Here’s how 64-year-old Buddhadev Gupta, a chef in London, proposes marriage to 34-year-old Nina Verma, an Indian girl visiting London: “Men tolerate marriage because of sex and women tolerate sex because of marriage. After this eternal compromise of the sexes, does marriage still appeal to you?”
Nina looks away, pauses, and says, “Yes.”
Don’t cringe yet, the same words sound loving enough when Amitabh Bachchan says them in Cheeni Kum.
You may not agree with the writer’s take on the war of the sexes, but a quick whirl through some of the scenes of the film almost convinces you that big messages are not what the Bachchan-Tabu starrer—a bittersweet, no-frills romcom—is concerned with. A witty concoction of dialogues and comic situations—it’s what R. Balki, the film’s director and chief creative director of Lowe Lintas, India, describes as “a long ad film, that comes with the challenge of continuously keeping the interest in the script alive”.
Bachchan is known for his close association with many ad film-makers, including Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra, who directed Bachchan in his risky 2001 debut film, Aks. He sanctioned Ram Madhvani, another ad film-maker, to make Everlasting Light, a documentary on his own life and works, that was screened at the actor’s retrospective at the New York Film Festival in 2006.
Bachchan says he has known Balki for more than a decade and when the script came to him, he gave it a close look. The character of Buddhadev hooked him instantly and he agreed, although Balki had never directed a film or commercial before. The role of the creative head of an agency requires supervising of a commercial’s execution, not directing it.
Past experiences with advertising professionals also influenced Bachchan’s choice. “They are a meticulous lot. Pre-production is always rigorous with advertising professionals, that’s their work culture and it shows in their work. In this film, I played a chef for the very first time, but everything from the knife and the plate to my costume and ponytail was planned so well that on the day of the shoot, I just had to know my lines and go,” Bachchan says.
Made with a budget of Rs11 crore, the final product is not your regular multiplex fare, but it also steers clear of blockbuster melodrama—a middle-of-the-road film that has the potential to hook all kinds of movie-goers in India.
There’s the powerful lead pair, plus Paresh Rawal and Zohra Sehgal, so performances are taken care of. With music by Illayaraja, the South Indian master of orchestra and P.C. Sreeram’s camera, known to transform the most banal frame into visual poetry, a box office success recipe is already brewing here. A lot then depends on first-time director Balki (as he is known in the ad world and in the list of credits in the film, although it’s R. Balakrishnan on his visiting card), on how he creates magic out of a winning formula.
Balki joined advertising in 1988 because, he says, “it had something to do with films”. His first job after he moved from his hometown, Bangalore, was at Mudra. “I got into Mudra’s copy training programme, but from the very beginning, I tried to be involved more with TV commercials. It’s been a lifelong dream to make a film,” he said, when the film was in the final stages of post-production about a month ago. Producer Sunil Manchanda of Mad Films, his associate and collaborator in many ad films, was ready with his production team. Manchanda has produced seven films, including Nikhil Advani’s recent multi-starrer, Salaam-E-Ishq.
So, Buddhadev Gupta is the head chef of Spice 6, an Indian restaurant in London. His ponytail (sticking out rather oddly from Big B’s wig) is a sore point with his 85-year-old mother (Sehgal), whom he lives with; his only friend and confidante is a nine-year-old neighbour. The brash, quirky bachelor has a passion for authentic Indian cooking (in one of the first meetings with Nina, he hollers at her indifference to his Zaffrani Hyderabadi Biryani, “Ask your mother how this is cooked first, and then comment on my cooking”). Nina’s quiet charm and independence attract him and love blossoms. “The love is not tender and sweet. He’s a rude, sarcastic man and she is no-nonsense too. My vision of it is a no-fluff, no-sweet-nothings kind of a love story,” says the director. The second half rests entirely on the story’s humour. Buddhadev arrives in Delhi with Nina, to meet her father Omprakash Verma (Paresh Rawal)—a hardboiled Gandhian, six years younger than Buddhadev. The awkward moments that follow are probably safe in the hands of Bachchan and Rawal, both masters of comic timing.
And for reasons perhaps an ad man can understand best, the director believes that stars are far bigger than characters. He was clear from the start: The character would adapt to Bachchan’s persona, the character would reach out to the star. “I had Bachchan in mind when I visualized this rude man. I knew how I wanted him to look. Bachchan is everything but sweet,” Balki says.
All the characters in the film exist in the present and move a little into the future when the film ends, on a happy note. We don’t know why they are the way they are, what pasts they have left behind. Without that, will the love story of a cynical, arrogant old chef and an assured Indian woman in her 30s be a journey worth taking?
It didn’t bother Tabu, known to be extremely choosy about her roles. The fun and humour in the script and the role of Nina convinced her: “Being cast opposite Mr. Bachchan was a draw for me because it has been my dream to work with him. But ultimately, it was the script. My character not having a past didn’t bother me. It is supposed to be about the present, about taking life the way it is, minus the sentimentality. I think that spirit shows in the final product.”
Cheeni Kumwill be in theatres on 25 May.