Cheeni Kum (Less Sugar) Review
Buddhadev “Buddha” Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) is an arrogant and sarcastic London chef in charge of his own Indian restaurant, ‘Spice6’. Still single at 64 and living with his equally acerbic mother (Zohra Sehgal) at home, Buddha’s life takes a turn for the better when he meets adroit 34-year-old Nina (Tabu), a customer at his restaurant. Dealing his ego a blow, Nina impresses Buddha after correctly pointing out that his beloved Hyderabadi Zafrani Pulav dish has been laden with sugar instead of salt. After several more encounters and further battles of wits, the two discover each other to be compatible and decide to get married. One further obstacle remains however in the form of Nina’s father (Paresh Rawal) back in India – who, at 58, is more than a little concerned by his prospective son-in-law’s age.
This witty, off-beat Bollywood comedy marks another departure from the industry’s more familiar song and dance-filled melodramas. Not in the least bit a musical (aside from several brief soundtrack-only interludes), Cheeni Kum (‘Less Sugar’) is very much an example of Hindi cinema’s more eclectic commercial side that has come to the fore in recent years, alongside other such successes as 2005’s haunting drama Black and, most recently, the sports adventure Chak De India. In these and in this film, you’ll find more modern and varied themes explored in perhaps a more palatable manner to Western tastes, though still staying true to Indian theatrical traditions of louder performances, broader comedy and heightened realities. Cheeni Kum is a worthy addition to this ‘multiplex’ sub-genre of Bollywood, offering a smart take on age gap romance in a distinctly (as the film’s title and promotional material helpfully point out) sugar-free style, with even the literal absence of saccharin also inventively woven into various plot points.
Still, despite an abundance of razor-sharp dialogue and humour that’s drier than the Sahara, there’s no shortage of warmth to be found due to Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu’s charming turns as Buddha and Nina. For a couple of characters who say virtually nothing complimentary to each other for the picture’s whole duration, it speaks volumes that their already tenuous friendship comes across as completely believable thanks to the actors’ sincere performances. The script’s determination that not even a hint of shmaltz find its way into the story though means that interesting questions do arise as to the kind of relationship Buddha and Nina develop. Is it love, kindred spiritness or simply loneliness that has bound them together? Since the narrative affords little time for affection and sentiment between the two, this is never made entirely clear. Perhaps the hope is that the viewer simply accepts the couple are in love or maybe we are meant to draw our own conclusions. Either way, this puzzle thankfully rarely deters from the fun of it all – their quirky affair is often a hoot to watch, culminating in a hilarious spoof that sees Nina’s Gandhi-worshipping dad attempt to starve himself in protest of her marriage to Buddha in a clever nod to the Mahatma’s legendary fasts.
A slight hindrance to the mirth comes in the form if the movie’s subplot, which, in comparison to its main theme, is so hackneyed that it seems to belong in a different film. Buddha’s London neighbour in his house next door is a little girl (Swini Khara) suffering from leukaemia nicknamed ‘Sexy’ – a moniker given to ease her depression over her disease. Wise beyond her years and more than a match for Buddha’s cynical personality, she strikes up a rapport with the old man, offering him advice along the way. The fate of Sexy becomes obvious within minutes of her introduction and her various segments throughout only barely connect with the story – the predictability of this tacked-on track means any ‘emotional’ resonance her presence was meant to add to the proceedings sadly doesn’t much. Luckily though, Sexy does provide a few of the film’s best lines and darkly comic moments – in particular, her never-ending quest to see a decent 18-rated DVD before she dies. And thanks to an outstanding performance from pint-sized child actress Swini Khara (who could give Jack Dee lessons in deadpan), Sexy’s screen time winds up not being a total waste.
While it isn’t quite as free from the artificial sweeteners as it claims to be, Cheeni Kum nonetheless is peppered with just enough enjoyable ingredients to rise above its flaws and serve up a satisfying alternative to Bollywood’s usual masala menu.
Notorious Bollywood home video providers Eros Entertainment return with yet another thoroughly dissatisfying DVD release. Let’s get the good points across first – it won’t take long: the picture is anamorphically enhanced with a source boasting of zero print damage, no grain and little if any shimmering. And now, the bad news – kettle at the ready: the transfer is a PAL to NTSC conversion (as is the norm with Eros) and is marred by terrible amounts of ghosting, pixellating and blurred detail. Throughout the film’s entire run is a translucent Eros logo burned into the top-left-hand corner of the picture as an anti-piracy measure. Ironic, considering how the disc’s poor quality is more likely to put one off from buying the real thing. Rounding off the image’s cock-ups is its colour rendition, which has been incorrectly graded. Originally the film sported a blue, moody hue thanks to the use of various darkening filters, which someone evidentially forgot to apply here as the picture is consistently bright – even during scenes that are meant to be taking place at night!
Sound-wise, the 5.1 Dolby Digital track on offer is equally as unpleasant. Leaving aside the unnecessary pitch-correction, what’s most distracting here is the mix itself, which has been badly botched. For the first half of the movie, the left surround channel’s sound is missing and instead has been replaced with a copy of the center channel audio. This is corrected during the second half, but all channels are also suffering from low, muffled volume except the center audio… which is booming. This surely is one shambles of a DVD.
Optional English subtitles are provided and even these bear much room for improvement. The sharp Hindi dialogue has unfortunately been only adequately transferred into English with several of the more acute jokes falling flat entirely in the translation. Some more thought and imagination was definitely called for here, not to mention a spell-checker – numerous lines which were even originally in English have been either misspelled or misheard by the subtitler.
A twelve-minute promotional clip of interviews with Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu is all that makes up the disc’s extras. This piece is entirely in Hindi with no subtitles present. It’s a real shame fine films such as Cheeni Kum that give a great indication of how fresh and diverse Bollywood movies have become in recent years are being wasted on such amateurish DVD releases as this. While Indian cinema is currently progressing at a rapid rate, Indian DVD labels remain as draconian as ever.
NOTE: Fans of Cheeni Kum wishing to own a superior version of the movie on DVD may wish to seek out the release available in India, also by Eros Entertainment. While standards conversion problems and audio anomalies still plague the disc, the image is at least free from the blurring and pixellating effects this time around and has also been correctly colour-graded. The DVD can be imported from MusicYogi.com.