Huma Qureshi in Tarla. (courtesy: iamhumaq)
Tarla Dalal famously used many non-veg recipes - Murgh Musallam and Chicken 65 are specifically mentioned in this movie about her life and times - to rustle up vegetarian dishes with potatoes and cauliflowers. But Tarla, directed and co-written by Piyush Gupta and streaming on Zee5, could have done with some meat.
A diligently structured slice-of-life drama about a celebrated real-life exponent of the art of vegetarian cooking, Tarla brings to the screen the struggles and successes of a middle-class Mumbai homemaker who churned out bestselling cookbooks while she juggled her domestic chores in pre-liberalisation India.
Dangal and Chhichhore screenwriter Gupta's directorial debut, the Tarla Dalal biopic has a fair sprinkling of drama but it thrives especially on its quieter moments, on the negotiations that take place within a marriage, in a society and during an era when life wasn't easy for women seeking opportunities to make a name for themselves beyond the gender roles they were buttonholed into.
The screenplay by Gupta with Gautam Ved is aimed at underlining the range of issues that Tarla Dalal (Huma Qureshi) and her engineer-husband, Nalin (Sharib Hashmi), had to tackle personally and socially as the former sought to break free from the rut of domesticity.
The hurdles that blocked the eponymous heroine's way to fame and adulation were veritable mountains that she had to climb, often with her hands tied behind her back. As this film sees it, the Tarla story rests on a slew of conflicts. Her path is littered with disappointments, debacles and discoveries.
This is slow-simmer storytelling that does well not to get ahead of itself at any point. "Khana banana koi kaam thodi hai (Cooking is not a job),' says a publisher that she approaches with the idea of a book of recipes. You are right, Tarla replies. "Khana banana kaam nahi kala hai (Cooking isn't a job, it is an art," she says before walking away in a huff.
Notwithstanding the scepticism that swirls all around her, her supportive husband stands by her even when his resolve flounders a bit. You are going to create history, Nalin assures Tarla.
For all the spice that Tarla puts on the screen, the film feels a tad under-garnished. There is obviously a lot of cooking and eating that happens in the Dalal home and beyond, but somehow the crackle and sizzle that you would expect from a film about food are at best subdued.
The two lead actors skirt around the loopholes to create a composite portrait of a marriage and a career that see their share of ups and downs because the world isn't ready yet for a Tarla Dalal.
The flawless turns by Huma Qureshi and Sharib Hashmi, who deliver performances that are informed with both warmth and verve, hold the film together when it is danger of succumbing to monotony.
Tarla is a wholesome cinematic repast that does not lose sight of its primary purpose but it would have been an infinitely more worthy of applause had it paid greater attention to exercise of bringing the period alive. Not that the detailing is entirely off, but a few of the crucial elements that go into the evocation of the time are a touch confusing
The film gives its characters dictions, attires and mannerisms that evoke the milieu and the period all right, but the home and the kitchen where much of the story unfolds does not have a lived-in look. A few of the other ingredients, too, do not quite fit in.
From what unfolds on the screen, one can gather that the narrative spans several decades - from the 1960s to the 1980s - but neither Tarla nor her husband shows any visible signs of ageing.
Tarla's early married life is wrapped up in the time that it takes a solitary song to play on the soundtrack. The Pune-based Gujarati girl gets married, makes a permanent shift to Mumbai with her husband, becomes mother of three children and, as the number ends, celebrates her 12th wedding anniversary. But that clearly is not where the drama is.
The narrative kicks off in right earnest only after Tarla, who is determined to do something with her life despite having wasted over a decade cooking for her family, looking after the house and getting her children ready for school, decides to take her culinary skills beyond the confines of her kitchen.
One end of the film is steeped in nostalgia - there are stray references to bhindi costing just one rupee a kilo and a Cadbury's chocolate bar priced at a rupee and a half. At the other, somebody refers to 1983's Himmatwala. The protagonist herself mentions Mr India, a 1987 film. It is fair to assume, therefore, that the tale straddles close to three decades but Tarla's children appear to be stuck in their teens and the Dalal couple in their youth.
If you can go beyond these distracting downers, Tarla, produced by Ronnie Screwvala's UTV and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Nitesh Tiwari's Earthsky Pictures, is certainly not without its moments. Most of these are contributed by the two lead actors and those parts of the script on which the film's principal turning points hinge.
Tarla works especially well as an understated drama about a woman negotiating her space at home and in the world at a point in the nation's evolution when a majority of homemakers were confined within gender roles defined by society - maa, patni, bahu, model of womanhood.
It is usually during bedtime that Tarla has her brainwaves. She uses her husband as a sounding board. And a new Tarla - the woman the protagonist had always wanted to be - begins to emerge as her ideas take shape and spur her on to seek opportunities in adversity.
Tarla is a tale from the past but its resonance is contemporary. But as a film that celebrates a life and a calling and has Huma Qureshi in piping-hot form, it is only moderately scrumptious.
Huma Qureshi, Sharib Hashmi, Purnendu Bhattacharya, Veenah Naair, Bharti Achrekar