‘Food is the glue that binds relationships together’: Raja Krishna Menon

Raja Krishna Menon on working with Saif Ali Khan, dipping into life experiences and returning to his roots

October 05, 2017 07:53 am | Updated 07:53 am IST

On a sultry September afternoon, when we meet Raja Krishna Menon at Saif Ali Khan’s office in Bandra, he is busy adjusting the temperature of the air con. After politely checking if it’s suitable, he animatedly explains the process of “adapting” Jon Favreau’s Hollywood film of the same title. “This is the most vicariously I have lived in my entire life — travelling around the country, eating regional cuisine and hanging around in restaurants to watch how cooks and chefs work. It has been an incredible journey.” Menon was shooting the last schedule of the Akshay Kumar starrer, Airlift in Jodhpur when producer Vikram Malhotra approached him to remake the film. Having only worked with original scripts, he (along with Airlift co-writers Suresh Menon and Ritesh Shah) wondered how it could be adapted to the Indian context.

Rediscovering passion

Given that the original film’s ethos was set in the American context, Menon wanted to explore how it would play out in the Indian scenario, a big reason why he wasn’t keen to set the story in the U.S. “One of the questions that we were asked in the early days was why isn’t the film set in the U.S.? Our response was, what’s the point? You have already seen that film,” says Menon who decided to blend his love for food and travel, to suit the local palate. “We flipped the entire premise. Here, we have a guy who loses his passion but takes an opportunity to return to be with his son and through his son, realises what it means to be happy. The three of us connected to the emotional side of the story and decided to explore that aspect.”

While Favereu’s film revolved around food, Menon decided to focus more on relationships. The food in Chef is “the glue that binds the relationships in the film together”. In the film, chef Roshan Kalra has a strained relationship with his son that is due to a lack of time and attention. When the director decided to cast Khan, many were surprised with his choice. “As he returns to build a relationship with him, he keeps asking himself, what the role of a parent really is. Saif [Ali Khan] himself became a father at a very young age and was too young for the role then. Now, that his kids Sara and Ibrahim have grown up, he is lucky to get a second chance with Taimur.”

Casting the roles

Menon nonchalantly explains that such casting decisions are what makes a director’s job exciting and challenging. “In Airlift , we took an action star like Akshay Kumar and didn’t give him a fight sequence. The idea was to make him a brooding businessman and it worked. Likewise, with Khan, the idea of stripping him of his aristocracy and of the world he knows and making him into someone right out of Chandani Chowk was the challenge,” he says. But that’s also something Menon enjoys, he adds. Apart from being a film about a culinary genius who hopes to reinvent the wheel, Chef is also a film that explores a father-son relationship. This meant the actor cast to play Khan's onscreen son was critical to its success. “We tested around 25 kids over several workshops over two-and-a-half months before casting Svar Kamble. He is very earthy, shares a close bond with his parents and grandparents and is very empathetic. He was also a keen listener and was able to translate the brief like a seasoned actor,” shares Menon who dipped into his own experiences as a child with a single parent to draft his character.

Reinventing dishes

While the chef in the Hollywood version dabbled in a range of international cuisines, Menon’s straddles only a few continents and goes from New York to Kerala and then, on to Goa, Amritsar, Delhi and Mumbai. Although Khan had previously played a chef in Salaam Namaste , he wasn’t seen wielding the knife much there. To sink into his character, he trained with chefs for several months at a Mumbai five-star. “I wanted him to live the character and get his body language right. He needed to hold a knife right and own the space,” says Menon. And the intensive training in the kitchen paid off. “He has become an excellent cook in real life. Now, he can make pasta right from the dough.” In Favreau’s film, the lead character rediscovers his love for Cuban cuisine and goes on to try his hand with Cuban sandwiches. Here, Roshan’s signature dish will be ‘rotzza’, a combination of roti and pizza. “The rotzza is what Roshan invents out of kitchen leftovers for his son, and they include it in the menu,” he says of the culinary accident that plays out in the film.

Culinary adventures

While shooting, specifically the food had its set of challenges, the makers wanted it to look as “authentic and real” as possible. “What you miss when you see food in cinema is the smell, so how can I make you smell and remember a certain memory? It’s through the sounds that goes to your olfactory and tugs into your memories,” he says of the audio-visual approach he takes to tickle the audience.

That the film is predominantly set in Kerala and hopes to explore the culture of the state through its cuisine required Menon to return to his roots. “I didn’t grow up in Kerala but I had a certain picture of how I wanted to depict it.” Food for Menon is seminal to get access to a region’s culture and he shares that best representation of the same can be experienced in roadside toddy shops scattered across the state. “We learnt how prawns had to be cooked fresh the day they were caught, there were finer nuances that had to be taken into account and we put all that in this film.”

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