Maska is the latest entrant in Netflix’s Indian films, a slew of which have been intended at connecting to a particular section of our eclectic population. Last year, the similarly named ‘Rajma Chawal,’ centred around a boy who was stuck between his traditional upbringing and an unconventional career choice. The typically North Indian dish serves as a metaphor, just by name, to how we connect to our roots. In ‘Maska’ (literally meaning butter), the dish (here, a slice of buttered bun bread which is quite a breakfast staple) serves as more literal than metaphorical. Cafe Rustom is an old-timey Irani cafe run by Diana. The legacy (which includes bun maska and many other delectable Parsi dishes) that was created by her late husband’s family is diminishing as her son Rumi shows little attachment to the family business. Instead, he has dreams of becoming an actor. The minimally talented and mostly privileged Rumi deludes himself into believing that to be his dream. When a big producer comes knocking with the possibility of starting off a project with some investment, Rumi considers using his family legacy as a cash cow.
Maska starts off as a good-natured ode to the dying legacy of Parsi and Irani cafes in Mumbai. In the era of lockdown, it is precisely the kind of simple comfort food watch that one would gravitate towards. There are moments sprinkled and splashed over the course of the film which add to the delectable food porn that already exists on Netflix. There are slow-motion shots of the preparations in the kitchen, a lilting musical theme reaching a crescendo as the dishes reach the table, young and old couples are seen jovially enjoying their food together. But beyond that, it’s not like the eponymous dish holds any connection to the overall story.
Bun Maska is supposedly Cafe Rustom’s signature dish, and we do have a rather sweet flashback when Rumi and his father are shown preparing it together. Rumi clearly possesses some skill in the kitchen, as his mother also claims that they were told that his hands possessed certain magic. If the central conflict was that Rumi didn’t want to be a chef or possessed skill in another vocation, we would still empathise with his constant anxiety over what to choose. He has clearly picked ‘acting’ as an afterthought with no real love for it. It is the high of being in the public eye which interests him most. And so, his eventual realisation for what really matters to him comes so late that it loses all impact and intensity.
Director Neeraj Udhwani (who has writing credits like written/directed several episodes of the youth anthologies Gumrah and Yeh Hai Aashiqui on TV) extracts sincere performances from the cast. Manisha Koirala, who plays Diana, gets all the scenes which ground an otherwise meandering film. There are times, of course, when you wish that she was just being herself and not relying so heavily on impersonating the Parsi accent. And it isn’t like her character, which is written to be over-the-top, annoying and overprotective, wouldn’t feel constrictive nerves at some point. Still, Koirala oozes a certain charm and it’s always a pleasure to watch her onscreen. Prit Kamani, who plays Rumi, is also sincere in his role. But it is really the scenes with Javed Jaaferi (playing the deceased Rustom) which pop up as figments of Rumi’s imagination that make for the film’s better moments. He’s clearly having a lot of fun playing with the accent and his one-liners add to the cutesy factor of the film.
Maska doesn’t rely too heavily on a story to propel the conflict further. There are two women in Rumi’s life who are used as expositions of ‘ikigai’ (a concept which brings together your passion, your skill and your place in the world as one essential activity). Rumi’s actor girlfriend Mallika feels cool and new to him because she has confidently broken the shackles of parental and social pressure to make it in the film industry. His friend Persis draws him back to the Cafe, emphasising on the many stories that it has birthed and the human connections that it continues to grow. But at the end, that’s what they both are. Tools to bring about Rumi’s coming-of-age. Neither woman gets an arc for us to witness their stories. Not to mention, Rumi doesn’t treat the women in his life with a lot of respect and yet they are mostly ready to shower him with affection and attention.
It is the fear of delving deeper that takes away from the emotional quotient of Maska. There are preachy moments speaking about respecting your roots and values, but at no point are we given an insight into why Mumbai finds it so easy to use and throw these fragments of its rich history in the first place. The screenplay is ridden with cliches which we have seen in such stories in the past, and it is put forth in a mostly one-tone style. This is a real shame because all the actors in the film have done a competent job individually.
The silver lining for Maska is its timing. As we’re holed up at home, we need more cutesy and feel-good stories than the usual dark and depressing gamut of choices. At the end of the day, even with just a few scenes here and there, the film still evokes some nostalgia for the beauty and simplicity of the cafe life of South Bombay. It is the kind of ambient character that we connect to. Even if it doesn’t come out in the story, these characters are still reminiscent of people we’ve met, and remember with warmth. If the film’s core concept was more engaging, it would have pushed Maska into a completely delectable territory.
Music and Other Departments - As is expected in a film focused around food, a lot of its cinematography and background score is catered to bring out that sort of slow pacing to the film. But since the film's screenplay isn’t too tightly written, it makes the film look imbalanced and slower. The parts that you are most likely to enjoy are the shots of people eating, and close-up shots of some genuinely mouth-watering dishes.
Did I Enjoy It?
Kind of. The film doesn’t seem like a waste of time if you have nothing else to do. It is cute but forgettable.
Do I Recommend It?
Depends. You might enjoy it in parts. But it won’t quite come together as a wholesome meal.
Rating: 2/5 Stars