Driving ‘Airlift’ to Serving ‘Chef’: Chat With Raja Krishna Menon

With Chef all set to release next month, filmmaker Raja Krishna Menon moves from a war torn Kuwait, which he brought to us in Airlift, to the green pastures of Kerala. It’s not just the location, with his new film, Menon also moves from khiladi Akshay Kumar to nawab Saif Ali Khan. So how has the transition been? Here’s my conversation with the filmmaker:

Q. After the success of Airlift I thought you would choose to make an original script, but surprisingly you chose to direct the remake of a Hollywood film, why?

Raja Krishna Menon: Well, that was sort of a conundrum, I have always written original scripts and then made them. When Vikram approached me for the film, we were shooting for Airlift in Jodhpur, and he said - hey what do you think of this film Chef? And I loved the film when I saw it, it has all the elements that are important to me I guess, it has food, there is travel and then there is the father and son relationship, so I told him it’s a fantastic film and if it’s in the right hands, it will make a great film to be made in India.

I also told Vikram, I am not interested if I have to only remake the film (Jon Favreau’s Chef), there is no point in just remaking the film, but if you are okay with me to kind of look at it as something of a base story and adapt it then it is fine.

So, Suresh (Menon), Ritesh (Shah) and I decided to find a few elements in the film which told me that this is a script that I can adapt and it doesn’t have to be the same as Chef. The first element was that I wanted to set up Saif‘s character as someone who grew up in the 90s. It is the time when I grew up and the logic of it is that, that was the time we were allowed to think for the first time about new professions, right? Before that it was all about being a doctor or an engineer and I think for the first time we reached a point where the people could think of becoming a filmmaker, or a journalist or a radio jockey for instance. So my character has first fought a fight to become a chef, then been in a situation where you lose your passion. So that to me was a really interesting element to start with.

Saif Ali Khan with Svar Kamble on the poster of Chef.

We then figured that we wanted to make a film that was much more about the relationship between a father and a son than it is about food. It’s more about what happens when you get so involved with your career or a passion, there is also something you lose out on, right? For me that was the second interesting element, and then we understood how it fits in an Indian context.

For me, this is more for people in their late 30s and 40s who are chasing their dreams of being successful and getting to a point of having financial or professional success that overpowers everything else. So once we found these elements, we were like okay, now we can set this film around a chef and a food-truck and rest of the elements from the original Chef.

Q. Looking at your film Chef now, how much do you think there is of the Jon Favreau film, how much do you think you have been able to move away from it?

A still from Jon Favreau’s Chef.

Raja Krishna Menon: I think when you watch the film, it is largely a different film, but the basic elements which are there are taken from the original film.

So Roshan Kalra, that is Saif’s character is a chef, he has a meltdown, unlike the original chef here is a guy who has lost his passion for food, in the original film there is a guy who is fighting for his passion, for the passion for food and the circumstances are not allowing him to do that. So there is a food truck, there are similar basic characters. There is a boy, ex-wife but the character of the ex-wife is far more important in our film. The journey is completely different, here he is going back to his roots, traversing the journey of how he became a chef which is not part of the original film. It is different but we have taken key elements from the original.

Q. After Airlift, one would have thought that  Akshay Kumar would’ve been the first choice to play Chef, also given his background as a chef in Bangkok and all that. How did Saif Ali Khan come into the picture?

Raja Krishna Menon: Vikram Malhotra came and asked me - hey, who do you think can play Carl in this movie, my gut said Saif and it was the same with Vikram.

The reason being, Saif has a very approachable kind of stardom. He is a star and he has the stature of the star and he is a Nawab and all of it, but there is a certain approachability to him which I wanted in the character, a kind of fallibility in the character and not a big star kind of macho presence, which Akshay has.

Saif Ali Khan with Svar Kamble in Chef.

We were looking for that in Airlift, not that Akshay could not have done it but in this we were not looking for that. There is something in the physicality, Roshan Kalra is a man who has lost everything in the beginning of the film and he is trying to find himself and he is not assured at all in the beginning, he has all these demons in his head and he is a father and he is questioning things, so I just felt that there is a approachability in Saif which is kind of useful for this character.

Q. You’ve worked with both Akshay and Saif, who in the 90s were almost like a Amitabh Bachchan - Dharmendera kind of jodi. As a filmmaker what do you think are their strengths and weaknesses?

Raja Krishna Menon: I think Akshay has tremendous discipline in what he does and what I found with him is, in everything he does, he really gives his 100 per cent at that point of time. So, I think what I found with Akshay is that he is so involved with what he is doing, it took us a little time to go through the process of marking down the character and then coming into that character. Getting there was harder than I would have expected.

Both of them are director’s actors and have the respect for the director to listen to whatever I wanted and how I wanted to do it. Saif comes from a very different school of acting, Saif thinks a lot about the character, thinks far about the motivations and what they do and how they do it. He needs to know why he is doing what he is doing. Akshay has far more direct approach to how he deals with the scene and he plays a lot with the body language.

Raja Krishna Menon with Saif Ali Khan and Svar Kamble while shooting for Chef in Kerala.

Akshay and Saif are different, but I have been blessed to work with them, and neither of them have tried to be the star. They have come in and been actors and have given in everything and we already know it showed in Airlift and I hope it shows in Chef too.

Raja Krishna Menon with Akshay Kumar on the sets of Airlift.

Q. Where you surprised when Akshay Kumar got the National Award for Rustom and not Airlift, which almost came as an afterthought?

Raja Krishna Menon: I have not seen Rustom, so I do not know how Akshay has performed in Rustom, but I know how he performed in Airlift is outstanding. I don’t know why the panel decided that.

There was a lot of confusion, somebody called me and said it was Airlift then somebody said it was for both Airlift and Rustom but at the end of the day, he did a lot of work for Airlift, he deserves an award.

I am not the one who sees awards as significant at all. I am extremely happy Akshay got an award for whatever it is he got it. But yes, I was a little surprised.

Q. From the trailer of Chef, I could make out that a good part of your film is shot in Kerala, so was that an attempt to go back to your own roots and explore where you come from? I know you are a Malayali from Bangalore, but how much of getting back to the Keralite in you happened during the making of Chef?

Raja Krishna Menon: I think I have always been super enamoured with Kerala, and as I grow up I feel more and more the vibe of it being such a wonderful place in terms of growing up, in terms of student politics, whether it is the food or it is about the mundu. Today Kerala I think is one of the few places left in the country, where everyone is wearing the mundu even in the city. I mean they do wear jeans too, but you are not seen as an odd person if you walk around in your traditional outfit. Also, the food is so incredibly different.

So when we started writing the film, Suresh, again being from Kerala, and Ritesh, who we’ve tagged as a honorary Mallu now, all three of us wanted to take the film to a place which is novel and unique for a Hindi movie audience and you know when we put two and two together, the food and the place and Kerala is stunning and it hasn’t been seen in a Hindi film as a character almost, so when we looked at it all the elements kind of fit.

Then we thought let us see how can we bring Kerala into the mainstream cinema as a character and a lot of interesting things which you might know but people do not know, we used to our advantage in the film.

Saif Ali Khan with Svar Kamble in Chef.

Q. You’ve also explored the elements of both south and north Indian food, from what I saw in the trailer. We see Saif arriving in Cochin and he’s seen eating egg roast and puttu but he’s also talking about the delicious chole bhature you get in Chandni Chowk. So the diversity of food plays an important role in your film too?

Raja Krishna Menon: Yes, absolutely. Food to me has been used as an emotional glue that holds things together and the diversity of food across the country, because we travelled all over the place, that’s the strongest link to our roots and the importance of it. So in the film, food is the element that is constant and it glues the film together and unlike the original Chef it’s much less about cooking fancy food, it’s more about eating that food and what it does to you emotionally. Food is a major element in the film but not in a way that a food film would have been shot.

Q. Your film is called Chef, food is an important element in it, you’ve shot in Kerala, so I need to ask this. Beef is an integral part of Kerala’s menu, what’s your opinion on the row about banning beef, how do you react to the government wanting to dictate what you should cook and eat?

Raja Krishna Menon: I think it is unfortunate, I think it is important to really allow people to make choices. Also, I believe if someone wants to tell you how to behave, the best way is education, even if it is tobacco or anything else. If you want someone from stop doing something, educate them on that. You can only do it in this way, forcing people to do something won’t work, like prohibition. You cannot tell people not to do something because people will find other ways to do it. If you seriously want people not to do something then I think educate them and if it makes sense then people will stop doing it and if it doesn’t make sense then they won’t.

Saif Ali Khan with Raja Krishna Menon.

Q. Chef also has you on board as a co-producer, does this mean you have a financial stake in the film and the outcome of the film at the box-office will affect you or have you sold it to T-series and are risk free?

Raja Krishna Menon: Well, we all have a stake in the film and I think it’s an important way in which films should be made. Loading films with costs up-front is too dangerous. So, the more and more people are trying to take part in the profits, it is better to hold a stake in the film and that is a belief I have always had. We all are taking a risk with it, so we all have some part in the film’s success or failure.

If the film doesn’t make money, why should one person take the heat of it? So, the reason why we are the co-producers and the line producers is also because I think the way the budget of the film is allocated is largely driven by what the director wants. Every film has a specific budget allocated to it, but how you allocate the money and where it goes into the film should be according to the director’s vision.

So having that kind of control on the film helped me a lot. We’ve made the film in a very decent budget, but we have also been able to spend the money where we thought it will be most valuable. So, I really enjoyed that aspect of it.

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