“Saif’s Going Through A Bad Patch, And Really Needs Chef To Work” – In Conversation With Raja Krishna Menon
While his debut film, Barah Aana, didn’t create waves, Menon followed it up with Airlift, which was a major critical and commercial success. He’s back, this time with Saif Ali Khan and an adaptation of Jon Favreau’s Chef.
Why decide to remake – or whatever you are calling it – Chef?
I like to use the word “adapt”. See, it was a very hard choice. It came to me while I was shooting a schedule of Airlift in Jodhpur. Vikram Malhotra, who was the producer of Airlift and also Chef, was sitting on set, and he just casually asked me if I had seen Favreau’s Chef. I had seen and loved it. It’s not like it drew out much emotion or anything, but something about the film resonated with me. The idea of a travelling food truck, a father-son duo, food… it’s romantic, it’s awesome. But I never thought I would be remaking a film ever in my life.
Then Vikram asked if it could be Indianised and I said, sure, in the right hands, it can. That’s when he told me that he had bought the rights, so would I be interested? I asked him to hold on, because I never wanted to do a remake — I will have to adapt the film and he had to be fine with it and lastly, I need to find the story within this concept that attracts me. So, I kind of treated this like Airlift — the original film became “a real event” and I was able to make an adaptation of it. The challenge was, what are we going to do with this film that will make it ours?
How important is food in your film?
In the trailer, there doesn’t seem to be much of it. Food is not the central character in our film, but it is a very important character emotionally. You will see Saif cooking, of course. What Favreau did was make it a food porn film. We are not doing that. We are using food as the glue that holds the family together. The journeys are inspired by food, there is a lot of food in the film, but on the side — there are three central pieces that revolve around food.
Are you dreading the inevitable comparison with the original?
I am just hopeful that people will go in there and hope to watch a different film, really. Our film is so different that the comparisons are going to be stretched. They are not the same film, but share elements, really. Someone will say I liked the food truck in the original, or how food was shot in that one, but enjoyed the emotional journey more in ours. I don’t think there can be an ‘apples to apples’ comparison.
Do you think the food truck angle works in India? It isn’t that big yet in metros.
It is beginning to grow, I think. I think this is going to be the future. Food has become so important today. Ten years ago, we ate what we were given, but today’s consumers are discerning. So, I think the food truck was very important to us also as an element. There is a sense of novelty, but people also know what it is. Actually, if you go back, it has existed in India for a long time. It used to be auto rickshaws or vans that sold (and still sell) dosas, idlis and uttappam.
We were very clear we wanted to make a beautiful truck. As the film is based on emotions, I wanted everything to evoke something in the audience. We actually built this doubledecker bus from scratch. My production designer, Anu, and my associate director, Uday, who is an IIT guy, worked on it together. And it is a functional food truck, that will be going around the city now, for promotions and to sell food. It was quite difficult to make, because we needed it to be functional and of a certain size on the one hand, and on the other hand, for shoot-able reasons, we had to be able to open it up from different sides when required. Also, the film has two trucks, while we shot with one, because we didn’t have the budget for two, so that was a fascinating process too (laughs).
What was it like working with Saif?
It was fantastic. I think he came to the film with the focus to work hard on it, which is very fortunate for both of us. I drive people a lot, because it is very important for me to make sure people are in the right space. I didn’t know this about him, but he works very hard at the script level, he reads it multiple times and so on. Most importantly, he understands this world. So, the relatability came into the picture quite easily. Also, having been a father very young, and having become a father quite recently again, I think he was able to compare real life with the script quite easily too. He fit in beautifully. Also, he put in a lot of hard work. We spent about a month and a half in the Marriott kitchen just learning how to cook. He spent two weeks just chopping onions.
Were you apprehensive about casting Saif?
He’s going through a bad patch, and really needs Chef to work. That’s true, but see, that doesn’t matter. I think it is all about content right now. I would much rather cast an actor who looks right for the part than cast an actor on top of his game.
Saif was your first choice?
He was, actually. Even before I was thinking about the film, in Jodhpur, when Vikram asked me, “Hey, if you could cast someone, whom would it be?” I said Saif. He was surprised, because he was thinking of Saif too. To me, I see a food truck, a father-son story, the modern Indian man who has made it in the West, I see Saif. Fortunately, it all worked out.
How personal is the story of an estranged father and son to you?
Well, the father and son story, if you are talking about my father, for me, I have had no relationship. He left home before I was a year old. The next time I saw him, I was eight. The next time I was 14. So, I have seen him four times in my life. My mother is an extraordinary woman, and I have been brought up by and around women, so, when you grow up in those circumstances, you don’t miss it. So, I never thought of it. I wouldn’t say autobiographical, but the elements of father and son are more about me and my son, because I had my son when I was quite young, and we kind of grew up together. The first baby I held was my own. It teaches you things about unconditional love. And honestly, I didn’t realise my journey till I started writing this film. So, it has definitely been cathartic for me, even though it is not necessarily about us, or about me and my family.
Interestingly, you and Saif are fathers of the same age. How have you seen fatherhood change, over time?
That is exactly what we are tackling in this film. People in their forties are confused. We don’t know whether, as parents, we are supposed to be friends, mentors, or parents like our parents were. We don’t know what is right and wrong. If I am the friend, does it also allow me to say no? What does the kid want? I have noticed that children often also want discipline. That is exactly where Saif and I connect. We both have kids the same age — our sons actually went to school together at one point in time. Those questions that came up in the film, the both of us could relate to them.