In an industry so stuffed to the gills with Punjabi families and NRI homecomings, a film like Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana could easily have felt stale or repetitive. But debutante director Sameer Sharma manages to create a version of rural Punjab that is somehow quieter, gentler, sadder and yet funnier than those that have gone before.
Family black sheep Omi (Kunal Kapoor in a quiet, largely winsome role) who’d stolen the family jewels and run away to England as a teenager, comes back after a decade to the family home in Lalton village, Punjab – not because he misses it, but because he needs money to pay back dangerous London gangster Shanty (Munish Makhija). His grandfather Daarji (Vinod Nagpal), the strong family patriarch Omi once drugged to allow Omi to make his getaway, is now a pale shadow of his former self: an old man who doesn’t recognise anyone around him, spending his days in a haze of memories where all he sees is his beloved long-dead wife and more recently deceased but equally beloved dhaba.
The dhaba—and its legendary Chicken Khurana—were the source of the family’s fortunes, but Daarji’s secret recipe seems destined to go to the grave with him. No amount of pleading or haranguing from the family’s resident nutter Titu Mama (an absolutely marvelous Rajesh Sharma) (“Kucch toh yaad hoga, darling?”) can apparently bring the old man to wake up and hand it over.
A secret recipe, like the secret papers in a spy story or the secret formula in a sci fi thriller, is a plot device that could make for a grand food-and-family mystery. But Luv Shuv isn’t really aiming to be either a mystery or a family drama, so what surrounds the Macguffin of Daarji’s recipe is neither a tightly-written thriller, nor a solidly weepy sarson-da-saga but a slice of life in which the most serious things – love, sex, age, loneliness, failure, death – are served up warmly leavened by a layer of absurdity.
The film might be joyfully irreverent about most things – the middle-aged chachi (a perfect Seema Kaushal) assembles an on-the-spot family conference to discuss the underwear sizes of the men in her household, a deranged old man who sits around staring into space evokes the comment “Dekh le silent picture”, a suicidal young chap is saved from death by a crow – but it never feels flippant. There’s an unspoken affection that tempers our laughter, making everything – from the loony Titu Mama’s peeing contests and sex obsession, to the almost sugary sentimentality of Omi’s cousin Jeet (Rahul Bagga), even the ostensibly murderous hitman Manty who shows up to reclaim his boss’s debts – seem simultaneously ridiculous and moving.
This is a film that is realist enough to want to justify why the doctor heroine – the radiant Huma Qureishi in an affecting performance as Omi’s childhood flame, Harman – has her hair cascading down her shoulders on a particular day, when it’s tied into a sober, tidy plait the rest of the time. But it is also a film which revels in the fortuitous, the accidental, the almost miraculous.
Disease and death are not kept wholly at bay, but they arrive when they are meant to—and we know that untimely threats will be staved off in time, not so much by wit or wisdom as by the air of magical well-being hanging over the proceedings. (There’s that life-saving crow, for instance, who is incorporated into this vision of the world via an explanation you don’t need to believe to be charmed by.)
It is, admittedly, a little slow. The threat meant to be hanging over Omi’s life seems unconvincing in its menace and repetitive in its execution; the faux-documentary format in which Daarji’s old associates are asked for clues to his Chicken Khurana doesn’t have enough spark; Omi’s self-imposed cooking lessons with Harman are a little tamer than they could have been. Kunal Kapoor, though he tries hard and does fairly well, is not quite talented enough to pull off a role as layered as this. As the good-for-nothing scoundrel who’s only slowly coming to see the error of his ways, Kapoor manages to convey a whiff of the requisite kameenapan occasionally, but at other times his good-boy persona is too overwhelming.
Still, the rest of the performances are pitch-perfect, with Rajesh Sharma’s Titu Mama leading from the front. Mention must also be made of Dolly Ahluwalia (the beauty-parlour-owning mother from Vicky donor), who puts in a superb turn as the dhongi buaji who eloped as a girl and is now a canny television guru with a secret or two of her own. But the real star of this film is the writing: Sumit Batheja has crafted a screenplay that’s original and heartfelt, with dialogue that is both pungent and hilarious. The Chicken Khurana may seem a little lost as the film meanders homewards – but there’s definitely enough luv-shuv to make up for it.
This review was published on Firstpost.