Friday, November 02, 2012

Thoughts on Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana

Sameer Sharma’s charming film Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana might be described as a love letter to life in rural Punjab (or a romanticised version of rural Punjab) but it begins in London with a montage of stereotypical images: the London Eye, Westminster Palace, a nightclub populated by gawking Asian men and white seductresses. Punjabi lads alternate between their own language, which they are clearly more comfortable with, and the facile slang they have learnt to speak (“It’s my dream, bro!”). Chinese men named Chang go “Beeyootiful” at the dancing girls. Then the cocky Omi Khurana (Kunal Kapoor) falls on the wrong side of a mean gangster, also of Punjabi origin, and is promptly packed back to India so he can collect the money to pay back a hefty loan.

All this happens in the first five minutes. Post-credits, the gloom of the nightclub – along with the edgy fusion music we were hearing all this while – gives way to the bright, sunny colours of the Punjab countryside, presented here as a vista of lovely fields, dotted with family-run dhabas. The visual change from the London sequence to the rural India one is startling, but what hasn’t yet changed is Omi’s watchful, knowing expression, his face permanently on the brink of a triumphant grin – it’s a pointer to the sort of life he has probably been leading all these years, surviving by his wits and smooth charm, sponging off the easily deceived.

This is clearly what he intends to do when he returns to the native village he had “escaped” 10 years earlier. Learning that his “daarji” (grandfather) is in hospital, he makes a perfunctory dismayed sound and the news-bearer is quick to assure him that the old man is alive and will be home soon; but we can tell that what really disturbs Omi is the realisation that this might make it more difficult for him to get the money he needs. He’s thinking of the “pound ka pedh” (tree of money) that is presumably growing here. But with no such pedh in sight, he finds himself staying on for longer than expected, and slowly becoming involved with the lives of the people he once knew, including Harman (Huma Qureshi), a resourceful doctor who is now engaged to his cousin Jeet. And he learns that his family is not so well off: the grandfather is now senile and the family dhaba had to be closed years ago.

This is of course a version of the prodigal-son story; in a way the whole film is a movement towards erasing Omi’s self-satisfied smile and teaching him about responsibility by reintegrating him into family and community life. And Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana sets out to do this with a determinedly feel-good tone and a highly idealised view of pastoral life. Once you accept this, it becomes difficult to nitpick too much about the film’s unwillingness to engage with the less savoury aspects of small-town existence. In Harman’s mindfulness about not letting Omi be seen too near her house when he drops her home late at night, one gets a sense of how the dictates of tradition might work even on an educated young woman leading a fairly “modern” and independent life. But showcasing such things is not the film's main purpose, and so they are glossed over.

What is constantly underlined is the merit in being rooted, being part of a benevolent family (and it is therefore a useful plot conceit that despite having survived reasonably well in London for a decade, Omi has absolutely no roots there – one gets no sense that he has left anything of value behind). Even a metrosexual young thug who travels to India to threaten Omi and remind him that time is running out then remarks that he will stay on for a while and head to his own village: “Bebe ki bahut yaad aa rahi hai.” (“I’m missing my mother.”) There are jovial nods to the uninhibited bonhomie of Punjabi families, as in a scene where a middle-aged woman blithely discusses men’s “kachcha” sizes and types, even as most of the household drones buzz around her. There are dialogues such as “Heat of the emotion mein keh diya” and sight gags like an agarbatti tray being waved in front of “Hunk” underwear packs in a shop; the flashbacks to past events in the village – including Omi’s youth – are in soft-focus, as if yearning for a more innocent time when the boy might yet have taken the “right” path.

Given this generally upbeat and nostalgic tone, there is never any danger of something really unpleasant happening to these people. The Khurana family has a dysfunctional side and squabbles a bit, but you know that everyone is good at heart and that all loose ends will ultimately be tied up – even if it means the ready acceptance of a widow with a young child as their bahu, in lieu of a much more socially desirable match. In one of the story’s sub-plots, we are initially led to expect that the dreamy-eyed, effeminate Jeet – reluctant to tie the knot – will turn out to be homosexual (something that might really have shaken this community up), but a very different revelation is made (in a wacky but also slightly cringe-inducing scene that toys with the notion that the gayest thing a red-blooded Punjabi man can do is to sing a Bangla love song). And the story ends on the rosy view that you can take a man out of Punjab and turn him into a gangster, but you can't take the colourful good-spiritedness of Punjab out of the man. All this adds up to an allegory about the all-conquering strength of family bonds and basic human decency. Even if you don't have complete faith in these things, you might well buy into the film's take on them.

Much of the pre-release publicity has centred on Luv Shuv being a “food film”; the dish mentioned in the title is the piece de resistance of daarji’s days as a leading dhaba-owner. As the narrative progresses, lovingly prepared home food becomes a metaphor for deepening relationships (as a corollary to this, consider an earlier line about the merits of communal flatulence: “Apnon ke saamne gas chhodne se pyaar badhta hai”) and the “lost” recipe of Chicken Khurana seems to stand for the loosening of ties in a world where youngsters are eager to get out and start anew somewhere else. During a brief montage, shot in the faux-documentary style of people speaking directly into the camera, Omi asks a number of people about their Chicken Khurana memories, and the variety of responses include one by a married couple whose “proposal” happened over the dish, and someone else who remarks that daarji used to put his own mitthaas (sweetness) into his cooking.

Omi and Harman (whose tentative relationship, very nicely played and paced, balances out some of the cutesiness and tomfoolery) bond over food too, as she helps him negotiate the basics of cooking, including cutting onions and tomatoes. This may beg the question: how did he survive those 10 years in London? By munching on canapés in nightclubs? But why be churlish and dwell on such comparatively irrelevant plot details?


  1. Why indeed? Looking forward to watching the film :)

  2. No comment on acting, specifically Kunal Kapoor, how has he evolved?

  3. "the gayest thing a red-blooded Punjabi man can do is to sing a Bangla love song"


    wow, this sounds so good and bad at the same time.

  4. What is constantly underlined is the merit in being rooted, being part of a benevolent family

    This is so very sickening. It's amazing that the hypocrisies in such films that are made by the dozen in Hollywood is taken for granted by the public.

    I first saw this "glorification" of rootedness in DDLJ as an 11 year old where Amrish Puri - a successful London businessman - constantly look down upon Angrezi Sabhyata and ensures his girls never get anywhere near a "Gora".

    There is absolutely no attempt to meet the culture of the adopted land halfway. You want the freedom, the opportunities and the good life afforded by Western civilization but yet you keep comparing that very civilization unfavourably with the rural roots of Punjab you ran away from!

    This is not something unique to Indians. You see this everywhere. Caribbeans of African origin often talk longingly of their "African" roots completely ignoring the fact that they're more prosperous today because they are culturally a part of the West and not Africa!

    A Hundred years ago things weren't this bad. When someone like a Gandhi or a Ranji visited London in the 1880s they altered their world views, changed their outlooks and tried their hardest to become English gentlemen.

    The tragedy of the last 100 years is that the "Third World" appears to have lost its ability to introspect and developed an exaggerate estimate of many of its own cultures that have patently failed over the past 500 years.

  5. Shrikanth: don't know if you saw this old post about another (much inferior) film.

    myopic astronomer: I did mention that the scenes between him and Qureshi were nicely performed. Liked him overall; his performance in some of the present-day scenes is a bit one-dimensional, but it goes well with the character.

  6. Typo correction : I meant "Bollywood" in the first line of my last comment.

    By the way Naipaul addresses some of these issues in his essay "Our Universal Civilization". In it he contrasts very articulately the "philosophical diffidence" of the West with the "philosophical hysteria" of the East.

    When I read about films like these I cannot help but think these deracinated Punjoos in search of their "roots" are very much in the grip of that philosophical hysteria.

    But the good thing is that philosophical hysteria is invariably a sign of insecurity. At the end of the day, it is the diffident man who is more in control and it's his culture that will prevail.

  7. He had cereals for breakfast and grabbed some sandwiches for lunch and patronised a Chinese and a Bangladeshi restaurant for dinner, ok?

  8. Anon: yes, but what are sandwiches without homemade chutney?

    Shrikanth: I'm tempted to ask what you thought of Girish Karnad's speech denouncing Naipaul yesterday, but I'm afraid this thread will go berserk.

  9. Jai: Thanks for the link. Yes, that did seem like a much inferior film going by review.

    Talking of Naipaul and his Islamophobia that Karnad talks about - Hasn't he married a Muslim? That's more than what we can say of a lot of Islamophiles.

    Naipaul isn't right about everything. Nobody can be. Social science isn't Physics. I agree he's often silly like most of us. That doesn't mean you reflexively castigate him just because what he says doesn't fit one's perceptions gained from "prejudice-free" (read politically correct) textbooks.

    Back to the topic - This nostalgia about one's roots isn't unique to India as I said. I am also reminded of several American films in this regard. John Ford's The Quiet Man is a classic example. The difference is that Ford presents Irish culture affectionately as-it-is but never descends to America-bashing the way DDLJ resorts to UK-bashing.

  10. I agree he's often silly like most of us.

    Rubbish, I'm never silly. He should aspire to the same high standards!

    But that's enough about Sir Vidivici for now. And I really should see The Quiet Man again - saw it decades ago. Along with a million other films *Deep sigh*

  11. Jai: As an aside the outrage often expressed by "intellectuals" like Karnad remind me of this video.

    A must watch.

    It discusses several issues we've both discussed on ths blog many times including some of the stuff discussed in this post.

    Let me know what you think.

  12. i think one should aspire to be as silly as one can.

    thomas sowell seems to be a biased conservative giving predictable answers to leading questions like "what is the PATHOLOGY of intellectuals?".

    if one really want to wail on intellectuals, or question their legitimacy, one could certainly do better than watching interviews supplied by the hoover institution.

    one could equally argue Thomas Sowell is an intellectual who went to Cornell and UCLA, like Chomsky went UPenn. what is his pathology, one may ask?

    In fact, one could argue, the Hoover Institution is in the business of hiring intellectuals who will espouse their policy line, i.e. federal spending on public works is EVULLL. It's the same groupthinky Stalinist mentality, that you, shrikanth, would hate if it was coming from the left.

    It's also pretty hilarious that Naipaul is getting a prize with an exclamation point in its title.

  13. sapera: Well the interviewer may have asked one leading question too many. But what I took away from the interview are some general insights that are not ideological in nature at all.

    For eg: The discussion on how Scots imitated the English in the 18th century and achieved great things.

    There are some learnings from that for today's era where any kind of cultural imitation is looked down upon. An era where people remain pucca Punjoos staying away from "corrupting" western influences despite living in London for 20 years!

    she helps him negotiate the basics of cooking, including cutting onions and tomatoes. This may beg the question: how did he survive those 10 years in London?

    Jai: The reason why this character managed to survive is because the London of today allows people to lead their own life "imported" from their native lands without demanding any kind of cultural adjustment. Am sure Kunal Kapoor has Punjabi food outlets by the dozen in London to fall back upon to get his food. London pampers him so much that living there is almost like moving from Ludhiana to Gurgaon.

    There are areas in Yorkshire where you see Pakistanis predominate not just numerically but culturally. These guys don't really attempt to understand their "new" homeland by reading about Magna Carta or Shakespeare or David Hume. No. Their real home is still back in their beloved Punjab. The stay in London is simply like a weekend trip to this "Essel World" of liberal indulgences.

    When Gandhi moved to England in 1880s he made a genuine effort to understand England. He wore suits, learnt Latin, took dancing lessons, even courted some English girls. Kunal Kapoor doesn't have to do all that. Because London goes out of its way to accommodate him.

  14. your theory of imitating the english as a path towards moral or ethical progress is deeply problematic.

    this bogus conservative idea of trumping up the merits of imitating the obviously oh so superior English with their awesome protestant anglo-saxon work ethic is thinly veiled bigotry.

    Incidentally, the Scots like imitating the English so much that they wish to forge a distinct Scottish identity (arguably much like the "punjoos" you deride) and can't wait to leave the British Union.

  15. Oh my...
    The moment one starts to make the slightest judgmental remark, you invite labels like "bigot". If that's how sensitive people are going to be, how can there be any public discourse.

    Maybe the odd line in the comments is a tad blunt. But that's me. I am no career diplomat.

    I wasn't deriding or glorifying anybody in any of the comments. Just discussing how the process of cultural assimilation has changed over the past 300 years, for better or worse (I think for worse).

    And let's not start labeling every idea as "conservative" or "liberal". Labels obfuscate nuances and stifle thought.

  16. *Cough cough* Anyone wants to discuss the relative merits of tandoori vs makhani chicken, or the relative merits of Kunal Kapoor (6 feet tall) vs Nawazuddin Siddiqui (5 feet tall) as romantic co-star for Huma Qureshi? No? Okay, then.

  17. "the gayest thing a red-blooded Punjabi man can do is to sing a Bangla love song"
    LOL! Thats hilarious.I did not think of this angle at all while watching the movie. Perhaps it was obvious to you against the Vicky Donor backdrop.
    The characters seemed to be so lived in that the dialogues and situations seem to have written themselves. There could be some Mike Leigh style improvisation going on here- I know Anurag Kashyap does it in his films and he is the producer.
    I found it difficult to pigeonhole the film - there was the obvious theme of family values, but I think it was just there by default - to kind of give an emotional anchor around which the movie was built. The film is all about moments, the kind that spring up in improvisations and workshops. Titu mama is probably the defining character, in that sense. In this film, his character is played for laughs, but he is also someone who evokes sympathy - someone who does not have his own place to live , longs for physical contact,longs for someone to share his feelings with - and despite his own insistence to the contrary, may just be a little bit insane -I could not make sense of the "electric shock" story.

  18. "This may beg the question: how did he survive those 10 years in London?"
    You can survive on any sort of butchery you do in the kitchen, and you may have been doing it for years - but if you do it in front of your mother, she will patronize you as someone who was born yesterday, and I find it natural. It happens to me.

  19. Rahul: strangely enough, the Rabindrasangeet-in-Lajpat Nagar scene in Vicky Donor came to my mind only after I had written and put up this post.

    Agree about the improvisational aspects of the film and the attempt to make it a pastiche of free-flowing "moments", though I did wonder if it was a little overdone in scenes like the handheld-camera one of the family dancing together.

  20. Speaking of Vicky Donor, Dolly Ahluwalia is having quite a hell-raising year. First, she gets drunk with her mom in that film, then she happily smokes up in this one, while the tough, street-smart guy is the one who's forced to decline.