Anwar Rasheed’s Ustad Hotel has a unique theme. It explores the relationship between a grandfather and grandson, set within the canvas of a throbbingly popular restaurant serving biriyani and other Malayali Muslim dishes on the Kozhikode beach.
It is a movie made for two actors – Thilakan as Uppoopa (grandfather) and Dulquar Salman as Faizie. Both give their best. Equally talented Siddique, Mamukoya, Vijayaraghavan, among others, support them.
Ustad is a male-dominated movie. It starts with shots of Faizie’s father’s desire to have a son. In the process his wife delivers four daughters and then Faizie, and dies in the fatigue of repeated childbirth.
The only female character worth mentioning is Shahana, Faizie’s love interest. Nithya Menon as Shahana is beautiful. There is one sequence where her delightfully innocent thrill lights the screen when she prods Faizie to hitch a ride in a truck at night and then they run away from the wandering hand of the truck driver. But beyond this sequence she does not have much screen presence in the movie. Since she does not get the individual attention that is required, her talent is not drawn out.
The motif is of Kozhikode’s biriyani and the milk-less Suleimani tea. Into these Uppoopa adds all the regular ingredients plus mohabbat (love). However, when director Anwar Rasheed cooks his biriyani in Ustad Hotel he does not get it right. Many of Rasheed’s ingredients have gone haywire. He has cooked the biriyani far too longer than needed.
Multiple sub-plots unravel in Ustad. Many threads are left untied. There is a hint at tension of belief between Faizie’s grandfather and father. The grandfather is Sufi whereas the father is conservative. The grandfather is spartan by choice, father wants to earn more and more.
Some sequences jar – a European chef who flies in to Kozhikode at the right moments; a tantrum-throwing fiancé; a young chef throwing a live chicken at the hotel’s top honcho; and obnoxious food inspectors and journalists who turn amiable within a week.
The last sub-plot is unnecessary and is disjointed to the movie. To teach Faizie the lesson that there is far more to food than its making, Uppoopa sends him to Madurai to his friend, who is modelled on the real-life hero Narayanan Krishnan, a five-star chef who turned into a social worker to give food to the old and homeless. Cooking biriyani for the chef’s team and serving special children, Faizie earns their loving gratitude. When Faizie returns Uppoopa has left for Ajmer and Faizie takes over the Ustad Hotel.
It is difficult to believe that Faizie, who after his bonding with Uppoopa (two hours of film time) still wants to return to Europe, has a change of heart after going to Madurai. The ending would have been more believable if Faizie had willingly taken over the hotel as Uppoopa walked out from the hospital into the Ajmer sunset, cloth bag on shoulder.
It is difficult to understand why the director did not edit the movie into a terser narrative. Good movies tell the story directly and without distractions. Some of the movies that we remember over years – Oru CBI dairy kuruppu, Manichitrathathazhu and Meesha Madhavan – did not permit us to leave our seats because they said nothing more than was needed.
Ustad Hotel is beautifully shot. The image of Uppoopa brewing sulaimani tea on a platform on the beach, while Faizie interrogates him on his romance, or the Sufi dervishes whirling near the waves, or the hotel team looking through the broken windshield of the nearly-dead delivery van, leave a strong impact. Stringing these visuals is the innovative storyline of a grandson changing his worldview after being forced by kismat (destiny) to spend time with his grandfather.
However, what Ustad Hotel does not do is to exploit the potential of these ingredients and deliver a movie that will be remembered. That is the disappointment.