The most enjoyable part of watching a love story is usually the courtship sequence, when rich dads, jealous third wheels and assorted psychos are not in evidence or in focus. The good ones manage to mix humor and warmth in exactly the right quantity. Done well, the effect can be magical. Done badly, well…
Cheeni Kum has what is arguably one of the most perfectly executed courtship sequences in Hindi cinema. A crusty old chef who believes that he runs the best Indian restaurant in London runs into a thirty-something woman who has the gall to return one of his dishes. He patronizes her and she goes away quietly but gets back at him in style. They start talking and he finds, surprisingly enough, that it is he who has to keep up. If there’s an award category for Best Sarcastic Dialogue, this one would win it hands down in just about any year.
And while all this is happening, remakes of Ilayaraja’s 80s classics play in the background. The title track, for instance, is a remake of Mandram Vandha Thendralukku from Mouna Raagam, a movie that nearly everyone fell in love with when they saw it for the first time.
Amitabh and Tabu are perfectly cast, as is Zohra Sehgal who plays Amitabh’s mom. One of AB’s more underrated strengths is his ability to deliver a sarcastic line perfectly, and this talent is on full display here. Tabu brings charm, maturity and and an ability to deliver this movie’s peculiar brand of dialogue perfectly. I cannot think of anyone else who could’ve played this part. Not to mention how incredibly beautiful she looks when she smiles. And Zohra Sehgal… ah, what a lady! She steals every scene she is in, and her exchanges with AB are delightful.
My favourite scene in the first half is one where Amitabh holds Tabu’s hand. She points to a tree in the distance and asks him to run up to that tree and back. He does so, then asks her why. And she delivers a perfect zinger: “You’ve held my hand now. Just wanted to check if you had enough stamina to go any further.” It might be worth mentioning that he’s 64 and she’s 32.
The other scene I really loved was in the second half, when he’s stormed away after an argument, leaving her in tears. The sort of stuff he says in the heat of the moment would, in most movies, result in a separation until some crisis in the end brings them together. Not in this one. A few hours later, he calms down, gets some chicken and comes back to her place. Their conversation isn’t angry, it’s quiet. She doesn’t rant and rave about what he said, he doesn’t apologize. If anything, he’s sarcastic when she asks him if he went all the way to Nizamabad to get the chicken. He responds that the chicken flew all the way down just so it could get cooked and eaten. It takes a certain level of maturity for the woman to recognize that his statements are not to be taken seriously, even if they hurt when he says them. Rarely do Hindi film heroines display that sort of maturity. Then again, rarely are they 32 years old and played by Tabu.