A new biopic about late celebrity chef Tarla Dalal offers meaningful insight into the important role food plays in family life and what it means to be a truly supportive partner.
Dalal’s story begins when Tarla (Huma Qureshi) is a college student. She wants to make something of herself, but she’s not sure what. Her parents’ insistence that she get married threatens to close the door on her undefined ambitions, but her groom-to-be, Nalin (Sharib Hashmi), promises to support her whenever she finds her passion.
Twelve happily married years and three kids later, Tarla remembers the dreams she once had for herself, though she’s no closer to figuring out how to make her mark on the world. Inspiration finally comes when — in a very funny sequence — pure vegetarian Tarla drops off lunch for Nalin at work, only to spot him in the company canteen gorging on the mutton another coworker brought from home. Horrified, Tarla decides to cook vegetables in the sauces traditionally reserved for meat dishes. Chicken 65 becomes Gobi 65, a cauliflower dish. Nalin is suitably impressed and gives up his secret carnivorous ways.
Word of Tarla’s vegetarian innovations spread throughout her apartment complex, and soon she’s teaching her speedy, tasty recipes to all the young women of marriageable age. Though the girls’ moms see the lessons as a way to boost to their daughters’ marital prospects, Tarla sees it as a means for the girls to secure themselves as much freedom and as many opportunities as they can. All the women understand that many aspects of their lives will require their husband’s permission (it is the early 1970s, after all), and knowing how to cook demonstrates responsibility. As a bonus, making tasty food keeps husbands and in-laws in a good mood. Tarla jokingly calls one of her dishes, “The recipe to let you wear jeans after marriage.”
Besides, even a single girl has to eat, so why not learn how to make delicious food for oneself?
Nalin recognizes his wife’s talent as a chef and a teacher. When his factory shuts down, he uses his free time to type up Tarla’s recipes, turning them into a cookbook that the couple self-publishes. The book eventually takes off, and a culinary star is born.
The movie gets to a point where things almost feel too easy. Tarla and Nalin are both kind people we want to see succeed, but every story needs some uncertainty. This is where things get especially interesting. With Tarla focused on starting a TV show, things begin to fall apart at home, even though Nalin is not working and they employ a maid and a cook. The characters have a realization about the way in which household management and the emotional labor it entails is too often considered woman’s work, even by a husband as otherwise progressive as Nalin.
Tarla explores aspects of gender roles that are nuanced and often ignored in mainstream Hindi films in favor of generic “all mothers are superheroes” pablum (looking at you, Mrs. Undercover). Filmmaker Piyush Gupta trusts his audience to get the message without dumbing it down.
Qureshi and Hashmi do a lovely job portraying two caring people who want one another to be happy while sometimes struggling to define happiness for themselves. Their performances are endearing and convey the qualities that must have drawn audiences to Tarla’s TV show in real life. Gupta’s film about the late celebrity chef is thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable.