Salt n’ Pepper rocks! The movie ushers in modernity into the stagnated landscape of Malayalam romantic comedies. And by “modernity”, I did not mean a six-packed hero and semi-nude heroine breaking out into a pelvic-thrusting fantasy song-and-dance sequence shot at some exotic locations in USA/Europe. Nor did I mean a campus or IT-company setting where script writers make us believe that almost anything can happen. The characters and premise of Salt n’ Pepper are very ordinary and very middle class. But they are not fighting the usual set of obstacles stacked against lovers portrayed ad-nauseam in Malayalam cinema: A hero struggling in finance/career or burdened with responsibility to marry-off his sisters, a heroine facing objections to her affair from family or some scorned man turned abusive. We have already seen umpteen number of movies covering such predicaments: time to move on! In Salt n’ Pepper, the protagonists are fighting against their own inhibitions, self-perceptions and mindsets.
Rough looking chronic-bachelor Kalidasan(Lal)is a government employee working as an archaeologist at the museum. And heavyset chronic-spinster Maya(Shweta Menon) is a dubbing artist in the movie industry. The younger generation is represented by Manu(Asif Ali) who is Kalidasan’s nephew staying with him while job-hunting in the city and Meenakshi(Mydhili) who is Maya’s rental roommate at the home-cum-beauty parlour owned by Mariya(Kalpana). Kalidasan is a food lover and is practically married to his dexterous resident cook Babu(Baburaj). Maya finds solace in her lonely life through cooking and savoring memories of her lost mother. A wrong cellphone order for “Thattil kutti Dosa” connects Kalidasan and Maya and the rest of the story unfolds in front of our eyes in the most hilarious way possible.
Few of the scenes that stand out for their innovation and/or boldness:
- Maya being a dubbing artist enables the movie to directly poke fun at the typical cliched romantic scenes found in Malayalam cinema. Maya herself is laughing at the outdated dialogues that she is told to dub. The question raised “Nammalenthaada ingane?” in the movie-within-movie is actually addressed to the whole Malayali community.
- Being a foodie, Kalidasan’s bride-seeing event at the girl’s house ends up with him instead falling in love with their resident male cook who had prepared unni-appam for the event. The cook elopes with the groom-to-be!
- I really liked the guts of the director to show a very realistic scene where Maya, Meenakshi and Mariya are celebrating new-year with booze. Maya eventually passes out drunk, lamenting about her life. Yes, we have seen intoxicated heroines in prior movies like Spadikam etc. but the intention there was solely comic relief.
- Did we witness the first ever romantic lip-to-lip kiss shown in a Malayalam mainstream movie? The director’s effort to innovatively use props like a tire-swing, a bridge across rivulet etc. to decently picturize a kissing scene that advances progressively from head to forehead to lips needs to be applauded. This historic first kiss executed in any other way probably could have be irked conservative family audience who are not used to such visuals in public. I am talking about picturization of the melodious duet “Kanamullal” composed by Bijilal and immortalised by Shreya Goshal and Ranjit.
- The audience were chuckling at the light-hearted purdah jokes that occur at the beauty parlour. Glad that it is coming from a Muslim director like Ashiq Abu himself.
The writer duo Syam Pushkaran & Dileesh Nair reminds us that script really is the king. Two movies old Ashiq Abu can now relax and enjoy the success of his path-breaking movie which is going to be heralded as a milestone in Kerala’s pop culture. In the acting department, Lal and Sweta Menon did a wonderful job, etching their characters to perfection. It felt like the character of Kalidasan was tailor made to suite Lal’s star persona. With Amina, Cheeru, Rathichechi and now Maya under her belt, Shweta Menon is becoming an irreplaceable asset to the Malayalam industry during her comeback innings. Asif Ali and Mydhili also did a convincing job portraying cupid-struck lovers who are attracted to each other but are also anxious because they are forced to hide their true identity. The surprise package of the movie is definitely Baburaj, who the audience is used to seeing only in villain roles. He was literally living as the skillful cook who is a perpetual bachelor practicing Hanuman-seva and body-building, and shares a very strong emotional bond with Kalidasan. There are gay undertones in the way in which the cook is presented and so is the case with Mariya’s assistant at her beauty parlour. It is truly a tribute to Bhagyalakshmi that the voice for Maya, the very first dubbing artist portrayed in a movie, is dubbed by the very first dubbing artist-cum-activist in the world. To Bhagyalakshmi’s credit, she has given a slightly different voice suiting Sweta’s character and body language.
National jury might have awarded the best film of India tag to ‘Adaminte Makan Abu’ which was released last month. But I would rate Salt n’ Pepper as the best movie that came out in 2011. The movie’s message put forward by Kalidasan & Maya is simple and straight forward: “Live to Eat, Live to Love”. Majority of Indians can not relate to hyper-religiousness and nearly suicidal spirituality of Adam’s son Abu. But Food and Love are two things that all of us, including Abu, can relate to. If you haven’t seen this gastronomic-romantic-comedy yet, go sprinkle this Salt n’ Pepper in your soul!
(The author, Kishor Kumar, is well known in Malayalam cyberspace through his RagaKairali web site. He can be reached @ http://ragakairali.blogspot.com )