Tarla, a biopic which released on 7 July on Zee5, refers in familiar fashion to the celebrated champion of vegetarian cooking, the late Tarla Dalal. A cookbook author and home chef, Dalal’s recipes became a staple of dining tables. In the movie on her life, directed by Piyush Gupta, the diminutive Mumbai celebrity chef, often compared to American chef Julia Child, is played by Huma Qureshi (Maharani). As much as this is a film about a Gujarati housewife and mother of three becoming an icon in the food industry, the story is also about how her husband, Nalin Dalal, played by Sharib Hashmi (The Family Man), enabled her aspirations. Qureshi and Hashmi speak to Lounge about the experience of working on Tarla and the appeal of food films. Edited excerpts:
I had just done Maharani and within about a week of season 1 of its release, I got a call from Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Nitesh Tiwari, who said they really liked my work in the show and that they wanted to offer me a film they were producing, directed by Piyush. When they said it’s the Tarla Dalal biopic, I jumped at it, not just because I have admired Ashwiny and Nitesh Tiwari’s work but also because I have a food connection. My father owns restaurants in Delhi. With my theatre training, I am constantly looking for challenges and roles which push the envelope. Maharani, Double XL, Monica, O My Darling—I am enjoying the range of characters coming my way and I think I have become a lot more fearless in my choices. I signed Tarla just after Maharani and a lot of people tried to dissuade me, saying why are you age-bracketing yourself. But my point is that I am the age I am. What is this unnecessary fear of not doing things and image planning, etc.? Read the script. If it’s something that resonates, that’s a story you want to be a part of.
Yes, it is. When I heard the script, I was blown away. There is an emotional sequence in the film and I started crying during the narration. That has never happened to me. When Piyush completed the narration, I pleaded that he cast me in the part of Nalin Dalal. The character really resonated with me, maybe because I am a family man in real life. I am a father and the way the middle-class family man does so much for his family, is what Nalin Dalal does in this film, including setting his career aside to support his wife’s dreams and ambitions. I also connected with how Tarla Dalal found her calling late in life. As she says in the film, “I want to do something with my life but what that something is I don’t know.” In her life, that something turned out to be cooking, and, in my life, that something turned out to be acting. I found my calling when I was 33, at a time when most people are settled in their careers. I was already married and a father by then and everybody was against this decision. The only person who supported me was my wife. If Tarla had Nalin’s support, I had my wife Nasreen’s support.
Hashmi: This was the first question that came to my mind too. Sure, it’s a film on Tarla Dalal’s life but what’s the conflict? This film breaks the set prerequisites that make a dramatic story and that is its USP. Along with the way Tarla inspires people with the idea that there is no expiry date or age limit for finding your passion or chasing your dreams.
Huma, what kind of transformation and preparation did you do to become the character, who ages from college girl to middle-aged mother of three? Did you draw most of your inspiration from Dalal’s videos?
Not only do I look nothing like Tarla Dalal nor do we come from the same geographical area. I am a hard-core Delhi girl raised amongst Punjabis whereas she was a Gujarati woman raised among Maharashtrians in Pune who lived on Nepean Sea Road, Mumbai, after she was married at a really young age. She had three children and then realised that there’s one skill she had which she used to cook herself out on to the world stage. It was exciting to portray a character diametrically opposite from me.
I enjoy playing different age groups. I have tried that a little bit in Maharani, Badlapur and Kaala and I am at that interesting age right now where I can play younger and older without too much of an effort, and the script had so much potential for me to play a range—from a naive college girl whose family is forcing her to get married to becoming a wife and mother. I don’t know what that feels like in real life, so I leaned in heavily on my mother and women her age. I have seen them working in the kitchen or being around. They have this tendency of saying something and their hands are moving somewhere and then doing something else, multitasking constantly. It was so with Tarla Dalal too. Sometimes she would be cooking but her mind would be elsewhere, so some of her sentences would be incomplete. I tried to capture that nervous energy and hand gestures.
We saw hours and hours of her videos and interviews. I had an accent coach and we built a glossary of things she said often. Then, the moment I put on the sari, hair, teeth and mouthpiece, I felt very Tarla-esque.
People have seen Tarla Dalal’s videos and know her look and appearance. But I had more liberty because Nalin was not known in the same way, so one could take some cinematic liberties in interpreting the character while retaining his essence. For example, we didn’t have to give the exact look. If you are portraying Subhas Chandra Bose or Mahatma Gandhi, then you have to represent them exactly, that was not necessary here. In fact, my look is a tribute to my dad, with the pencil moustache and high-waist trousers. We did three weeks of reading and tried various accents but since Nalin was from Mumbai, we decided to keep his accent neutral.
Qureshi: We need to highlight stories like this—about a woman who was an entrepreneur and influencer. Today we live in an age of influencers and food bloggers but at a time before YouTube and Instagram, she was the first to do it. With all those stereotypical mindsets people had about what a woman’s place was, she really put herself out there. That is relevant even today. We still live in a country where women are told to get married, then figure out what you want to do in life. Tarla Dalal got married and had kids and then what? I have heard my mom and her generation (of) women say they are bored once the children are grown up. All human beings have this urge to contribute somehow. In Tarla, food is an instrument of change, where a woman with a certain skill set broke out of a 4x6ft kitchen to leave a legacy that changed people’s lives.
Qureshi: In popular media and culture, we tend to glorify these Abhimaan kind of stories of rivalry between man and woman, where a woman’s success creates competition between the partners. That’s a very dangerous narrative to put out there. It might make for a great film but as a society, it makes for a problematic narrative because any working woman, including myself, will tell you that you cannot do it alone. You need a core group of family, friends or just people in your corner, which is why the Tarla story is actually the Nalin-Tarla story, because he almost gave up what he was doing to support her dreams. We see such men around us but we never see them on screen because it doesn’t make for great drama. When you talk about women’s empowerment, it’s he’s for she; it’s about educating men on how they can contribute.
Hashmi: I really liked Chef and The Great Indian Kitchen. When you see food being prepared on screen, you feel like you are getting its fragrance. Even Angamaly Diaries, which was not about food, shot and captured food and its consumption so well. I think these films are appealing because food is your most basic need in life and if it is well represented in a film, it cannot be ignored—and if the film has a compelling story, then it’s icing on the cake.
Qureshi: Food is a character but our film isn’t MasterChef and it’s not food porn. It’s more like mom’s cooking, where the food is not fancy and elegantly plated but wholesome and comforting. I think food films bring out a sense of comfort and warmth. It is that feeling of biting into a bagel. I too really enjoyed Chef and The Great Indian Kitchen, which is really an anti-food film which I love and is actually the opposite of what Tarla is. I also liked Ratatouille.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She tweets @Udita J.