Every once in a while the Marathi film industry gets a hic-cup of pure excitement. Maharashtrains will be quick to point out that the popular belief that ‘Shwaas’ ushered in a sort of ‘New Wave’ in the Marathi Film Scene, when it was chosen as India’s entry to the Academy Awards the year after ‘Lagaan’ had it’s magnificent flight to the short-list, is a fallacy that disregards gems like “Limited Manuski” and “Bangarwaadi”, the likes of which were being made at about the same rate then as they are now. The staples of the Marathi Film Industry were and still are family centric tearjerkers that milks every once of tears from its premise ranging from the death of a loved one to love marriages, dominating saasu-maas et al and comedies that revel in a loud brand of double entrede. But every few months a saving grace would emerge- an absurd chronicle of one man’s quest for revenge after someone breaks a bone of his already dead child (Limited Maanuski), an ultraviolet tale of urban angst (Dombivali Fast), a period film on sexuality (Anaahat) or a brutal chronicle on Schizophrenia (Devrai). What the ‘Shwaas’ hype did manage to do was to get the jaded audiences back in theatres and managed to put a criminally under-rated, languishing industry back into the spotlight. The movies began to get multiplex play, certain single screen theatres began to screen exclusively local entertainment and a film industry stricken an over-awed by the proximity and size of Bollywood began to benefit when word-of-mouth began to spill in cross over audiences. As a sign of a healthy industry, the number of movies produced increased with a new movie releasing every two weeks but the ratio of the fresh to the banal still clocks at around the same.
As “Restaurant” opens, it is difficult to identify it as a Marathi film. Set in an urban milieu, its protagonist is the cliché of any new age urban chronicle- a head strong twentysomething with a cool job title. Here of course, she’s the proprietor of the titular Restaurant. It is not so much as the setting that makes it difficult to classify as Maharashtrian but rather the fact that the treatment that debutant director Sachin Kundalkar subjects his film to, has a distinctive European flavor. He seems more influenced by the talkathons of Rohmer and Malle. His characters seem to talk and talk and then talk some more through the entire movie- there’s talk while cooking, talk while cleaning, vegetable shopping, back-rubbing....
However in the first half, he commits the cardinal mistake of mistaking banalities and clichés for dialogue. While Rohmer and Malle spill tiny gems for dialogues, Kundalkar’s script reads more like a collection of school-level proverbs taken from a collection printed by Navneet at the book of its eco-friendly Note-Books. ‘Try, try till you succeed”, “Variety is the spice of life”.
Add this to a kind of saccharine wholesomeness with kaamwaalis with heart of gold and senile ol’ lady with heart of old, muslim cook with heart of gold and many other assorted golden hearts and you get a kind of Chicken Soup- Reader’s Digest mash that will lull you to sleep the way only extreme good intentions can. Protagonist Gini is apparently an orphan descendant of royal blood raised by her aunty who opens a sort of middle-of-the-road cozy restaurant in their ancestral home to support themselves once the Royalty has fallen decadent. The home itself is a piece of disputed family land that the other saas-bhi-kabhi types are trying to usurp for themselves. Meanwhile, Gini is a disturbed type who herself has some past to grapple with. Almost every cheerful resident of the eatery seems to have a bit of sadness hidden away behind the smiles and banter. And it is only towards the last bit of the first half that the director decides to delve into it.
And it is when he does that the film begins to arrest and interest. He does it subtly, easing in on his characters, unfolding the sadness and folding it back with all due respect. The director is affectionate and sympathetic towards his flawed characters never once exploiting it for an emotional upgrade. He shows an almost Capra-esque delight for little moments of joy and brightness whether it’s a simple tune of a guitar or the preparation of apple pie.
There are other parts when the movie soars like the disturbing surreal sequence that Gini goes through after the death of a loved one- a sequence at once clinical and bizarre. It shows a younger Gini wander through her college corridors stunned and unable to communicate with her friends who seem to be frozen.
The ending at first seems rather long drawn out, always around the corner but never seems to arrive. And when it does- it’s too abrupt with the characters uncharacteristically breaking into joyous song and dance. Not entirely congruous but delightful and you can’t deny the joy.
`Restaurant' has its charms- a middle-of-the-road urban movie that offers a varied palate (I wanted to do it without the cheesy food metaphors. I've given up!) Mostly bland, it's delicious (yeah!) at times and at other times, absolutely lip-smacking(yeah!yeah!). An acquired taste that one should not hesitate to indulge.(oh! My God!)
- exhales in relief and goes for lunch*