A scene from Chilli Chicken
A scene from Chilli ChickenYouTube

Chilli Chicken review: A tender, engaging observation of migrant life in urban India

Prateek Prajosh’s debut film, despite the few narrative inconsistencies, tackles poignant subjects like racism and casual discrimination with finesse and compassion, ably supported by Shrunga BV’s solid central performance.
Chilli Chicken (Kannada)(3.5 / 5)

Home becomes the operative word in Chilli Chicken, the new Kannada film co-written and directed by Prateek Prajosh. Adarsh (Shrunga BV), the protagonist, runs a modest, slightly dicey Indo-Chinese eatery called Noodle Home in Bengaluru. His employees, a motley yet endearing crew consisting of migrants from Manipur and Tibet, wish to make the same megapolis their new home. But in both Adarsh and the employees, there’s a sense of void within that pushes them to keep dreaming of a better life.

If Adarsh wants an upgrade in life by wanting to turn his Noodle Home into a Noodle Palace, a snazzier restaurant for a richer clientele, his staff – head chef Khaba (Bijou Thaangjam), manager Ajoy (Victor Thoudam) and waiters Jimpa (Jimpa Sangpo Bhutia) and Jason (Tomthin Thokchom) – seek that upgrade in the form of respect and acceptance. Both parties struggle in their own ways as they climb up and down the social hierarchy ladder, feeling disparaged at every step they try to take towards progress.

Prateek Prajosh, who has written the film with KAS, imbues it with several subtleties. The title, in itself, indicates not just the main item on the Noodle Home menu but also serves as a reference to the age-old racial slur that North-East India has endured. Food was always meant to be an important part of the film but what’s interesting is how Prateek and co. make it the fulcrum of the story at one point, deftly drawing attention to the topic of dignity and integration in society.

A delicacy like chilli chicken, the film says, is widely believed to be a staple of the North-East diet but what if someone were to burst that myth? What if Khaba, the chef, were to tell you that no one in the  entire region, let alone Manipur, eats this dish because their culinary palate is far more nuanced, wide-ranging, and also grossly misunderstood? One of the best scenes in the film drives home this message without spelling it out for us as a key character, a Kannadiga, realises that he or she is not even able to pronounce most of the north-eastern dish names in a restaurant. If you really want to embrace a culture, you might learn about and appreciate their food first, adds Chilli Chicken.

But the film also feels weighed down at times by the very sophisticated idea it wants to communicate. The promotional material of Chilli Chicken strongly suggested that this is a story rallying against racism and discrimination that North-East India has suffered in its own country, especially while operating as a workforce in big cities. As much as the film tackles the heavy subject with flair, the makers’ decision to tread a safe and more ‘politically correct’ path derails the narrative at times. For instance, while it opts to explore the culture, idiosyncrasies, etc., the film refrains from discussing the regional conflict in Manipur even in passing.

And yet, it is rather enterprising to see how the director makes his point. His choice to make all the characters, including the Noodle Home employees, speak Kannada proves that this is a film that wants to make its case without angst or resentment. Instead, it wants to extend an olive branch and have a peaceful discourse, urging everyone to participate and reflect.

Chilli Chicken is intentionally a tale of two halves in that the first part of the story introduces us to its world and leisurely lets us warm up to the characters. Personal lives and motivations – such as Adarsh’s problematic love life and the social media shenanigans of the boys – become crucial to the story. Ajoy’s relationship with Anu (Harini Sundararajan) underlines the excruciating trouble that migrants, unmarried couples, and minorities face in a city like Bengaluru to even find a home for rent.

Scenes involving nosy neighbours accusing Khaba, Ajoy and others (using slurs such as Chinese, chinky-pinky, and whatnot) of bringing disrepute to the neighbourhood for no fault of theirs are particularly stirring as they show the casual racism that lurks openly amid all of us. It helps that each actor rises to the occasion to evoke empathy in us, with Shrunga’s central performance setting the bar high.

Things though remain mostly light and comforting until a night of drunken revelry, as it always does, nudges the story in a new direction. Chilli Chicken is said to be inspired by a real-life incident that took place in Bengaluru’s Frazer Town in 2014. The inclusion of the incident in the narrative is stealthy, but it ends up causing a sudden shift in tone, which only has a middling effect. On the one hand, the film comes into its own and becomes incredibly layered and mature. On the other, it ends up taking on too many small narrative threads that only complicate the viewer’s grasp.

Adarsh’s characterisation feels a tad sloppy and the film never really digs deep into the man’s psyche. As someone clearly advantaged in the scheme of things, the burden of his actions doesn’t seem to daunt him as much as it should and it eventually comes down to a monologue in the end to sort things out. Similarly, the film valiantly tries to convey that when things go wrong in a social tussle, those on the lower rungs are left to fight amongst themselves whereas the more privileged get away with minimal damage. The intent behind this thought comes through effectively, but only in short spurts. The women characters, especially Anu, then become the voice of reason but get no arcs of their own.

But all said and done, Chilli Chicken is one of those rare Kannada films that makes its point without any bombast. It treats every character with tremendous care and compassion and never paints them in a particular shade. It’s technically robust too, with Siddharth Sundar’s eclectic, immersive soundtrack and Shrish Tomar’s cinematography which is moody yet vibrant in capturing all the crummy spaces of Bengaluru. Also, watch out specifically for senior actor Padmaja Rao’s rollicking act as the mean but certainly not green loanshark Kasi.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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