What is Saif Ali Khan and Raja Krishna Menon cooking up in Kochi?

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Raja Krishna Menon explains the making of his upcoming movie Chef, which is set against the backdrop of Kochi.

Fort Kochi is a hot shooting destination in Kochi where the locals are used to seeing huge vans of film crews unloading their equipment and setting up base. It is only the actors who arrive in their swanky cars that keep changing. But this time around, it is not a Malayalam film’s location, but that of a Bollywood one. Director Raja Krishna Menon is quietly shooting for an Indian adaptation of the hit Hollywood film Chef with Saif Ali Khan in the lead. Recently, Saif was spotted in a private bus as a part of the shoot for this film.

Raja very recently found himself airlifted to success with his third film Airlift, starring Akshay Kumar in the lead, which was based on real-life incidents involving the evacuation of Indian expatriates from Kuwait, when the country was invaded by Iraq in 1990. Since the success of this film, the director has earned a reputation for himself but the man with an easy-going attitude is not swayed by fame or popularity. Right now, his mind is completely occupied with the frames and story of the official Indian adaptation of Chef going by the same title.

Raja knows that weight of expectations and comparisons and amount of work required to make an adaptation of the Jon Favreau directed Hollywood film, that, besides showcasing food and cooking, also had layers of emotions dealing with the relationships between a father-son and a husband-wife. Raja says, “It is not easy to fill the shoes of a director like Favreau and I am not trying to do that either. The premise of my movie is the same; it is the story of a father and son but the rest of it is my own interpretations of those relationships. I remember when I watched this film, I had thought that it had all the elements that are bound to excite. It has travel; it has food and relationships too. It is a beautiful story about finding your passion and following that.”

“I found all these elements in one film to be very inspiring but never did I ever think that I would end up making an Indian adaptation of this film.” When the producers of the film offered him the chance to direct, Raja did wonder what more he could do with the film and then they decided to take a different route with the basic idea remaining the same. Raja himself is a travel buff and a foodie and he had a reason for choosing Kerala, especially Kochi as one of the locations. Raja explains, “Kochi is actually where a lot of the film is set and where the beginning of the story unfolds. It is here where Saif makes a big decision and the travel starts from Kochi. I chose the city because I felt it has not been showcased as an integral part of the script. Yes, there may have been a song or some scenes shot here, but Kochi has a lot more to offer than being a beautiful city. I feel Kochi is very unique in the Indian landscape — the Malayali culture and the food are very novel. I decided to explore a different aspect of the food, culture and the way of life here and integrate those into the film, mind you not just as a beautiful backdrop but by incorporating that into the storyline.”

Raja adds that doing all this would not have been easy if he was not a Malayali and since he is, he was able to bring in those nuances. Raja hopes that he has done justice to the food, culture and beauty of the state. Saif was seen in a lot of roles but him donning the chef’s cap and an apron? What made Raja zero in on Saif? He answers, “I needed someone who was endearing and I felt Saif intrinsically understands the idea of being this person who is trying to find answers to a lot of questions and sometimes one goes by instinct. My instinct was Saif and he was excited and agreeable to doing the role and I feel he fits the bill completely.” Raja has been doing a month and a half of prep work for the film, getting the script right and the actors into the correct frame of mind and kitchen training. Raja had been looking at some scripts but prefers to focus on one film at a time. He adds, “Right now, I have no energy for anything else but this film!” Before he ends, he quips, “I hope what we bring to the table with this film is as tasty and as exciting as the original!”

Saif speaks

Saif is not taking his role lightly and he has been doing his homework for this role, training with the Marriott hotels in Mumbai under a Head Chef. It is important to Saif that he learns the basic kitchen skills, understands how a kitchen works and also watches the body language of a chef when he is playing the role of a professional chef. Saif has spent considerable time training for the role and he speaks about the preparations, “The challenge of any part is to be authentic and convincing. There is an attitude and body language required in the kitchen while cooking; I guess that’s the particular challenge.” The food in Fort Kochi is awesome but Saif is on a strict regime. He jokes, “I’m on a pretty stable diet while shooting, so I can’t really comment on the food, though it’s famous! I’m eating regular food like dal chawal and chicken and roti. I ate a massive plate of prawns on day one and nearly blew up the bathroom, so I’m taking it easy now!”

The architecture, culture and beauty of Kochi has Saif hooked and he gushes, “Kochi is beautiful! It’s scenic and peaceful with a beautiful blue sky and lovely sunsets. The ships load and plough their way across the water right outside my hotel room. It’s verdant and pleasant in the shade, with so many different shades of green that it looks like an impressionist painting. The architecture and furniture is colonial and classic with cool stone floors — at least where I am! The Azaan sounds so peaceful as the sun sets . This is God’s Own Country, among the nicest places I have seen in India with lovely boutique hotels, lots of shopping for art and furniture and great restaurants. The people are sensitive and intelligent.” Saif is also clued in on Mollywood and about the astounding march of Pulimurugan and he comments, “Mohanlal has just had a super hit at 56 as an action hero; the audience is loyal and passionate!” Before he signs off, he promises, “I love this place. I will come again on a holiday.”

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