The title is precariously double-edged. It could suggest a dash of dry drollness. It might equally signal a surfeit of drossy, over-the-top flippancy. Happily, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana errs, if at all, on the side of the former.
Simply put, this film is a little gem. A well-written and neatly crafted comedy woven around the life and times of a dhaba-owning family in a real Punjab hamlet, it is redolent as much of the smells and sounds of the soil as it is of the aroma of the delicious dish referred to in the title.
On one level, the film belongs to the flourishing genre of idiosyncratic slice-of-life narratives and character-driven dramas set in the north Indian heartland of Delhi and its environs (Khosla Ka Ghosla, Dev D., Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Do Dooni Chaar, Rockstar and Vicky Donor).
On another, it harks back fondly to the era of innocence represented by the middle-of-the-road comedies that the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee once made with great distinction and flair.
But that is not to say that Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, directed by first-timer Sameer Sharma, is either old-fashioned or derivative. For one, it is probably the first-ever food-themed Hindi film.
Despite its steadfast avoidance of formulaic plot devices and its deliberate pacing, it holds the attention of the audience, thanks to the tangibility of its gallery of grounded and rounded characters.
It has the rhythm of a slow food feast – it is languid, growing on the senses as it unfolds as gently as a seven-course meal. Barring one or two avoidable false strokes, especially in the climactic moments, the film remains firmly rooted in its simple, uncluttered essence.
What emerges is as wholesome as it is laced with warm-hearted humour. The film won’t have you rolling over in the aisles, but the hint of a smile that it will bring to your lips will linger all the way through the two-hour-plus film, if not beyond.
Hounded by a small-time London gangster called Shanty (Munish Makhija), Omi Khurana (Kunal Kapoor) heads back to his native Lalton Kalan after a decade-long hiatus.
The drifter owes the tough-talking goon 50,000 in British currency (“pounds, not rupees,” he is repeatedly reminded) and he must rustle up the amount to prevent his life from being snuffed out. His estranged family is his last hope.
Ten years is a long time in the history of a clan. Omi finds that much has changed in his village although he is welcomed back with warmth and enthusiasm by his aunt (Seema Kaushal) and cousin Jeet (Rahul Bagga).
The doting grandfather (Vinod Nagpal) that he drugged and robbed to fund his passage to the UK has lost his memory and tongue. His childhood sweetheart Harman (Huma Qureishi) has moved on and become a doctor. And his uncle (Jitendra Sethi) no longer trusts his intentions.
The family has a new member, Titu (Rajesh Sharma), the garrulous mamaji who has been granted refuge in the household after a stint in a mental asylum.
Everybody here hides a secret. Omi poses as an uber-successful lawyer in London. Harman, now all but engaged to Jeet, projects a couldn’t-care-less façade even as Omi continues to pine for her. Jeet, on his part, has reasons not to be overtly enthused by his family’s plans for him.
At the heart of this wryly humorous take on the highs and lows of ordinary life is a secret ingredient that once made the family dhaba’s ‘chicken khurana’ all the rage.
The grandpa, Omi’s Daar-ji, is the only man who knows what made the recipe so special. But he neither remembers nor speaks.
It is left to the prodigal Omi to get his act together for once and, with a bit of help from the girl in his life, reclaim the family’s preeminent position on the region’s food landscape.
The inherently endearing quality of Sumit Batheja’s screenplay is enhanced enormously by the actors, each one of them perfectly cast.
As the village boy on the run from a dream gone sour, Kunal Kapoor hits all the right notes. Huma Qureishi’s delightfully phlegmatic but always assertive Harman is a sheer delight.
Amid an array of other fine performances from Rahul Bagga, Jitendra Sethi and Seema Kaushal, the actor who stands head and shoulders above everybody is Rajesh Sharma.
In the garb of a character akin to the Shakespearean Fool playacting, observing, commenting and hurling jibes at all and sundry, Sharma is outstanding. He adds as much value to the film as the marvellously apt musical score by Amit Trivedi.
Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is just the kind of cinematic repast that those might have lost their appetite for Bollywood comedies could do with.