is somewhat less successful due to a tendency to veer a little too far off the rails into borderline deranged rather than keeping to eccentrically bohemian territory. Dulquer also tries for a deep belly laugh which came across rather forced at times and doesn’t gel with the rest of his persona. However despite his occasional crazy escapades Charlie is basically a nice guy, and Dulquer gets that feel good aspect of his personality across well. I could have done without the shaggy beard look, but I loved his costumes and Charlie’s generally relaxed and casual approach to life. There is a magic to the character too that is smothered by too much mania, but when writers Unni R and Martin Prakkat allow the mysterious element full rein the effect is enchanting.

The rest of the cast are also good in more serious roles that give structure to the story and highlight the unconventionality of Charlie and Tessa just that little bit more. Aparna Gopinath is excellent as Kani, a doctor with a difficult past, giving her character some dignity when faced with Charlie’s more spontaneous decisions. Kani works at a retirement hill station of sorts where Charlie has gathered an eclectic mix of people with the most notable being Kunjappan (Nedumudi Venu) who has his own love story to tell. These diversions into other people’s lives along the way help to define Charlie to Tessa and slowly lead her towards her ultimate goal of finding the man himself. The brief stories are full of emotion too and while each successfully gives another layer to Charlie, they also enhance the film in their own right, adding depth and shade to the screenplay.

Jomon John’s cinematography is spectacular and his camera captures the beauty and colour of Kerala, weaving them into the magical storyline. The quirky story is captivating and Parvathy is a delight to watch as she follows in Charlie’s footsteps, always that one step behind. I loved every moment, even the excessively loud craziness of Dulquer’s Charlie and this is a film I will want to watch again and again. Beautiful music, an offbeat story, colourful characters and all the wonderful sets make Charlie well worth catching in the cinema and a film I highly recommend. Don’t miss it!

Premam (2015)

Poster

I was lucky enough to catch Premam in the cinema when it released earlier this year, but disappointed that the film wasn’t subtitled. Thanks to the great cast, I loved it nonetheless but knew that I’d missed much of the story through not understanding the dialogue. But happily the DVD released quickly and I was finally able to understand why the cinema audience had been laughing so much! Premam is funny, thought-provoking, nostalgic, romantic and occasionally sad, but most of all it’s entertaining, and that, combined with the excellent cast, makes it one of the best Malayalam films released this year.

Premam is a fly on the wall look at George David (Nivin Pauly) and his search to find love during three different stages of his life. The film details George’s day-to-day exploits as he transitions through high school, college and then finally into owning his own business, all supported by his friends Koya (Kichu – Krishna Shankar), Shambu (Shabareesh Varma) and Jojo (Siju Wilson). Throughout, as George grows and matures he keeps the same basic personality traits; he’s quick to respond with his fists, is easily distracted and likes to smoke and drink, but for the most part George is a likeable romantic and it’s easy to want him to succeed in his various romantic endeavours.

The first romance occurs when George is 16 years old and has a major crush on Mary, a girl from his church. Along with almost every other male teenager in the area, George spends his time following Mary home and concocting schemes to make her notice his existence. Not all his friends are quite as enamoured of Mary however, and there is the problem of her father who has a ruthless but effective method of discouraging his daughter’s many admirers.  Anupama Parameswaran looks the part of a young village girl and is remarkably tolerant of the seemingly never-ending stream of boys on bikes outside her family’s gates. Her hair really does resemble a beehive at times though!

Nivin Pauly is excellent here, looking very youthful and totally nailing the obsessive nature of a sixteen year old in the middle of his first love affair. His friends too all manage to appear as typical teenagers, fixated on minutiae and preoccupied with their own lives to the exclusion of all else.  Alphonse Puthren keeps this part of the story light and fairly superficial, as suits the love affair of a sixteen year old, although George David is already wrestling with the big question of exactly what is love?

The second romance is more serious and involves an older, but not much wiser George. Now at college, George is a typical college hoodlum. Along with his friends he rags the new students, creates trouble in and out of class and even drinks on campus before his lectures. However he’s still a romantic at heart, and once he sees new lecturer Malar (Sai Pallavi) he’s immediately smitten. Rather surprisingly Malar seems equally charmed by George although she keeps her distance during classes and initially seems more of a friend than a lover.

Along with George, another lecturer Vimal (Vinay Forrt) is in love with Malar and he desperately follows the advice of fellow teacher Shivan (Soubin Shahir) in his attempts to gain her attention. Vinay Forrt is as excellent as always in a well written comedic role that gives him some brilliant lines including a very funny lecture he gives on the computing language Java that really makes no sense at all!  My favourite scene though is a sequence where Malar teaches the guys a dance routine they perform at their end of year college celebrations. The end result is perfectly executed to look exactly like a bunch of students having a blast performing on stage.

Despite the unlikely nature of the relationship, the romance is well developed and the story meanders through George’s routine days at college with his friends including clashes with other students and their daily visit to the canteen. It’s a stronger and deeper relationship than the first but again Alphonse Puthren has a light hand with the story and paints an engaging picture of young love. Sai Pallavi often appears more like a college student rather than a guest lecturer, but she is charming and very natural in her role.

Sadly events conspire against the relationship and the third part of the film finds George as the owner/manager of Café Agape (the theme of love continues), specialising in cakes and cake decoration. It seems a dramatic change from studying computing in college but George seems to have found his niche in life even if he hasn’t as yet found his soul-mate. But then Celine (Madonna Sebastian) walks into the café one evening and seems to be rather taken with George. It turns out that Celine is the younger sister of Mary and has memories of George being kind to her while he was in pursuit of her sister. Unfortunately there are a few obstacles to be cleared along the way, but in this final part of the story there is hope that George will find true love at last. This part of the film is more conventional in terms of the love story, although again the focus is on George’s life – there is a phone call from an old college friend to invite George to his wedding and interactions with the various customers of the café – rather than just the romance. It works well and again feels very natural as each character adds their own small part to complete the story.

Although there is nothing particularly outstanding about the plot, the method of showing the different love affairs as part of George’s day-to-day life is very effective and ensures that each character has their own well-developed personality. Effectively what we see on-screen are snapshots of George’s life, which also happen to include moments of romance, and his relationship with every other character is portrayed very naturally.  Nivin Pauly is simply fantastic and his performance ensures that his character is seen to grow, not just in age but also in maturity with each part of the story. He isn’t afraid to cry either and he does a credible job of playing both a teenager and a young student with all the emotional ups and downs required. It’s interesting too that although the main focus of the film is George, all the female roles are equally well written and all are strong characters who appear more capable and deal better with adversity than George and his friends. They have lives outside of their relationships with George and are not defined solely by their relationship with him. All the friends too are excellent in their portrayals of young men at three different stages of their lives and the camaraderie between them all feels very genuine. Overall, the casting seems ideal and no-one appears out of place in their role, even Alphonse Puthren himself who has a cameo appearance towards the end.

Anand C. Chandran ensures the film looks amazing and he has an excellent eye for details such as a frog in the pool when the friends are all drinking, or a small sparrow perched up above the menu board at the café. The music from Rajesh Murugesan is also lovely with beautifully poetic lyrics to the songs, although at times the subtitles are rather baffling! The songs also work well within the narrative, although apart from Rockaankuthu they are montages used to further develop each love story.
Premam

Alphonse Puthren has crafted a captivating film where every character has a role to play and the story unfolds very naturally. Dialogue, screenplay, performances, cinematography and music all come together perfectly to deliver a polished and entertaining film that seems to just get better each time I watch it. I loved Premam and heartily recommend watching for Nivin Pauly at his best, Sai Pallavi and an all-round excellent cast. 4 ½ stars.

How Old Are You?

How Old Are You

How Old Are You? is a completely different film from the last Rosshan’s Andrew’s film I watched, Mumbai Police. Rather than a complex murder mystery, this is a small domestic drama that nonetheless deals with weighty topics such as empowerment and never losing sight of your dreams. It could easily have become preachy given the subject matter but writer duo Bobby-Sanjay keep it light and close enough to home, making it easy to relate to the main protagonist. The title is perhaps a little misleading, since it’s not really Nirupama’s age that’s the issue, but rather her routine life which is slowly grinding her down. The film is the comeback for Manju Warrier and like Sridevi in English Vinglish she brings experience, maturity and a little glamour to a role which seems to suit her very well.

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) is a government employee who isn’t at all engaged in her work. She has no empathy for her clients and secretly reads magazines before going home to look after her family. At the start of the film she is rejected for a job in Ireland due to her age (actually that would be illegal in Ireland – you cannot discriminate against someone due to their age) which means that she won’t be able to accompany her husband Rajeev (Kunchacko Boban) and daughter Lekshmi (Amrith Anil) in their move overseas. Rajeev is fairly unpleasant, but in a way that doesn’t stand out as being unusual or even abusive. He doesn’t notice when Nirupama has changed her hairstyle, and when it’s pointed out to him, he doesn’t like it. He expects his wife to be there and make his dinner, but also to be able to work and earn money during the day. To cap it all off, when he’s involved in a motor vehicle accident he persuades Nirupama to say she was driving to make sure it has no effect on his visa application. But apart from his chauvinistic attitude he’s not a difficult husband. Rajeev and Nirupama seem to have a good relationship and chat amicably about their daughter and their respective workdays without any acrimony. Basically it seems like any other relationship where the wife does what the husband wants because that’s just the way it is, nothing more and nothing less.

However the planned move overseas puts a strain on their relationship, and Lekshmi in particular is obnoxiously bratty about her mother’s failure to get a job in Ireland. One day Lekshmi is part of a group of school children who get to ask the Indian President some questions and so impresses the President that he asks about the origin of her question. When Lekshmi explains it was from her mother, the President (Siddartha Basu) requests a meeting with Nirupama. Unfortunately things don’t go well, and Nirupama finds herself being ridiculed on social media and teased by her work colleagues. This makes her relationship with Lekshmi even more difficult and it seems that no matter what she does, nothing will ever be right. Part of the reason why I feel the film resonates so well is that most people have been in a similar situation at some time in their lives. We’ve all done something stupid, or something we regret and at the time it seems as if there is no way out of the mess without further embarrassment or loss. At any rate, I could definitely relate to Nirupama and her feelings of inadequacy, along with her increasing need for reading glasses and her discovery of grey hairs!

Nirupama’s notoriety allows a former University classmate to track her down and Susan (Kanika) is dismayed by her friends humdrum life. She reminds Nirupama that she was a firebrand and activist at University with plenty of ambition and drive to succeed. Along with the absence of her family who have moved to Ireland as planned, Susan’s memories provide the motivation for Nirupama to kick-start her life. She stands up to her husband and makes a new career for herself – in the process allowing the film makers to add in some valid points about organic farming and the benefits of city food production.

There is a side story involving an older lady who gets the same bus as Nirupama each day. Although the two don’t really know each other, Nirupama helps Madhaviyamma (Sethulakshmi) when she is ill, and gets more out of the relationship than she expected. I would have liked there to be more of Madhaviyamma and her problems, but sadly most of her relationship with Nirupama is skipped over. Mainly the friendship is a plot device to allow Nirupama to realise that she is not the only one with difficulties, and that in fact her problems are rather trivial compared to those of Madhaviyamma. Madhaviyamma also provides the inspiration for Nirupama’s business venture but there is not enough of Sethulakshmi, who does a wonderful job with her role.

There are a number of other familiar faces who appear as part of the support cast, including Vinay Forrt, as one of the office workers, while Thesni Khan and Jayesh Pazhanimala are good as friends of Nirupama. Kanika only appears briefly as Susan, and it’s a strength of the film that Susan doesn’t change Nirupama’s life for her. Susan is after all more successful with plenty of connections and the ability to give Nirupama a new job or bail her out financially, but instead it’s Nirumpama who comes up with the idea that turns her life around. It’s all Nirupama’s dream, her vision and she is the one who sets to and organises everything. With a little help from Madhaviyamma and her boss Seetharama Iyer (Devan).

Although mainly the film is realistic in the portrayal of relationships and in the intimacies of Nirupama’s life, the plot is occasionally rather too fanciful. The episodes with the Indian President seem unlikely, although the fuss and security around the visit is plausible, and the whole Immigration plot is generally rather nonsensical. Nirupama also seems to turn her life around rather more easily than I expected. However, the basic idea of a woman caught in a rut of her own devising is one which appeals, particularly when the character is played so skilfully as here. I felt most of Nirupama’s reactions were accurate in portraying how an average person would behave in similar situations, and her ideas and new business venture seemed to fit her general persona. It’s always good to have such a powerful female figure as the lead in a film, and How Old Are You? has a strong message and excellent cast too. Well worth a watch for Manju Warrier, Sethulakshmi and the idea that you’re never too old to change your life. 4 stars.

Badlapur & Theevram

As I was watching Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur I was struck by a number of similarities to Theevram, a Malayalam film I’d watched just a few weeks before, so it seemed appropriate to write about them together. Both are films based on a story of revenge where the hero is forced into action by his perceived lack of justice, and both star an up-and-coming young actor surrounded by an experienced and proficient support cast. While Badlapur focuses on the obsession of revenge and the destructive consequence to Raghu (Varun Dhawan), Theevram is a more straight forward drama with Harsha (Dulquher Salmaan) playing a game of cat and mouse with Police Inspector Alexander (Sreenivasan) as he exacts his revenge. Both are good films in their own right but while I prefer Badlapur’s more ambiguous storyline, Dulquher Salmaan just pips Varun Dhawan in his portrayal of a man driven to the absolute extreme for revenge.

The story of Theevram is told in a non-linear fashion, and is actually based on a couple of real life murder cases. Sreenivasan plays a respected police officer who has an unfortunate dislike of autopsy although there is nothing lacking in his detective skills. He’s paired with a younger officer, the more impetuous Ramachandran (Vinay Forrt) and the two make a good team. The film begins with Harsha’s revenge and it’s not until later that we discover why he has been driven to this extreme. At the start we don’t know if he is a good guy or a serial killer, as without any explanation he systematically tortures and kills a man in his plastic coated cellar. His actions seem to be at odds with his day-to-day life as a piano teacher, however once Inspector Alexander comes to call it becomes clear Harsha was the victim of a crime. Most of the film is shot with dull and muted colours, but once a flashback sequence starts, explaining what has happened to Harsha to turn him into this cold and methodical man, suddenly the colours are full and rich. A rather obvious metaphor but one which is very effective.

Harsha’s wife Maya (Shikha Nair) was murdered by a company driver Raghavan (Anu Mohan) for her complaints about his speeding with her in the car. Her murder is pre-meditated and brutal, with Raghavan severing her head from the body to attempt to delay identification. He’s quickly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime while Harsha struggles to cope with life without Maya. However, just as Harsha is starting to get on with his life, the circumstances of Raghavan’s family life allow the murderer to obtain an early release from jail. Very early. In fact he only spends 4 years behind bars before being allowed his freedom. Harsha and his friends Dr Roy (Vishnu Raghav) and Nimmy (Riya Saira) decide that Raghavan must die for his crime and set about planning the perfect murder.

Theevram rather controversially takes the view that murder for revenge is perfectly justified if the legal system has failed to properly punish the offender for his crime. Writer and director Roopesh Peethambaran delivers a story of vigilantism where the cold-blooded murder of a criminal is depicted as a good solution, and even acknowledged as such by the police. I can’t say that I agree with this view or with portraying Harsha as a hero for what he does, but the story is gripping and the plot cleverly developed. The contentious treatment of Raghavan is perhaps a way to start a discussion about such issues, and it’s interesting that he isn’t a completely black character. Raghavan does appear to try to look after his disabled wife and seems to be trying to turn over a new leaf after his release from jail. However his behaviour towards Nimmy suggests that the change may only be surface deep and he still has a poor attitude towards women.

Badlapur is a darker film where the lines between right and wrong are blurred and revenge is shown to be a weight dragging Raghu down. The first few minutes are brilliantly filmed, with a shot of a street, with people going their everyday business and the only sounds heard the traffic going past and snatches of conversations as vegetables are bought and gossip exchanged. However in the background there is a robbery, and as the two criminals leave the bank they force their way into a car parked outside where Misha (Yami Gautam) is just loading in her young son and her groceries. During the subsequent chase Robin falls out of the car, while Misha is shot and killed. While one of the robbers manages to escape, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is left to face the music. After his wife’s murder, Raghu becomes a haunted and driven man, obsessed with finding Liak’s partner whom he believes fired the fatal bullet. However in reality the opposite is true. Liak was the man who, in the heat of the moment shot and killed Misha, although he never confesses, insisting that he was just the driver.

15 years later when Liak is diagnosed with terminal cancer Raghu is persuaded to plead for Liak’s early release in the hope that he will run to his old partner in crime. Raghu’s bereavement turns him into a cold, hard man who rapes and abuses Liak’s girlfriend Jhimli (Huma Qureshi) as part of his revenge. He’s so obsessed with the idea of finding the man behind his wife’s death that he lives a miserable life, alone and in fairly dismal circumstances. The tragedy has become what has defined the man and it seems as if only his plans for revenge keep him going.

Here, revenge is shown as something that corrupts. Raghu becomes more despicable than his enemy, killing Liak’s partner Harman (Vinay Pathak) and wife Kanchan (Radhika Apte) in cold blood. Liak himself is shown as a rather grey character, who seems to have more of a life than Raghu, despite spending most of it behind bars.

Dulquher Salmaan and Varun Dhawan both do an excellent job as young men devastated by their loss. The problem I have with Varun’s character is that it takes 15 years before he manages to achieve his revenge, and it seems unlikely that he could have maintained his rage so long. Varun tries hard but doesn’t quite manage to pull off playing a man in his forties although he does convey his preoccupation with finding Liak’s partner and his disconnection from normal life very well. Dulquher has an easier time of it, as his character only has to wait 4 years to exact revenge, and his protagonist is easier to dislike. Dulquher is also a man who has managed to move on with his life and although his world is duller without Maya, he would have been content to let Raghavan rot in jail if he’d just stayed there. His revenge is coldly plotted with great attention to detail but there seems to be little rage left – in fact little emotion at all.

Both films are made even better by their excellent support cast. Badlapur would have been less substantial and the revenge less ambiguous without the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui and his nuanced performance as the main antagonist. Sreenivasan doesn’t have such a consequential role, but his support and that of Vinay Forrt rounds out the story and ensures a satisfying plot. The films are brutal, both in the violence they depict and in the exposure of such deep despair but there are lighter hearted moments in both and it’s not all doom and gloom. There is just enough light to allow the shade space to deepen and both directors have paced their films well. The strength of both Badlapur and Theevram is in the portrayal of emotions and it’s heartening to see two young actors bring so much depth to their roles. I enjoyed both these films and recommend them for a combination of fine performances, strongly written characters and good storytelling. 4 for both.

 

 

Ustad Hotel

Ustad Hotel poster

After watching the excellent Bangalore Days I was on the lookout for more from writer/director Anjali Menon and director Anwar Rasheed, and luckily found their previous co-venture Ustad Hotel lurking in my pile of ‘to-be-watched’ DVD’s.  The other drawcard pushing this up the list was the appearance of Dulquer Salmaan, who has impressed so far in every performance I’ve seen and seems to have the knack of picking a good script. And once again, the combination does not disappoint. Ustad Hotel is a gem of a film and fully deserves the many accolades and awards received, including its three National Film Awards in 2012. The story is simple but beautifully executed with stunning cinematography and excellent performances from the whole cast. It’s a real feast for the senses given that most of the film revolves around food and cooking, so probably best not to watch on an empty stomach!

The film tells the story of Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan), commonly called Faizi, and the path he takes to find his true place in life. Along the way we see details of his different relationships – with his four sisters, his father and most importantly with his grandfather, the owner of the Ustad Hotel.

Faizi’s story starts before he is born when his father Abdul Razaq (Siddique) and mother Fareeda (Praveena) are expecting their first child. Abdul’s confidence that the baby will be a boy and his disappointment when this child, and the next three are all girls, sets our expectations for a typically traditional family and in the main this is what we get. By the time Faizi is finally born, his ambitious father has already planned out his son’s life, which leaves little room for what Faizi himself actually wants. Luckily Faizi has his four sisters who bring him up after their mother dies and seem to have his best interests at heart. His sisters know that he is training to be a chef in Switzerland while his father thinks he is studying for an MBA, but they aren’t impressed by his European girlfriend or by his plans to work in London. As a result they conspire to bring him back to India, but still keep his father in the dark about Faizi’s true plans.

At the same time Abdul has arranged a bride visit for Faizi as soon as he steps off the plane, but things don’t go well when Faizi tells his intended bride Shahana (Nithya Menon) of his intention to work as a chef. Faizi’s furious father confiscates his passport and in desperation Faizi turns to his grandfather Kareem (Thilakan) who runs a small beachside restaurant in Kozhikode.

Kareem acts as a mentor to Faizi and teaches him not only how to cook his famous biriyani, but also how to care for a business, including his workers, and the general community around him. The obvious respect which Kareem receives from everyone from his staff and customers, to the chef in the five-star hotel nearby, makes Faizi realise that there is more to his grandfather than he previously realised. Everyone sees him as Kareem’s grandson and that defines his place in a way that has never been so clear before.  The story is well crafted and the relationship between the two is beautifully developed as Kareem starts by making Faizi a general helper and gradually allows him to develop his cooking skills while ensuring he gains a more mature outlook on life.

Thilakan is perfect as Kareem and he is the glue that holds the story together. There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes running off with the bride from a wedding where he was employed to cook, and the wistful delight with which he describes watching rain in the desert is pitched just right. He has a number of maxims he lives by, including that every meal should feed the mind as well as the stomach and every glass of sulaimani should contain a little bit of love. With these simple words and by ensuring his workers all have extra funds should they need it, Kareem teaches Faizi how to be a good person, not just a good cook. He is a man who lives his life with no regrets and has compassion for all, which makes him the ideal mentor for Faizi.

Dulquer is also excellent, and while the role of a trendy young NRI returning to India may be straightforward, his Faizi does appear to be genuinely at a crossroads.  He imbues his character with plenty of charm but also gives Faizi an element of confusion and bewilderment that fits his indecision perfectly. Dulquer and Thilakan share wonderful chemistry and their relationship comes across as very genuine – the respected elder and the young apprentice both in the film and presumably also in real life given that this is only Dulquer’s second film. Mamukkoya also deserves special mention in his role as Ummar, Kareem’s manager and almost another member of the family. He is very natural in the role and his conversations with Kareem about Faizi are exactly what you would expect from an old and trusted employee asked to give his opinion on the wayward young member of the family.

Nithya Menon appears as the love interest for Faizi and her Shahana is an interesting character. At one moment she is wearing a burka and conforming to the demands of her rather strict family, but in the next she steals out and is singing in a rock band and wearing Western clothes. Nithya Menon is as wonderful as ever and even in her limited time onscreen she makes an impression, but I really would have liked to see a little more of her in the second half.

While Faizi deals with the repercussions of defying his father, he gets a job at the five-star hotel next door and has a chance to use his training to cook more Western style dishes, or ‘oag cosin’ as my subtitles call it! There is a plot to drive Kareem out of the hotel and close down the Ustad Hotel and finally Faizi makes a trip to Madurai to see just how cooking with love should be carried out. It all ties together perhaps a little too neatly at the end but it’s hard to complain when it’s all done so well with S Lokanathan’s stunning cinematography ensuring each scene looks perfect.

Ustad Hotel is a film that flows beautifully, blending adept characterisations, a heart-warming story and traditional Keralan cuisine into a very tasty dish indeed. There are a few quibbles; Faizi’s Western girlfriend is horribly stereotyped and the second half could have been a little shorter without losing too much of the story. The romance between Faizi and Shahana seems to go from awkwardness after her initial rejection to a friendly relationship well, but the jump to romance seems to happen off camera as the two are suddenly an item without any further development of their relationship. However these are small points in an otherwise excellent film. Well worth watching for Dulquer, Thilakan and Nithya along with all the glorious shots of food. 4 ½ stars.