Dr Khusi Pattanayak 

Tarla (Hindi, 2023) could have been a brilliant ode to India’s pioneering female chef Tarla Dalal. But unfortunately, the script remains so obsessed with creating a formulaic female centric movie that it takes the fun away.

Tarla Dalal

For those who do not know, Tarla Dalal is still the only chef and cook book author who has received the prestigious Padma Shri (the fourth-highest civilian award of India). An inspiration to millions, she revolutionised the art of cooking which has historically been associated with women. Dalal turned the mundane, unpaid, and unrecognised kitchen activity upside down and made it a brand and business model (which is now dominated by men).

Tarla in Tarla does not resemble the late-chef. A creative liberty that works fine. But there are certain other liberties that the film makers have taken that does not sync well. For example, Tarla did not self-publish her first book. The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking (1974) was published by Vakils, Feffer and Simons Pvt. Ltd. (VFS).  I am not sure what was the point in tweaking this information, the idea of establishing struggle before success or progressiveness of the supportive husband – either way it did not seem to serve any purpose.

Tarla dishes out a linear simplistic story telling (probably inspired by the no-fussy recipes of Ms. Dalal) where Mr. Dalal has a meatier role (probably because of his love for meat!) than the protagonist Tarla, who appears to be just going with the flow. And so seems the camera work.

Tarla Dalal is identified as Julia Child of India, especially when it comes to vegetarian cooking. Child found her Hollywood tribute in form of Julie & Julia (2009) where the camera captured cooking, kitchen, food in the most delectable manner.  Something that is sorely missing from Tarla. For a film that is dedicated to food and a food creator par excellence, there is hardly any frame that teases the senses and rings hunger in the belly. Instagram feeds and Facebook reels have more appetising camera angles than this movie!

But there is one lunch break in the script that stands out for its depiction of passion – between a foodie and his platter. An elaborate episode involving anticipation and consumption of goat meat (mutton). The irony! Tarla was the queen of vegetarian recipes and (as the movie insists) had serious aversion towards non-vegetarian food and the only food scene that gets registered in Tarla’s movie had meat in it!!

Tarla never makes it clear why Ms. Dalal decides to pursue the journey of cooking – because she was naturally skilled at cooking or because that was the only skill she possessed or because she wanted her husband to ditch non-veg?

It also remains unclear what was Tarla’s food philosophy? At some point she does mention about cooking as empowerment. Then did she consider her mother or grandmother or other married female neighbours empowered because they reigned the kitchen? If it was so, then it never felt like that because she, despite her ideas, always fell prey to the patriarchal hegemony and was continuously at the receiving end of silent treatment.

The only reason the two-hour offering, despite the predictable plot and dialogues, does not feel like suffering is the casting. Huma Qureshi is impressive, though not as striking as her Monica, O My Darling (2022). Sharib Hashmi is always a treat to watch. He lends a certain vulnerability to his character which makes him so likable. Qureshi and Hashmi share a great chemistry and make for a winning team. And Bharti Achrekar is effervescent and reliable as ever.

Tarla plays too safe and makes its own joke ‘namak swad anusar’ (salt as per taste) the motto of the film. For my tastes, this was bland. But this might work for you if you think this as a fictional attempt at showcasing a home-maker making it big in the capitalist world (like Tumhari Sulu, 2017), because as homage to the legacy of Tarla Dalal, this movie does nothing.

If you plan to watch Tarla (streaming on ZEE5) do not skip the last few minutes which has Ms. Dalal’s interview with Siddharth Kak from Surabhi days!

(The author is an internationally published writer & corporate communication specialist. Views are personal)


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