INTERVIEW

Sachin Kundalkar’s ‘Gulabjaam’ features delicious food, Zoya Akhtar and Marcel Proust

The filmmaker reveals the ingredients of his latest Marathi movie, which stars Sonali Kulkarni and Siddharth Chandekar.

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.

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Gulabjaam (2018).

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.

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Vazandar (2016).

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.

Sachin Kundalkar.
Sachin Kundalkar.

“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.”

Siddharth Chandekar in Gulabjaam. Image credit: Zee Studios.
Siddharth Chandekar in Gulabjaam. Image credit: Zee Studios.

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.”

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Aiyyaa (2012).

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.

Sonali Kulkarni in Gulabjaam. Image credit: Zee Studios.
Sonali Kulkarni in Gulabjaam. Image credit: Zee Studios.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.