Ahaa Re offers a unique perspective on the subject of cooking as a catalytic agent, serving as a bond between countries and people. A Silhouette Review by Shoma A Chatterji.
If food be the music of love, cook on…with due apologies to William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night), is the basic philosophy on which Ranjan Ghosh’s new film Ahaa Re is founded. After his second film Rong Beronger Kori made its round of film festivals with great success, Ghosh who studied filmmaking at Whistling Woods in Mumbai, decided to make food and cooking the subject of this film. It is cryptically conceived title Ahaa Re means many things. Ahaa Re is an interjection that itself can mean either “Poor thing” in a sympathetic way, with reference to a person who is suffering, or, it could mean “Wow” when referring to something inanimate such as food. If you place the two words together and make it Ahaare, it is a superlative exclamation that stands for something amazing or, alternately, while engaged in the act of eating!
Choosing to shoulder this many-pronged title and using it as the base of the story penned by him, Ghosh decides to make food, with special reference to the culinary arts, the subject of this unique film. The perspective is completely different as food and cooking in this film function as an ideology, a philosophy, a bonding factor between people otherwise dissimilar and most importantly, as a way of life. Films centered on food and cooking either as the core subject or as the subject/character of a film have been comparatively recent. Officially, it may be traced back to Salaam Namaste (2005) in which Saif Ali Khan plays a Chef and gets into a platonic live-in for convenience with a radio jockey (Preity Zinta). However, afraid of repercussions in the Indian audience, the producers placed it in Melbourne, Australia.
Times have changed since then and now, even characters who are not playing Chef in the film are excellent cooks and love to cook. One example is the hero (Hrithik Roshan) in Dhoom 2 (2006) and Amitabh Bachchan in Cheeni Kum (2007), another film in which food functions as Cupid in a London restaurant where a Chef who owns the restaurant (Amitabh Bachchan) falls in love with a young woman through food. The problem is that this lady is young enough to be his daughter! This film was shot almost entirely in London. Why? The recent addition to this list is Baldev Choudhary (Anil Kapoor) in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga who desperately wanted to become a Chef but for his mother’s putting her foot down. So, though a very successful industrialist, he now enters the kitchen whenever he can to cook up something delicious.
Ranjan offers a unique perspective on the subject of cooking as a catalytic agent. Between what or who or whom? The film opens in Dhaka, with Shahida, Raja Chowdhury’s fiancée, walking out of the engagement because she has got an offer from Christian Dior and wants to go to Paris. Raja is already a successful Chef who is not prepared to accompany her. But all his appeals fail. Dejected and unhappy, he decides to quit Dhaka in Bangladesh and migrate to Kolkata and continue there, giving up an excellent opportunity of a high-powered Chef job. His break-up continues to haunt him till he decides on a wonderful food home delivery service run by a silent and introvert Basundhara. He gets to know her but is confused by her sense of alienation and distancing.
Cooking as a bond between two neighbouring countries whose bonding is fragile and tender, is thus taken care of. But Raja knows nothing about the culinary art and science of West Bengal which is different from that in Bangladesh. So, the second bond is struck – he requests Basundhara to teach him some Bengali cooking common in this side of Bengal. She is extremely reluctant to have to do anything with him after he confesses that he is falling in love with her. He thinks that her increased distancing is because he has told her that he is Muslim and also has a past. Along the way, when competition is cutting into the family business of Basundhara’s home delivery, Raja begins to teach her Chinese dishes she did not know till then. These put together, bring about a possible union between two people from two different religious beliefs. Does this union take place? You must watch the film to know the answer.
Ingredients and emotions linked to cooking and its associated paraphernalia are underscored. Raja and Basundhara’s first meeting happens at a small-time café in North Kolkata. They order the same dish – Dhakai Parota and Booter Dal but Basundhara finds it extra salty while Raja thinks that the salt is just right. Salt – more or less – functions as a metaphor that both marks out the two differently and also hints at their common binding through salt. Raja points out that one must feel emotionally close while cooking a given dish and not simply follow a recipe mechanically from a cook book. He is chosen as the Chef of the Year by TIME Magazine but later, when his hopes of a new life are dashed, he strikes a lighted match to the magazine and burns it to cinders.
Another innovative touch is when Raja and Shahida are asail on a boat with a hot case filled with snacks made by Raja. He asks Shahida to break each samosa and then eat the shell. As she breaks the shell of one samosa, a golden ring topples out – it is the engagement ring! A romantic touch with food is used as a vehicle to express love.
In the first half, and even dotting the second, the camera and soundtrack focus almost continuously on the different processes of cooking including the marketing of groceries, vegetables and fish and poultry. There are endless shots of slicing, dicing, mincing, chopping, stirring, frying, roasting, sautéing, grinding and the works, Raja and Basundhara exchange notes in the respective kitchens where cooking is the sole “communication’ between them as they hardly talk. Food and cooking as a means of communication is underscored again and again. This adds a lot of colour and variety to a film that might have seemed dull but is not. The frequent jump-cutting from the hotel kitchen to the market to Basundhara’s ancestral home is sometimes a bit jarring but fits into the narrative. Hari Nair’s camera captures the colours of Kolkata sweeping across the Kolkata streets, back to the quiet home where Basundhara lives with her old father and brother, to Raja’s small flat and the waves of the sea at Tajpur where Basundhara is holidaying, caught in flashback. Colour comes also in the form of the Saraswati Pooja in Basundhara’s home soon after Raja comes in contact with them and then, towards the end with the Durga immersion coinciding with Raja going back to Bangladesh which of course, is a melodramatic cliché.
Each single character in the story is rounded, fleshed out and given a life of its own beginning from Shahida through Raja’s parents – the father being Raja’s stepfather and he does not like the older man at all; Basundhara’s old father hooked on learning magic and very sad because she has rejected Raja’s proposal; and even Raja’s friend who owns the hotel he works in. They do complete justice to the characters they are given to portray.
A word of praise for Bhaswar Chatterjee who features in a brief cameo. Rituparna is restrained in her introverted act in the first half and then opens up, very slowly and then reduces herself to tears to suit her solemn, serious and withdrawn character. This feature, along with another, are the only two that have no connection with the film’s protagonist – food and cooking. Basundhara’s self-imposed seclusion from everyone around her is thus understood as springing from as her feelings of deep guilt which manipulate her emotionally.
“Guilt and shame have roles to play in engineering personality, especially of women, to conform socially, just as anger and violence have a role to play in controlling women. Both aggression and guilt, as socialised psychological experiences, provide the psychological matrix required for a gender-based domination and control. It favours patriarchy that, psychologically, men are aggressive and women feel guilt. These two affects provide the psychological basis on which our society is organised, so that situations obtain where men can negotiate, and women, care.” [Bhargavi V. Davar, Mental Health of Indian Women – A Feminist Agenda, (Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1999), p.230]. This is revealed quite late in the film expressed beautifully by Rituparna’s fluidity of holding her emotions in control and yet keeping herself in social isolation. Her smiles are very few and far between in keeping with the character who holds herself in a grip she refuses to come out of.
Arifin Shuvoo of Bangladesh makes a sparkling debut as Raja in his first Indian film. In the story, Basundhara is older than him but her family is not at all against a marriage between them. The old man – a brilliant performance by Paran Bandopadhyay, offers examples of inter-religious marriages in the film industry such as Nargis and Sunil Dutt, Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan who married Hindu girls but Basundhara is not convinced. Raja’s persistence fails and he decides to quit India and go back home. Afirin Shuvoo is excellent. He has the X factor a hero needs. He is tall, fair and handsome, his body language is sophisticated and good, his voice – soft, mellow and clear, and above all, his Bengali does not have the Bangal accent actors of Bangladesh are notorious for.
The music is low key and there is a beautiful poem by Tagore – starting with the line – Kisher tawre osru jhawre – is ‘Hawtobhagyer Gaan’ which they recite one after the other enriches the fine harmony in Basundhara’s family where they understand each other perfectly and yet have their differences. One song on the soundtrack goes Aay Behestey Ke Jaabi Aay’ meaning “let us go to heaven” is a Kazi Nazrul Islam poem set to music specially for the film.
The negative points that let the film down are (a) its running time of two-and-a-half hours which makes the narrative drag too much during the end, (b) repeated shots of the interiors of the hotel kitchen (c) the introduction of magic to play an integral role in forcing the film to a happy closure, and (d) the needless reference to salt in the last scene registering a time leap. The footage desperately needs some drastic editing by at least half an hour if not more to make it a crisp and tight narration and hold the audience captive.
Ahaa Re would have come off with flying colours had the director controlled the temptation to put in too many metaphors, symbols in a film that would have stood perfectly by itself and needlessly extended the length it did not need.
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