Writer-director Piyush Gupta and co-writer Gautam Ved take a safe approach and craft a kindly biopic on celebrity cook Tarla Dalal. The story of a housewife who sniffed out an opportunity, took a quotidian activity and amplified it into a business is, in parts, inspiring.
Tarla (Zee5) is as much about how she broke out of the traps of convention to become a bestselling author of numerous cookbooks and a television show host as it is about age being no bar to ambition. Dalal’s simple vegetarian recipes and cuddly aunty vibe made her a saviour for many Indian women India who were able to use cooking skills to earn agency within the home.
We quickly find ourselves immersed into Tarla and husband Nalin Dalal’s Disney-tinged domesticity. A song montage efficiently conveys passage of time—from their marriage to over a decade later when Tarla, a mother of three, is wistful about not having identified a professional mission. Nalin comfortingly tells her she can still find her calling.
Tarla has spent most of the last decade standing behind the same cooking station, staring out of the same window watching other people’s lives progress. The supportive Nalin smiles sweetly and cajoles her, washing dishes to indicate his participation in household chores.
With a penchant for rating everything, Nalin rates Tarla’s smile, her daily dabba and the performance of the workers at the textile mill where he works.
All seems well till Tarla encounters her bête noire. She discovers that Nalin is having a clandestine relationship—with non-veg food! The vegetarian Gujarati wife is horrified. The director builds this like a dramatic deception. This discovery is also the catalyst for Tarla’s culinary creativity—Chicken 65 recast as Gobi (cauliflower) 65.
Back at his work place, a chastised Nalin pretends to enjoy every vegetarian preparation in his lunchbox. “Aaj tendli kha ke maza aa gaya,” (I really enjoyed eating the ivy gourd today) are six words you wouldn’t imagine in a food movie.
Later, a friendly cooking lesson for a neighbour’s daughter helps the girl secure a marriage proposal, and a get out of jail (house) pass. This spawns a wave of requests and before long Tarla is teaching a roomful of women how to cook. If the kitchen is a jail, then cooking could be the key that sets you free, Tarla says to her eager students.
As Tarla’s cottage industry is growing, Nalin’s work life takes a beating. While attempting to convey the changing dynamics in the Dalal household and the embedded gender stereotypes, Tarla becomes the neglectful mother, prioritizing career over kitchen. Nalin needs to course correct and steady the ship.
It takes all of Huma Qureshi’s proficiency and Sharib Hashmi’s wonderful portrayal to keep you engaged. They share a warm banter as husband and wife renegotiating space within the changing dynamics of their household.
As Tarla’s neighbour and confidante, Bharti Achrekar is wasted, as if cast in a hat-tip to Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. Even Nalin’s interaction with his factory colleague, played by Rajeev Pandey, who butters him up with meaty dishes, mirrors Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in The Lunchbox. Food, however, is not given its moment to sizzle and tantalizingly waft out of the screen.
Tarla feels like an opportunity lost, to make some unequivocal comments about patriarchy, to capture an India pre-liberalisation, to whet the appetite. Given a script that barely scratches the surface and hardly captures the mood of the 1970s and 1980s, an impartial Nalin would probably rate the under-seasoned film 6/10.