Director – Neeraj Udhwani
Cast – Manisha Koirala, Prit Kamani, Javed Jaffrey, Shirley Setia, Mallika Chopra
I watched Maska, the new Netflix India original film, several weeks ago. A lot has changed since then. The need, for instance, to be reminded of more innocent times has greatly increased, as has our desire to be distracted, and entertained.
While some might very rightly find the personal problems of a privileged youth difficult to invest in, given our current situation, or wonder why the rigours of running a restaurant are relevant at a time when more than half our country’s population may face a food crisis, I feel films like Maska have more to offer now. What was serviceable mediocrity a month ago might have become a vital source of cheer.
Watch the Maska trailer here
This isn’t to say there aren’t better alternatives to be found — there are — but a certain audience will find Maska to be just the sort of buttery comfort food that they need. Directed by debutant Neeraj Udhwani, the film tells the story of a teenage Parsi boy, caught between his dream to become an actor, and his mother’s desire for him to follow in his father’s footsteps, and take over the family business — a charming Irani cafe in Mumbai. Manisha Koirala plays the overbearing mother, while Javed Jaffery appears in an extended cameo as Rustom, popping up on occasion to offer advice to his son.
The trouble with Maska is that it focusses on the least interesting of its three main characters. Rumi’s confusion, after a while, comes across as a bit grating, mostly because of his delusional quest to become an actor. He simply isn’t good enough, and it takes him awfully long to come to this realisation. It is, however, strongly implied that he is a skilled chef.
Rustom’s bun maska is his signature dish, and in one of the film’s better moments, Rumi recreates it from scratch. The scene is shot lusciously, the warm hues and stylised lighting bringing to mind Linus Sandgren’s work on The Hundred-Foot Journey, another ‘food film’ that touched similar themes of legacy and family. Rumi kneads the dough with his bare hands, as fine ‘maida’ hovers in the air, illuminated by light as golden-brown as the crust of freshly baked bread. He churns his own butter, playfully letting little specks fall on his face. All this while, his mother observes with a growing sense of pride. Her son is just like his father.
Manisha Koirala in a still from Netflix’s Maska.
As the eccentric bawa, Javed Jaffrey is a scene-stealer. The actor has always had a knack for accents, and his smooth performance as the mischievous Rustom is, forgive the pun, his bread and butter. Both Rustom and his wife are far more interesting characters than Rumi. There’s a sense that Rustom also went through a period of great angst in his youth, and that Diana — that’s Manisha’s character — sacrificed her own dreams to help her husband, and then her son. Both actors are experienced enough to allow these questions to linger in the viewers’ minds, whereas the younger actors — Prit Kamani as Rumi, Shirley Setia as a photographer, and Mallika Chopra as Rumi’s girlfriend — simply can’t keep up with their illustrious older co-stars.
It is one of Maska’s recurring problems that Rumi, like a typical Indian man, far too often relies on the women in his life to make the right decisions. And even though he treats nearly all of them unfairly — Rumi is rather self-obsessed — the women are nothing short of angelic to him, showering him with attention and advice.
But the film has such as an endearing charm that it becomes virtually impossible to hold a grudge against it, even when you realise that Maska (like the hundreds of chefs who’ve tried to mimic Manish Mehrotra’s Daulat Ki Chaat) is essentially scene-for-scene rip-off of the 2009 film Today’s Special, starring Aasif Mandvi and Naseeruddin Shah.