After a few missteps Netflix is inching towards getting its act together as far as original movie content for India goes. The latest, Maska, gets some things right, even though the story had more potential than first-time director Neeraj Udhwani is able to grasp.
The Irani café and the ‘Baug’ (Parsi housing colony) are typically Mumbai institutions, and very few outside the city would get the peculiarities that the Parsi community is known for, but a plot about the old clinging to tradition and the new straining at the leash could apply to any family.
Still, setting Maska (Butter) in an antiques-strewn Parsi home and an ancient cafe lend the film its own charm that even the predictability and staid narration cannot repress.
Diana Irani (Manisha Koirala) had to take over Café Rustom that belonged to her husband’s (Jaaved Jaaferi) family since 1920, but she is waiting for her son Rumi (Prit Kamani) to grow up and look after his “legacy.” Rumi, who wins a Baug personality contest, gets it into his head to become an actor, after overhearing someone say that he could get into Bollywood like Boman Irani (now the most well-known Parsi star, who makes a guest appearance in this film).
Against his mother’s wishes, he joins an acting course, and starts his struggle making the rounds of auditions. He also gives his mother grief by shacking up with a Ludhiana girl, Mallika Chopra (Nikita Dutta), who left her parents and dumped her husband to “follow my dream” of stardom. Why she is attracted to a milquetoast like Rumi is not clear, but she convinces him to snap the apron strings of his overbearing mother, who still treats him like a five-year-old. Diana cannot bear that not only is her darling “dikra” (son) dating a “parjaat” (outside the community) woman, but she is also a divorcee.
Rumi’s confidant is the ghost of his father, who pops in occasionally with wisecracks—the son is gifted a beloved object belonging to Rustom on every birthday by his mother, which he resents. But “Mumma” in her floral dresses and garas (embroidered saris), and tendency to slip into profanity, lives in a different universe.
Meanwhile, sweet Parsi girl Persis Mistry (Shirley Setia) is working on a blog and coffee table book on Mumbai’s Irani Cafes. A bit of the history and also the inevitable decline of the Irani café could have been delved into, but the film gets into cute mode—like an old couple who started dating at Cafe Rustom and he wants to have the famous bun-maska on his deathbed.
Rumi’s disastrous auditions provide a dash of humour, and he is daft enough to fall for an obviously shady producer, who promises to cast him and Mallika in the lead if he arranges the finance. Rumi decides to sell the café, but to accomplish this, he has to come home, butter up Diana and forge his mother’s signature on the property papers, if need be. However, he does have “magic fingers” and when he works in the kitchen, he whips up Parsi delicacies, which make the café popular again.
In the real world, the producer would run off with Rumi’s money, Mallika would have to endure the casting couch, and the café would turn into one of these generic chain coffee shops. But the film is a kind of fairytale, in which, thanks to Persis, Rumi discovers his “Ikigai.”
The film needed a lot more of those shots of food being prepared, genuine nostalgia for a world gone by, and a protagonist who is slightly less vapid than Rumi.
The casting of an age appropriate Manisha Koirala works as an audience magnet, but, perhaps, a Parsi actress would have understood the distinctive characteristics, and not let the accent come and go– the best thing that could be said about her performance is that it is not caricaturish. Jaaved Jaaferi, a Mumbai resident and superb mimic, brings even a dead Rustom to life. The English subtitles don’t quite do justice to the saltiness of some of the terms Diana and Rustom use—better to watch without.