Director: Ani IV Sasi
Cast: Ashok Selvan, Ritu Varma, Nithya Menen, Nassar
Theeni takes place at a Michelin Star restaurant in London called ‘Amara’ where three lost souls come together. Dev (Ashok Selvan) has just moved to London to work as a chef, Tara (a superb Ritu Varma) is also a new employee at ‘Amara’ who’s come to London looking for her lost father, and Head Chef (Nassar), a once legendary chef who’s now given up cooking so he can mourn his estranged family. Theeni is about how the three of them help each other find the love they’re missing—through food.
Dev and Tara idolize Head Chef. Food helps the both of them experience sorrow and joy, like it might be with music or books for others. And they’re both emotionally broken. Theeni is a bittersweet drama that’s surprisingly reluctant to give in to easy emotions. What makes it feel good in spite of this is that the background to everything in the film is the child-like passion its characters have for food.
Everyone in the film lives to eat. A good meal might replace a visit to the therapist for them; food is spiritual. And the restaurant is their natural habitat: we’re looking at regular people having problems, but while doing what they really love doing. So, even when these characters are going through dark things, the aftertaste of these events is always sweet and hopeful. And it’s these characters that transform Theeni from a regular drama into a delicate portrait of troubled and passionate people.
Dev is a bit like a bearded Winnie the Pooh: rotund and always hungry. Ashok Selvan plays him just self-consciously enough to make him awkward and likeable but also just unselfconsciously enough to make him endearing. He gets these sudden muscle spasms (due to a traumatic event in the past). It’s introduced to us gradually until it feels like an endearing quirk that we even look forward to. The way he says that his spasms “were launched before a few years,” or the good-humoured attitude he has to his embarrassing condition make us identify with Dev—because of all of his quirks. He looks human because we can see his demons. When he bangs his head on the table — perhaps, both due to his joy and spasms — we can see how the tic that looked so odd at first doesn’t feel out of place at all.
If it’s his body that shows us what’s on Dev’s mind, it’s her eyes for Tara. They are always fixed when she speaks to Dev, as if any movement could betray what’s on her mind. Only food can break her. When she tastes something prepared by the Head Chef, her eyes open wide and a tear drops. Dev prepares the same meal and the litmus test isn’t the tongue, but, again, the eye. The intense recognition that Tara feels is shown through a close up of her eye dropping a tear. With Tara, her eye is the window to her gut. Through several touches like these, Director Ani IV Sasi stylizes a generic drama into a specific one about foodies who are all looking for love through food.
There’s no meet-cute between Dev and Tara, because this isn’t a conventional romantic comedy. In fact, nothing is cute in the film, especially Head Chef who’s its most opaque character. No one even takes his name, as if ‘Head Chef’ is his only identity—and it is.
He’s the kind of person who’s so bored when waiting for his instant noodles to cook that he puts a gun to his head and contemplates death. We get his broken life story through a quick and efficient flashback but Dev’s flashback with Maya (Nithya Menen) feels long drawn out with its montages. For a film that’s otherwise understated, these parts feel loud; though it’s inventive to make a character’s inner demon visual in the form of a friendly ghost of a girlfriend past.
The ending of Theeni feels too convenient, but this film was never about plot. It’s the kind of film where you feel more than you process. It’s characters start out as flawed and end up as flawed too—but they also become a bit more hopeful. It’s not the solution to your life that you might have been hoping for, but it’s that dessert you fixed for yourself at 2 AM in the morning that feels close enough.