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31 May 2022

Sharmaji Namkeen (2022)

Directed by: Hitesh Bhatia
Music: Sneha Khanwalkar
Lyrics: Gopal Datt
Starring: Rishi Kapoor, Paresh Rawal,
Juhi Chawla, Satish Kaushik,
Suhail Nayyar, Taaruk Raina,
Isha Talwar, Sheeba Chaddha

It’s been an unexpectedly long hiatus, a maddening three months of pulling in long hours at work with no time for the interesting things in life. Amidst all that, when Shalini pinged me about the release of Sharmaji Namkeen, I decided I really needed a break to refresh myself amidst work, sundry illnesses and other myriad adventures that seem to pepper my life. So we settled down on a Saturday evening to watch what seemed to be a sweet, entertaining film. 

What happens to men and women who are forced to retire at a certain age but are too active to spend their lives sit at home twiddling their thumbs, watching mindless soaps during the day and mingling with others in a similar situation in the park in the evening? What goes on in the minds of these people who are forced to become unpaid  ayahs to their grandchildren and told, in so many words, to sit in a corner and keep quiet? What if the only socially acceptable pursuits for these people are doing yoga (perhaps) or doing all the chores their very busy, upwardly-mobile children do not have the time to do?

That is exactly the problem that besets Brij Mohan Sharma (Rishi Kapoor/Paresh Rawal) when he receives a ‘golden handshake’ at the age of 58. All his attempts to find something to do to alleviate his boredom – like opening a chaat corner, combining his passion for cooking and earning some money while doing so – are shot down by his older son who wonders why his father can’t be like other retirees and just ‘enjoy’ his retirement. It doesn’t seem to occur to the young man that his father ‘enjoys’ cooking and wants to be useful in his own eyes. “Kitna TV dekhoon?”asks Sharmaji despairingly. “Kitna walk karoon?”

However, Sharmaji is not a downtrodden parent nor a very doting one. Asked by his fuming son whether he had once thought about what people would say about his father opening a chaat cart when his son is gainfully employed, Sharmaji snaps, “It’s not all about you!” And indeed, it isn’t.It is about Sharma’s own zest for life, and his ambition to be more than just an old  retiree, wasting away the rest of his life. And in being that, Sharmaji Namkeen becomes a sweet tale of hope, happiness and endurance.

Sharmaji’s passion for cooking finds a new outlet as he becomes a ‘private chef’ for the rich housewives of Delhi. And indeed, food plays a central part in this film, whether Sharmaji is cooking up a storm for a party of 40 or experimenting in the kitchen to feed his sons. Be warned that you will be very, very hungry as you watch the film – from the humble rajma chawal to an exotic pineapple pastry; from piping hot samosas to tangy dahi bhalle; from dimsums to arbi cutlets, almost every other scene features food. Not just as a prop, food is the central conceit of the film and the film shows you how food brings families and communities together.

When Sharmaji is affronted that the satsang he’s asked to cater to is actually a kitty party, it is his friend, Chhaddha (a reliably warm Satish Kaushik) who puts things into perspective. And finally, Sharmaji not only regains his self-worth but is enveloped by the warm, unconditional  friendship of the women he cooks for. The characters are relatable; the situations are familiar, and  the settings are natural.

Interwoven with this tale of a man who’s searching for a purpose to live are several other strands that are treated with a light (but not ‘un’- serious) hand – the older son’s aspiration to be something more, the younger son’s passion for dance (not looked upon favourably by society either), rich women who are even less ‘free’ to make their own choices, real estate cons, inter-family dynamics, dignity of labour, societal views on women, inter-generational differences of opinion… in fact, this last is also treated with sensitivity; even though Baghban is referenced Sharmaji Namkeen does not treat us to  the stereotype of how the younger generation is selfish and hedonistic and has no respect for their elders, while the older generation are saints working their fingers to the bone for their offspring. 

If Rinku (Suhail Nayyar) is self-centred and embarrassed by his father’s bid for independence, his fiancĂ©e, Urmi (played beautifully by the lovely Isha Talwar) is both grounded and respectful. Not only that, but she also admires Sharmaji’s cooking skills and appreciates Vincy’s (Taaruk Raina) passion for dance. But Rinku himself is not a bad person at heart, any more than Sharmaji is a saint.

Co-written by debutant director Hitesh Bhatia and Supratik Sen, Sharmaji Namkeen  starts off with an emotional message from Ranbir Kapoor. The film was not complete when Rishi Kapoor passed away. The makers were faced with the choice of scrapping the film or Ranbir taking over his father’s role, prosthetics and/or VFX. Instead, they chose to go ahead with Paresh Rawal, who agreed to step into a film he must have known would be remembered as Rishi Kapoor’s swansong. Ranbir’s message of gratitude to the senior actor was as gracious [and not maudlin] as the latter’s act of stepping in to save the film. So, you see Rishi Kapoor start a scene and Paresh Rawal finish it. 

This interweaving of two actors in a single character is slightly disconcerting at first (at least, it was, to me) but Sharmaji Namkeen works not only because the transition is seamless, but also because the script is solid – it has both heart and wit. The script writers have a keen eye for Delhi society – whether it is the nouveau riche kitty party hosting women or the middle class society that Sharmaji belongs to. And what is endearing is that the film judges neither. 

It merely observes Delhi society and the characters who people it with an affection for their quirks and with a humorous penchant for highlighting them. As Veena Manchanda (a sparkling Juhi Chawla) remarks, “So what is wrong with enjoying a kitty party?” Juhi’s camaraderie with Rishi, her frequent co-star earlier, is also evident in the comfortable ease with which they slip into their roles. [That ease is quite obviously not there in her scenes with Paresh Rawal.] Like always, I wish Juhi would do more roles. She lights up the screen whenever she appears. Her Veena is both funny and serious, and the actor portrays her beautifully.

Sharmaji Namkeen is backed by strong performances not just from the leads but also from the supporting cast. Parmeet Sethi drops in for a humorous cameo, Sheeba Chhadda is a scream as the woman who originally hires Sharmaji to cook for her. The scene where she, wearing a face mask, first sets eyes upon a suit-and-tie-clad Sharmaji is hilarious! [She thinks he’s from the income tax department.]

Her gaggle of kitty party women are fantastic – their sisterhood is evident in the camaraderie they share, the support they give each other and the way they unburden themselves during their kitty parties. They are also genuinely welcoming of Sharmaji, so much so the women all come together to save their friend. [The scene in the police station is one of my favourites!] “Thanks to you,” they tell Sharmaji, “we saw the inside of a police station.”

Paresh Rawal is as different from Rishi Kapoor in his acting as chalk from cheese and gamely steps in to play the quirky, energetic, sometimes-petulant Sharmaji with elan. And it is thanks to him that we see Sharmaji shine through all the flaws and foibles. It is a great performance and a much-appreciated one. But somehow, he lacks Rishi’s effortless charm. Where he excelled however was in loosely imprinting Sharmaji with his own personality without jarring the audience from the story.

Indeed, the star of the show is Rishi Kapoor. What a performance! What a swansong! According to his son, Rishi never boiled an egg in his life! But watch him as he skilfully preps the vegetables, kneads the dough, cuts and stirs and plates the food – it’s as if he was born a chef. He whips up parathas dripping with ghee, sprinkles ruby-red pomegranate on dahi bhalle just before serving, saves a salty batch of maa ki daal with a ’chef’s secret’, lovingly packs rajma chawal for a niece who loves the dish, carefully packs all his cooking utensils and masalas into a suitcase, and peers from behind the door to see if his clients enjoy his cooking.


Both Shalini and I loved the fact that the film made its points firmly but very gently. Shalini pointed out that even with the opposition he faces at home, Sharmaji is a man and has the privileges that his sex affords that even these wealthy women don't. I agreed. What also interested me was how often do you see a senior protagonist on screen and not as an ill-treated parent? What’s more, there’s a lovely hint of a romance as well, which was really refreshing.  

Sharmaji Namkeen showed us two actors playing the same role - differently. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. And that's truly a testament to the acting prowess of both men. But Sharmaji Namkeen is really a fitting tribute to the actor-star who had entertained us for decades. If you haven’t watched it already, go watch!

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