Bollywood’s tryst with gastronomical tales may be few and far between, but director Raja Krishna Menon is looking for audiences to take away the human element from his Saif Ali Khan-starrer Chef that releases this Friday.
A year-and-a-half after the massive success of his historical drama Airlift, the ad filmmaker-turned-movie director talks about his transition from making ads to feature films, adapting the much-loved Hollywood comedy for India and why he still sees hope in the crisis Bollywood is currently going through, with even big films not delivering. Edited excerpts:
Is the move from advertising to filmmaking very organic for a director? How did it happen for you?
No, it’s not. They are different forms of art even though they share a similar technique. There are a lot of things from advertising you can use (in film direction). But the former is a short narrative form and there are advantages if you’ve had the opportunity to make commercials. But advertising is all about selling a product. In a feature film, you’re trying to build characters.
I always wanted to tell stories. To me, it was important to tell long stories and tell them the way I wanted to. Advertising happened along the way, it allowed me to understand the medium itself and the technical side of it.
You made two feature films (Bas Yun Hi and Barah Aana) earlier, but has life changed after Airlift and its success?
I wouldn’t say life has changed so much but the perception of who I am as a filmmaker has changed in the public eye and even in the industry. There are two sides to it, there’s an expectation that everything is going to be an Airlift and there’s an ease with which doors are opened for me now. So yes, things have changed 180 degrees and I think the advantages somewhat overpower the disadvantages if you don’t get caught up in it all.
How did Chef happen for you? Was it easy to put this film together post Airlift?
Yes, it was much easier than any film I’ve put together since it came with funding in place. But Chef happened because it shared a producer with Airlift—Vikram Malhotra (of Abundantia Entertainment). And Vikram had the rights to the film (the original Hollywood version) which he offered to me and I said I would be happy to think about how it could be adapted but couldn’t do a remake, the reason being I’m not interested in making the same film with different actors and dialogue. He agreed and said we would look at doing this only if we could find an angle that was worth pursuing and if we think there’s a story that needs to be told. So I took time and found a few angles that I thought made it compelling enough to tell the story. Which I think is very important if you want to spend energy into making a film.
Why did you zero in on Saif Ali Khan for this role?
We all agreed on Saif, but for me, he was really my gut call. And I think that’s because Saif has this interesting vulnerability and approachability which is not a combination you find along with stardom. And that’s what I was looking for in my character, Roshan Kalra. When you cast for a character, you look for traits that allow the actor to understand the character more easily. So Saif was a natural choice.
I think he has also gone out and spoken about how he wanted to do the film primarily or largely because he wanted to work with me. And these are things you look for when you try to put a film together.
Do you think Indian films still need to be some kind of star-driven vehicles?
I think we’re moving completely away from that. We’re in a time when nothing other than the story you’re telling is important. Anything else is the tadka (tempering). If you’re telling a great story and then you take a popular star, it helps the film for sure. But the movie has to work within its own space. If you look at it, having a hit song doesn’t mean the film will open any bigger than without it. Likewise, if you look at the recent past, having a big star doesn’t mean the film will be a hit. So I think it’s a wonderful time where the story is king and that’s how it should be.
Do expectations attached to a film as loved as the original Chef make you nervous?
Like I said, the film truly is an adaptation and nothing like the original in terms of content, though it does borrow elements like the plot structure. But if you watch the two films back-to-back, you’d think there’s a tenuous connection, nothing more than that. So I’m not tremendously troubled by the success of that film. I think we’ve gone out and tried to make an honest film that can stand on its own. And I’m hoping what I find so relatable about what we’ve made, kind of jumps across the screen to the audience. The issues we’re tackling here have to do with what success and happiness mean. It’s no longer just about a lot of money and having a fancy house and a big car. Who I am and what is it that should make me successful is the question that I think modern India is grappling with. The movie is the story of a man who is successful, has lost his passion and is trying to find out why he’s unhappy. Along with him is a modern independent woman whose happiness is not dependent on her husband. And none of it is preachy or in-your-face.
The film comes in the middle of a very precarious time for Bollywood where a lot of big films have not been delivering. Do you see any reasons for this?
I think we’re going through a transitional phase. We’re beginning to move towards something that is different, and I think we’re striving towards more content, story-driven films, away from the star-driven set-up. So I’m seeing a lot of positivity in the chaos.