Award-winning director Aashiq Abu on food finding a niche in Malayalam cinema

Last year Malayalam director Aashiq Abu cooked up quite a storm in tinsel town with his gastronomically appealing Salt n Pepper. And the New Wave kitchen had more surprises to serve, with seasoned filmmaker Anwar Rasheed’s scrumptious spread Ustad Hotel. With Abu’s film selected as the most popular film with aesthetic appeal at the Kerala Film Awards announced on Thursday, and Rasheed’s Usthad Hotel playing to packed houses, food seems to be the recipe for success in Malayalam cinema right now.

But it is not just the Malyali’s love of good food that has made these movies succeed. A special flavour has placed them above other movies that have used food as a theme earlier. While the love of food brings together two strangers who then fall in love in Salt n Pepper, it acts as the catalyst of personal transformation in Usthad Hotel. ‘Food’ with its myriad nuances in effect becomes a central character in these movies. Interestingly the male protagonists in both movies are avid foodies with a love for cooking.

As images of warm brown unniyappams, crisp banana chips, sinful Kozhikode halwa, Kerala meen curry, piping hot puttu and kadala, mouth watering sadhya and spicy Malabar biriyani filled the screen, the Malayali audience was mesmerised by the extravaganza. Despite his culinary success, ‘chef’ Abu is cautious and he warns, “There will not be another Salt n Pepper or another Usthad Hotel.” He does not see this becoming a trend nor does the award-winning director think of himself as a trendsetter. The love of food is a very “subtle” subject that needs to be handled with mastery, he feels.

A mastery which is evident on screen, notwithstanding the pressures of being the first to use food as the central theme of a movie. Though there were practical difficulties involved in making the film accessible to the audience, his crew was creatively confident that it would strike a chord. “Everybody loves food. We were sure they would take to the movie,” says Abu.

Shyju Kahlid’s cinematography for Salt n Pepper and S. Lokanathan’s for Usthad Hotel were visual treats. While Salt n Pepper opened with shots of popular hotels across Kerala, most of Usthad Hotel centred around kitchens, both in homes and hotels. Long sequences of cooking, of protagonists enjoying cooking, of actors talking about food more than eating all were seen for the first time in Malayalam cinema. “Every Malayali relates well to the image of hot puttu and kadala curry served in a wayside teashop,” says Abu.

The reason for the film’s huge success outside the state has been the nostalgia inevitably triggered by the homely portrayal of food. “Malayalis get nostalgic about almost everything,” the director says in jest. The team knew the title song “Chembavu punnelin choro” would produce smiles. Well, more than smiles, the song led to watering mouths.

Both Salt n Pepper and Usthad Hotel attempt to drive home the message that food must essentially be cooked with love. While Abu is appreciative of the concept of a tinge of ‘mohabbat’ in every cup of sulaimani, his own film captivated the audience with the Juan’s Rainbow cake, made by a doting wife as she waits for her husband to return from the battlefield. A creation of Abu’s, the Juan’s Rainbow cake has already found its niche in recipe books and the hearts of all foodies!

Abu says he thoroughly enjoyed Usthad Hotel. Will he go on to make another movie in the food genre? If he finds the right script, he is game, he says. And is his next project, Da Thadiya, about food? No, it is about a fat guy and how the society views him, Abu says.

From being one of the blockbusters last year to the winner of the most popular film award, Salt n Pepper has won many hearts through the stomach. For the director who confesses that he is a foodie who “lives to eat”, the awards call for a feast! For the Malayali audience who has taken surprisingly well to experimental movies, the awards mean “Bon Appetit”!

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