If, after watching Gulabjaam, the heart feels warm and the stomach rumbles, Sachin Kundalkar’s Marathi movie has fulfilled its aim.
The director’s eighth feature chronicles the unusual relationship that develops between a 27-year-old banker who wants to learn to make traditional Maharashtrian cuisine and the woman who lets him into her kitchen and, eventually, her heart. The title refers to the Proustian moment when Aditya (Siddharth Chandekar) bites into a deep-fried sweet prepared by Radha and is transported back to his childhood.
“At one point, it was either catering college or film school for me, and my mother used to teach me how to cook,” Kundalkar said. “I remember people through food – what they cooked for me, what we ate together, where we ate it. And I love to cook.”
Memory is one of the major themes of the drama set in Pune, which will be released on February 16. Aditya works as a banker in London, but he dreams of recreating the food of his childhood. When he tracks down Radha, who is famed for her culinary touch, he encounters a living example of the notorious Puneri brand of hospitality. Radha (Sonali Kulkarni) is standoffish to the point of being rude and deeply disinterested in mentoring Aditya. She relegates him to doing menial tasks, dismisses his early efforts at the stove, and warms to him only after he accepts the rules of engagement: whenever there is an argument, she will always be right.
But Radha’s tough exterior cracks in a scene involving her ruthlessly pragmatic sister Vidya (Renuka Shahane in a sparkling cameo). As Aditya gradually peels back the layers that surround Radha, he discovers a woman who is as stuck in time as the analogue gadgets scattered across her Shaniwar Peth home.
Many bits of Gulabjaam will be familiar to followers of Kundalkar’s films – the Pune backdrop and upper-caste characters, the intra-generational conflict, the individual’s struggle to fit into a traditional value system, the lure of a past that is in conflict with the attractions of the present. “I am living among migrants, and my original world has migrated,” Kundalkar explained. “They have all left Pune for the United States for information technology jobs, while I have been left behind.”
Then there is the food. In Kundalkar’s debut feature, Restaurant, (2006), Sonali Kulkarni plays an eatery owner trying to turn around her establishment. His only Hindi feature, the comedy Aiyyaa (2012), has several scenes revolving around the heroine’s inability to make a perfectly round roti. In Vazandar, two overweight friends try to overcome their love for food.
Yet, Gulabjaam isn’t a simplistic back-to-roots film about the joys of Maharashtrian cuisine (despite numerous lovingly lensed cooking scenes). Radha’s erasure of her past is a key factor in understanding her response to Aditya as well as the movie’s nuanced approach to nostalgia.
“The film is about food first, but it is also about my perception that we live in a few time zones at the same time,” Kundalkar said. “The past is always assuring and beautiful, so why not write about a person who doesn’t have a past? If my own memory vanished and I didn’t remember anything, I would be very happy. I would like to meet people again. Because Radha doesn’t remember her past, nostalgia is kept at bay.”
Help in maintaining the balance between the traditional and the modern comes from an unlikely source: Zoya Akhtar’s Hindi films, including Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). “I love her scripts, not because her films look so pretty, but because she very bravely knits characters together,” Kundalkar said. “She doesn’t fear the present tense. People keep travelling, going to strange places, the young generation demands equality in decision making from the older generation. I really like that, and I want to make that kind of popular cinema. Also, her characters are not ‘We the people’ but ‘I am’ – I personally understand individuals better than a mass of people.”
In Gulabjaam too, the emphasis is on letting go while holding on. Kundalkar’s movies often feature characters who accept globalisation and its discontents with optimism and without anxiety. Most of the characters are from Pune, where the 40-year-old filmmaker grew up, and where he continues to live alongside maintaining a base in Mumbai.
“Nostalgia is the last indulgence of the generation between 40 and 50, the next generation will have no value for it,” Kundalkar observed. “Nostalgia is a romantic way of remembering the past, but I belong to the generation that also likes everything that is new. I am happy about the new buildings, the Metro, my Starbucks and my apps. I have a very good memory of my old life. But we are the last fortunate princes and princesses who have seen both, and that emotion has come into the film.”
Kundalkar grew up on the food that features in Gulabjaam, but he doesn’t have the time to cook it anymore, nor can he always find the people who remember traditional recipes. “So the film is also a way of retaining this memory without crying about it, create a drama around it,” he said.
Gulabjaam might, then, appear autobiographical, but according to Kundalkar, it is the least self-referential of his films. Traces of his life experiences have featured in all of his seven previous features, he says, but the big change that took place with Gulabjaam was the presence of a new ingredient: a co-writer.
Kundalkar has written Gulabjaam with Tejas Modak, a graphic designer and comic-book artist from Pune. Modak had worked on the production design for Kundalkar’s 2014 feature Happy Journey, and his collaboration on Gulabjaam encouraged the director to shed some of the indulgence and incoherence that has marked some of his recent movies.
“The experience has been an eye-opener,” Kundalkar said. “I have written seven films on my own, with only the editor challenging me after the film was already made. Here was someone who was challenging me from the inception of my thought onto the paper. This was the longest amount of time I spent on a script. It took six months. I usually write rapidly over two-and-a-half months.”
Modak’s feedback to Kundalkar considerably helped shape Gulabjaam. “He told me, you need to go beyond yourself, you have just one life and one set of memories, your surprises are running short, stop being indulgent about your past,” Kundalkar said. “I think that is a very important thing to realise.”
Another point of liberation, which led to what Kundalkar calls “fearlessness”, is his bitter experience with Aiyyaa. The quirk-heavy romantic fable about a woman who is attracted to a man because of his body odour, is an expansion of one of the short stories featured in the ensemble movie Gandha (Smell). Although the Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Anurag Kashyap co-production had its share of fervent admirers, Aiyyaa fared poorly at the box office, and Kundalkar returned to the comfort zone of Marathi cinema.
“I didn’t like the way I was treated,” Kundalkar said. “I don’t want to take any names, but everybody leaves you once a film flops and don’t take your calls on the Monday after the release. Everybody behaved as though it was the first film to flop in that company. There was a lack of tehzeeb [grace]. I hated every moment of it. The negativity surrounded my life and my career, and affected me energy-wise. It took me several years to become fearless again, and I kept working hard and making films.”
Gulabjaam has taken Kundalkar back to the zone of Gandha, his 2009 breakthrough, he says. “I made Gandha without any fear, and Gulabjaam has given me back my innocence of creativity.”
The new movie reunited Kundalkar with Sonali Kulkarni, whom he cast in Restaurant and Gandha. Kulkarni’s finely attuned performance in Gulabjaam is one of the movie’s highlights.
“It was really fun to discover Sonali again,” Kulkarni said. “I am in awe of her, she is a national personage, and the way she handles her career, her family, her daughter, her plays...But I am also more equal with her now. We are finally working with more aggressive equality.”
Kulkarni took a couple of days to get under Radha’s skin. Among her contributions was that she rearranged the props in the kitchen to keep things the way she would at home.
“Sonali also gave a new pitch to Radha, she altered her voice to sound more base,” Kundalkar said. “She is very disciplined and methodical, and if you are undisciplined, she doesn’t like it. In that sense, she is like Radha.”
Siddharth Chandekar is equally well cast as the perennially optimistic Aditya, who believes in having conversations with the ingredients he is going to cook. Chendekar’s audition required him to roll out rotis. “I needed a boy-man, somebody who is attractive, who will look 27,” Kundalkar said.
The production did not have a food stylist. Instead, Kundalkar recruited Sayali Rajyadhaksha, who champions traditional Maharashtrian cuisine through her food blog Anna Hech Purnabhrama, to design the menus. The filmmaker’s friend Shweta Bapat took care of the ingredients and props on set. “And Jagtap Maushi, the great Jagtap Maushi, who runs a food delivery service in Pune, would be cooking upstairs during the shoot,” Kundalkar said. “Jagtap Maushi is the real star of the film. Primary cutting food, half-cooked food, semi-fried and fried food, they were all needed, and Jagtap Maushi was doing it round the clock.”
Kundalkar’s future projects include the screenplay for Ravi Jadhav’s Nude, about a woman who poses for art students. Nude is expected to be released within the next few months. Kundalkar is also collaborating with Tejas Modak on a few scripts.
The one movie that Kundalkar’s fans expect him to make, but hasn’t happened yet, is his adaptation of his acclaimed Marathi novel Cobalt Blue. Written when he was 22 and later translated into English, Cobalt Blue is about a brother and sister who fall in love with the same man.
“I need somebody to invest in the film,” Kundalkar said. “I have started writing it, and I would love for someone like Sooni Taraporevala to work on the script. It should not be a Pune story, but an Indian story.”
He also wants to make Gulabjaam in Hindi, but promises that it will be a completely different film, with a deeper focus on the role of memory. Marcel Proust and his madeleines aren’t going anywhere yet.