Posted by Mythily Madhukumar Nair
In the era of the new-gen actors of Malayalam cinema, there is one name often repeated—Dulquer Salmaan, the son of Malayalam legend Mammootty. Coming from a traditionally “nepotistic” background, one expects that he would find a Dharma Production’s equivalent to launch himself, but as far as debuts go, Dulquer Salmaan’s was a star kid debut that went significantly under the radar, with an all novice cast and a debut director.
It was in his second film, however, the Anwar Rasheed-directed, Anjali Menon-written movie Ustad Hotel, that shot him to superstardom. Playing the role of Faizi, Salmaan is the son of a Dubai-based businessman, raised by 4 older sisters (due to their mother’s early demise). His father, Abdul Razak (played by Siddique) runs a successful hotel business abroad and intends to open one up in their hometown of Calicut, a business which Faizi must eventually take over.
But instead of going abroad to study the hotel management course as intended, he secretly goes to culinary school to become a chef. What follows this revelation is the breakdown of an arranged marriage alliance, and the squabble between Abdul Razak and Faizi reaches such a height that Abdul seizes his passport, preventing him from moving back to London as he had planned. Faizi then runs away from home to join his estranged grandfather Karimikka (played by the late Thilakan) to help him run his decades’ old biriyani shop on Calicut beach.
What follows is a magical tale about familial relationships, love and spirituality—all these themes are pearls, strung together by the indisputable thread that is Malabari cuisine. The recurring arc that we must explore here is the dichotomy that many new generation Malayalis face—the constant conundrum between modernity, and following your passions and staying closely rooted to your cultural heritage. Whether these passions conform or do not conform to what society expects of you, and whether those notions are still relevant, is the question that lingers, after a re-watch, 8 years post release.
Faizi and The Women in his Life
Faizi grew up with a very strong group of female influence around him—his four older sisters. Nurturing yet tough, his Ithatha’s and Co. (sisters and company) had been his entire world growing up—in a household where Abdul Razak was never around, and growing up without a maternal figure, the sister’s filled that void—filling his days with joy, and introducing him to cooking, as it was an activity that all of them did together.
Ustad Hotel introduces Abdul Razak’s disapproval for Faizi in the kitchen very early on—as a child, Faizi lived in a house with his 4 older sisters, and enjoyed being a part of their day: most of which they spent cooking meals for their large family of 6. Faizi too didn’t see anything emasculating in helping out in the kitchen, but his father and his traditional ideas about who belongs in the kitchen, certainly did. This particular scene in Ustad Hotel, where Abdul Razak returns from work but instructs only Faizi to go and study is a very upfront reminder of how he has demarcated his children in terms of their purpose—the boy is to study, to grow up and to follow in his footsteps, while the girls to learn how to manage a household because eventually, they are to be married off.
Faizi, as a young child, didn’t want to be kept away from them, so he too would join them in the cooking, only to be scolded by his father and “put in his place’, a status that was elevated to theirs, in the eyes of Abdul Razak. This dogma permeated the Razak Manzil, one that stated that someone who took on a naturally more nurturing role, one who cooks/provides meals for the family is beneath those who make money and bring it home, which is considered to be more fitting for a man in society.
The lack of economic independence is what the men, like Abdul Razak, use to cripple people who choose to venture off the beaten path—whether that be by confiscating Faizi’s passport and credit cards due to his adamancy of pursuing his passions, whether it be Shahana having to underline that even though her family insists on getting her married, she wants to continue working, or whether it be Kareemikka’s liabilities to the bank—the choices he had made makes him a toy to Beach Bay’s demands to the bank, as they look at seizing the land on which the hotel stands.
But the depth of this subversion from generic male behaviour is one to be noted: Faizi and his ithatha’s have a very strong, deeply rooted relationship, which could quite easily explain the kind of empathy that he had, the softness with which he could navigate past what could have possibly been difficult conversations for a girl like Shahana; the ease with which he could understand and shift those societal expectations of a young man.
With Shahana, there came a certain sense of ease—she was someone who was of the same age, subjected to the same societal pressures of following customs—which in her case, was a marriage at 21 to a suitor of their choice. She chose to subvert from the archetypal image of a good Muslim girl by following her passion of music, performing with the band, whom Faizi befriends on Calicut beach. He knows of her unconventional thinking, having already conversed with her about her intentions of working post marriage, even though her family is orthodox. Shahana’s struggles parallel that of Faizi’s—if his struggle to get a seat at the table is due to his choice of profession, Shahana’s is due to that of her gender. The privilege here is glaring, since Faizi may still choose to reunite with his family if he changes his mind, but Shahana will always be limited.
The very scene in Ustad Hotel aboard the truck comes to mind when one recalls Faizi’s experience of attempting to empathise with “feminine struggles”. With the van broken down, Faizi and Shahana struggle to get someone to drop them home, and Faizi exclaims that everything is easy for a woman, even to get someone that would let them hitchhike. This gives Shahana the bright idea of making him don a burkha, which stops a truck driver immediately, who had the bright idea of trying to make good “use” of giving two lone women a ride, groping Faizi. The kaleidoscope of emotions he experienced, and the comic end to that scene ends with him confronting the driver, and them running away in the dark of night.
Ultimately, it was fundamental for Faizi to reconnect with what would have been considered his “feminine” side; this nurturing/accepting side of him that made him redundant in the eyes of other men in his society, but that helped him connect deeper with the women in his life, and hone his craft at an exponential rate. He became more aware of worldly struggles, the importance of giving back to society with your line of work, as well as what it truly means to be a chef—not just the titles and the glory, but the concept of seva, of giving back, unconditionally.
Faizi as a construct is the amalgamation of his father and grandfather—pursuing his passion like Kareemikka, not worrying about the aftermath, yet, like Abdul Razak, he walks towards modernity, pushing the boundaries of what was once acceptable, taking his dreams to greater heights.
The essence of Ustad Hotel is the paradigm shift that Faizi experiences: initially an entitled brat, he yearned to shrug his past; the household where he had no freedom to do as he wished, his sisters being married off and him being shepherded into the family business. Like Kareemikka, Faizi craved liberty—with the job in London, his white girlfriend, he was convinced he had done it, that he had broken free from the shackles that his father had originally confined him with. That from now on, he didn’t have to be anyone but who he wanted to be, and to prove his point, he rebelled in every way he could.
What ensues is his tumultuous relationship with his father, and discovering an entirely different side to his craft, which has deeper roots in seva and spirituality. He shrugs off the veil of “success” he had once been misguided by; of career success is only limited to the kind of position he held at a restaurant run by a white man. His idea of filial ties and responsibilities transform, liberating him from the constraints he once thought separated his world from his father’s.
Instead, it finally fit together when he strove to find a balance between the two worlds he had inherited: the masculine stability and sustainability of a business that only comes with planning and thinking ahead, but also nurturing, unconditional piety with which one cooks, the selfless thought that “cooking isn’t meant to just fill the stomach but also the heart”.
“Originally published on Feminism in India and re-published here with their permission.