Saturday 20 March 2021

On demand: "Bawarchi/The Cook"

Right from the red drapes and narration (care of Amitabh Bachchan) suspended over the opening credits, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1972 film Bawarchi sets itself up as a good night out at the theatre. This is an ensemble piece with an inbuilt theatrical contrivance, charting the effects of mysterious new chef Raghu (Rajesh Khanna) on the lives of the warring, radically different personalities - postmaster, songwriter, businessman, martinet, plus wives, mothers and a radiant Jaya Bhaduri (soon to be Bachchan) as a helpful student - corralled together under the roof of a family apartment building ironically named Shanti Mansions. An alternative title might be The Slice-and-Diceman Cometh. For Mukherjee, it's an opportunity to assemble a broilingly busy, mostly appetising stew of his own. Ingredients: equal parts character comedy and old-school knockabout, the expected handfuls of music (one of the mansions' residents is training to be a classical dancer), a welcome dash of Bollywood self-reflexivity (the songwriter, introduced listening to Steam's bubblegum pop hit "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye", rips off Western hits for Indian movies) and the mystery of Khanna's chef, who appears out of the fog with a suitcase full of ladles and immediately begins to revolutionise the household's inner workings, either a chutney-bearing Mary Poppins or a precursor to Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. I'm not sure what kind of statement it's really making (or even trying to make) on domestic labour: as played by Khanna with a jaunty skullcap and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, this cook feels like a magic-realist creation, as good at dispensing dance instruction and life lessons as he is in the kitchen. Frothy entertainment, nevertheless, and thanks to Gulzar's sing-song dialogue, stuffed with the wisdom of the ages ("It is so simple to be happy, but so difficult to be simple"), it remains both filling and flavoursome.

Bawarchi is now streaming via Prime Video.

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