Ustad Hotel is the story of Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan), affectionately known as “Faizi”, and his desire to become a chef despite the objections of his father Abdul Razaq (Siddique), who wants him to become the manager of a five-star hotel.
The film opens with a narration by Ummar (Mamukkoya), describing the circumstances surrounding Faizi’s birth: Abdul Razaq (Siddique) and his wife, Fareeda (Praveena), a Muslim couple living in Kerala, are expecting their first child. Abdul desperately wants a son; Fareeda gives birth to a girl. As Fareeda continues to give birth to girls, Abdul grows despondent and irritated, and migrates to Dubai to earn for his growing family. He is missing when Fareeda finally gives birth to their fifth child, a son. The family’s joy at the birth of Faizi is short-lived, however, when, as a result of the strains of continuous childbirth, Fareeda suddenly passes away. Abdul takes his five children to Dubai, where Faizi is raised by his “Ithatas and Company” (“Sisters and Company”).
Food and cooking is important in Faizi’s life right from the very beginning. In order to calm him down when he’s crying at his mother’s funeral, his grandfather, Kareem Ikka (Thilakan, in one of his final film roles) warms some milk laced with sugar and spices: his first taste of sweet according to Ummar’s narration.
Faizi’s sisters, we are told, raise him in place of their mother – sharing first their toys, and then teaching Faizi to cook along with them, much to Abdul’s dismay. The sisters prepare the dishes they learned from their mother, passing them on to Faizi, too. Abdul’s admonishments to Faizi to get out of the kitchen and go study don’t stop him, and as an adult he’s shown cooking alongside his older sisters.
Eventually, each of Faizi’s sisters is married off until, finally, Faizi is left alone in the Dubai flat. Faizi’s unhappiness deepens when Abdul decides, suddenly, to remarry, springing a new “mother” on him.
With his son obviously lonely and at loose ends, Abdul brings home some pamphlets for schools, encouraging Faizi to pick one to go earn an MBA – Abdul wants to bring Faizi into his business. At first, Faizi seems discouraged, but one of the schools catches his eye: a Hotel Management Institute in Switzerland. Faizi convinces his father that this would be better than just having an ordinary MBA. Abdul sees the merit of the plan, and is excited at the prospect of opening a five-star hotel with his son. Even more importantly for Abdul, he sees it as a way to silence his detractors, those, he says, who called him “the son of a cook”. With his plan in place, Faizi heads off to Switzerland. What he *doesn’t* tell his father, however, is that the same Hotel Management Institute also offers a programme allowing him to become a chef, and that’s what Faizi switches to.
When his schooling is finished, Faizi’s sisters realize the crisis about to hit, when Faizi tells them he’s moving in with his English girlfriend and taking a job as a sous-chef in London. Worse, still, Faizi wants his sisters to tell their father about his plans, and that he won’t be returning to Dubai to enter the hotel business. The four sisters decide that if they are all to escape their father’s wrath, they need to come up with a plan.
When Faizi arrives in their ancestral home in Kerala, he’s met at the airport by his father and a group of people he doesn’t know – the family driver, Abdullah, tells Faizi that there has been a marriage proposal, and passes him his phone – his sisters want to talk to him. This, it turns out, is part of the sisters’ plans, to arrange Faizi’s marriage to someone Abdul will approve of, before they deal with the fact that Faizi has become a chef.
On arrival at the prospective bride’s house, he meets Shahana (Nithya Menen) and her family, who suggest that the couple should be allowed to chat. Shahana brings a cup of tea to a courtyard table set just outside the kitchen, where they are watched by the women of the household.
Shahana is a sharp cookie – she wonders why Faizi, handsome and educated abroad, would agree to an arranged marriage, musing that, surely, he must have a European girlfriend (an observation that causes Faizi to do a spit take with the tea). She also tells him that if it were up to her, she wouldn’t be getting married at all, but her orthodox family insists on arranging her marriage. The best she can hope for, she thinks, is someone whose values match her own, so their marriage would at least be an equal partnership, and her views would be respected. Faizi’s sisters have assured her that Faizi would be a good match for her – as we’ll see later, it turns out they are right. Shahana studied interior design, and intends to work in that field even after marriage, telling Faizi she wants to do the design work on his five-star hotel. When Faizi comments that he can’t see that happening, she assumes he would have a problem with her working, and that’s when he drops the news: he was trained as a chef in Switzerland, and has landed a job as a sous chef at a swishy restaurant in London.
Shahana excuses herself, leaving Faizi sitting in the courtyard, and goes to tell her family this news – they are in an uproar, saying that they wanted a groom for her, not a cook. The family immediately decides that Faizi’s family is not a good match for her – he comes from a different status, a family of cooks. Abdul, learning the news for the first time at this gathering, rushes off, furious with his son.
Abdul doesn’t see the difference between what Faizi has trained as – a chef – and what he’s always felt tainted with – being the son of a mere cook. He refuses to listen to Faizi, telling him there is no way he will ever allow him to work as a chef. Faizi will have to toe the line: work at the five star hotel his father has planned, and marry the bride that’s been selected for him. A furious Abdul takes Faizi’s passport and credit cards away from him so that he will be unable to return to London. He gives Faizi until the next morning to change his mind about becoming a “cook like his grandfather”, otherwise, Abdul will kick him out of the house.
Faizi, desperate, decides to pack his things and leave – he searches for his passport, but is unable to find it. Without the passport, he has limited options, and Abdullah, after wondering if he’s thought things through, drives him to his grandfather, Kareem Ikka (Thilakan). Faizi tells his grandfather he’ll only be there a few days – until his sisters can arrange to get his passport back for him. Kareem Ikka wonders if they’ll be able to do that, and suggests, wryly, that having his sisters do this for him makes Faizi into a coward: running away, in essence, from the very things he needs to face.
Kareem Ikka runs the Ustad Hotel – in their ancestral home in Kozhikode, Kerala, on the beach, just up the ways from the five star Beach Bay hotel. He also comments, wryly, that Faizi has learned to cook from books, and perhaps, in his time with his grandfather, he’ll actually learn to “experience some taste”.
Indeed, Faizi’s apprenticeship with his grandfather proves to be the thing that changes his life and his view on cooking in substantial and deeply spiritual ways. The one thing the film does beautifully is celebrate food, especially the kind of food prepared by the Kareem Ikka’s of Kerala: we’re shown lovingly rendered shots of Kareem Ikka preparing the biryani for which he is famous, and which draws customers to his beachfront eatery, Ustad Hotel (“hotel” is a word used in the south of India to indicate a restaurant, and “Ustad” is Kareem Ikka’s name), adding spices to his cauldron almost as a form of worship, lovingly accented by the Sufi-infused film score.
His days at the Ustad Hotel begin when Ummar brings Faizi tea to wake him up in the morning, and are spent delivering biryani throughout Kozhikode, tasting food from carts, occasionally running into, and running away from, Shahana, cleaning fish for fish-fry and, occasionally, attempting to cook, though his grandfather soon shoos him out, telling his kitchen staff that Faizi is too immature to be in the kitchen cooking, an irony for the European-educated chef. What Kareem Ikka understands, and Faizi does not (yet) is that there is more to food and cooking than can be learned from a book or taught at a culinary institute: there are social and emotional layers to our relationship with food that Faizi has yet to experience. Important too is the understanding that, like the layers in a biryani, there are layers to the business. Yes, the cooking is important, but so are all the other things that go into the Ustad Hotel, and Kareem Ikka, essentially, has Faizi learning the business from the bottom up: getting supplies, making deliveries, waiting on tables, cleaning tables, going over receipts.
Easily the best thing about the film Ustad Hotel (apart from all the mouth-watering food) is the relationship that develops between Faizi and his grandfather: there is a warm complicity between the actors Dulquer Salmaan and Thilakan (one of Malayalam cinema’s finest actors, who died not long after the film’s release) that anchors the whole film. Kareem Ikka eventually allows Faizi into the kitchen (though his skills as a professionally trained chef leave something to be desired when it comes to traditional Kerala cookery of the sort served at the Ustad Hotel), but reminds him that “anyone can fill someone’s tummy”. What’s more important, to Kareem Ikka, is that the key to food and cooking is filling people’s hearts with joy at the same time. This, he tells his grandson, is the true purpose of cooking.
Faizi sees Ustad Hotel as a kind of refuge, where no one forces him to do anything – unlike his father, who is trying to force him into managing a five-star hotel. The parallels that writer Anjali Menon draws are subtle and skillful: Abdul tells Faizi he feels stifled even entering his father’s restaurant; Faizi notes that it’s exactly how he feels with his father, too. Abdul tells Faizi that nothing in the world can be achieved with philosophy, but it’s Kareem Ikka’s philosophy about cookery and food that underpins everything he does.
As Faizi’s European prospects dwindle, his grandfather offers up another surprise: he wonders if Faizi wouldn’t perhaps like to work at Beach Bay, the five-star hotel just up the coast from Ustad Hotel. He tells Faizi his father was right about one thing: to learn, he has to get out of Ustad Hotel. Kareem Ikka, it turns out, knows the executive chef at the upscale establishment: in fact, it’s the Ustad that provides the biryani on the menu (the special “Malabar Beach Biryani”) at the fancy hotel restaurant. And a short, handwritten note from Kareem Ikka (“This is my grandson, give him a job he would like.”) is, in fact, quite enough to land Faizi a job.
One of the film’s finest moments is a conversation between grandfather and grandson after they visit the bank to discuss the issue of Kareem Ikka’s loan repayment. As they talk, Kareem Ikka brews a pot of Sulaimani chai, and after he takes a sip of it, Faizi suggests there’s a difference in the ingredients to how it’s usually brewed. His grandfather tells him that what’s more important than the ingredients is the feeling that’s put into their preparation. Every glass of Sulaimani, he tells Faizi, should have a bit of love in it.
Sipping the tea, Faizi has a flashback to Shahana, on an evening when he ran into her performing with the band that hangs out at Ustad Hotel, which has him wondering about his grandfather and love, and he asks him to tell him the story of it.
Kareem Ikka reveals that when he was 18 years old, and had just joined his master, he went to cook biryani for Mawlawi’s daughter’s wedding. He looked up from stirring the vessel, and saw, in his words, a nymph near the window, like a caged bird. “I felt a shiver in my heart,” he tells Faizi, “as if everything that has happened in my life seemed to have converged to that point.”
The young woman in the window, it turned out, was Mawlawi’s daughter – Faizi laughs, and assumes, as he tells his grandfather, that the wedding took place, they ate his biryani, and that was that.
As the two get ready for bed, Faizi suggests that, perhaps, his grandfather still misses the nymph, which is when his grandfather drops his bombshell: the nymph in question was his grandmother.
Faizi discovers by accident that the bank that holds his grandfather’s loans is in cahoots with the hotel in order to get the land owned by Kareem Ikka, in order to allow the expansion plans of the hotel along the beach to proceed. Kareem Ikka vows that he will have to repay the loan somehow to stop being forced to sell his property.
Next thing we know, officers from the Food and Drug Administration show up at the Ustad Hotel for an inspection, saying they’d received a complaint about the hygiene of the restaurant. Upon finding Faizi’s kitten dead in the kitchen, they close it down for seven days, telling Kareem Ikka he can reopen after another inspection. In the aftermath, Kareem Ikka decides to close the Ustad Hotel, but Faizi insists that they should fight back, and Ummar tells him that the employees are with Faizi, who wants to fix up the hotel and reopen it.
In the meantime, Shahana has broken off the engagement (with an odious man named Mehroof) her family arranged for her after the one with Faizi fell apart, and she comes to see Faizi at the Ustad Hotel, to admit that, perhaps, she, too, made a mistake when it came to breaking off their alliance.
Faizi and Shahana plan the Ustad Hotel renovations, and the staff at the hotel offers up what money they can. Shahana throws in the gold jewelry that Mehroof’s family gifted her at her bride-seeing, and they all set to work to clean and paint and restore the Ustad Hotel. They do so brilliantly, and during the coverage of the reopening, the press uncovers the secret that the Beach Bay restaurant biryani is actually made at the Ustad Hotel. Ustad Hotel reopens to great success, and Kareem Ikka can finally pay back the bank loan.
In the midst of all of this, Faizi receives a job offer to go work in France as an executive chef, but his joy is short lived when Kareem Ikka suffers a mild heart attack. Faizi worries that his grandfather might use it as an opportunity to ask him to stay at the Ustad Hotel. Instead, Kareem Ikka asks his grandson only to do a favour for him before he leaves – he wants Faizi to take some money to a friend of his in Madurai in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.
In Madurai, Faizi meets his grandfather’s friend Narayanan Krishnan (Jayaprakash), chef turned social worker, who spends his time cooking for the homeless and the disabled, and surely his story is one that Kareem Ikka must hope that will cause Faizi to think about the choices he’s making. Kareem Ikka has sent a letter to his friend, telling him that he’s taught his grandson *how* to cook, but needs Narayanan Krishnan to teach him they “whys and wherefores” of cooking. Narayanan Krishnan asks Faizi to come with him and his crew, and Faizi watches as they feed people out on the street.
Narayanan Krishnan reveals that he was a chef at an upscale hotel for 12 years, when he came upon an old man who changed his life. One day, sitting in his car on his way to the Taj, he spied the old man at the side of the road, so hungry that he was eating his own excrement. It was a moment that caused Narayanan Krishnan to question the purpose of his life, and he walked away from his posh job and dedicated his life to providing sustenance for those who had nothing.
On his last morning with Narayanan Krishnan, Faizi is asked to cook for the youngsters at a school for the disabled – when he wonders what he should cook, Narayanan Krishnan tells him, biryani, of course: Kareem Ikka’s biryani.
After everything is done, a tired Faizi sits with his head in his hands, and the children line up to sign something on his arm – when he wonders what they are all doing, one of the teachers tells him they are signing “thanks”. On the bus back to Kozhikode, Faizi remembers his grandfather’s words: anyone can fill a tummy, but the true purpose of cooking is filling hearts with joy. It’s the moment that finally changes the path of Faizi’s life forever. Arriving back at the Ustad Hotel, he finds it closed: his grandfather has finally left on his pilgrimage.
A despondent Faizi remembers all the moments he spent with his grandfather: being scolded, sharing a cup of Sulaimani tea – and as he sits facing the sea thinking, his father approaches, bringing with him Faizi’s passport. Faizi gives the passport back to his father, and the camera fades to Ummar, continuing the narration of the 60 year history of Ustad Hotel that he began the film with: we see that he’s been telling this story to a reporter and cameraman.
It also turns out that not only has Faizi reconciled with his father, Abdul has also reconciled with Ustad Hotel, telling the reporter how he used to serve biryani there, and how now he’s established a branch of the restaurant in Dubai – run by Faizi’s sisters, of course.
The reporter then goes to talk to Faizi, now running the Ustad Hotel, with Shahana by his side. “Is this the famous Sulaimani story?” the reporter wonders, elaborating for viewers: the biryani at Ustad Hotel, it’s not just about the taste. It’s also about the love that’s served along with it: the lesson, of course, that Kareem Ikka was trying to impress on his grandson from the very beginning.
Tomorrow: a little bit more about Sulaimani chai.