Aashiq Abu’s second film, Salt N’ Pepper, was a bit of a sleeper hit in the summer of 2012. It tells the story of Kalidasan (Lal), a middle-aged archeologist and Maya (Shweta Menon), a dubbing artiste in her late thirties. Both are single, both are independent and set in their ways, both are foodies (Kalidasan’s motto is “we live to eat” and Maya reconnects with her late mother through the food she prepares). The two meet when Maya, remembering her mother’s dosas, suddenly has a craving and phones to order some. She misdials the number and gets Kalidasan’s new mobile instead. She rattles off her order and address and hangs up. He fusses over what he sees as a nuisance call, but he’s curious all the same about the dosa she’s ordered. She calls back to find out where her dosa order is, and the two get into an argument.
Kalidasan complains to his nephew about the troubles the new phone is causing him. “The problem is not with this phone or that girl,” Manu (Asif Ali) tells him, but with the fact that confirmed bachelor Kalidasan doesn’t know how to talk to women. Manu advises his uncle to call and apologize to Maya. When his uncle refuses, Manu uses the phone and sends her a text message.
Maya’s roommate Meenakshi (Mythili) suggests Maya should call him back – because, of course, she made the mistake in dialling him in the first place. Thus starts a dialogue between the two of them about food, and through food, their relationship – conducted entirely by telephone -- develops.
The film captures these two characters beautifully, showing us not only their independent and often bristly personalities, but also the insecurities that underlie their confident exteriors. Each of them really does long to have a partner in their lives, but each of them worries that perhaps they are just too old and too imperfect to appeal to the other. When it comes time to take the relationship to a new level, to finally meet face to face, each of them ends up having second thoughts. The result? Kalidasan sends Manu in his place, and Maya sends Meenakshi in hers.
Thus begins a bit of a comedy of errors. Manu, not realizing Meenakshi is not Maya, tells his uncle that he’s far too old for her. Meenaskshi, believing Manu is Kalidasan, tells Maya it would be like dating a younger brother. On top of everything, Manu and Meenakshi find themselves attracted to one another, and a relationship between the two of them develops at the same time that Maya and Kalidasan end up putting their relationship on hold.
Not surprisingly, Salt N’ Pepper is one of my favorite films of 2012. It’s refreshing in so many ways, not the least of which is the relationship between Maya and Kalidasan. It’s so rare to see films that represent relationships between older protagonists, and to allow them to show us their fears and insecurities. Both Maya and Kalidasan are mature, independent, at times arrogant; both claim they need no one, yet each of them secretly longs to share their life with someone.
I particularly love the character of Maya. Shweta Menon, a former beauty queen, is totally de-glammed for the role of Maya. Maya is not a classic beauty – she’s just an average woman, pretty, but who hides it behind glasses and dowdy clothing, perhaps not surprising for someone who provides the voices for the pretty faces seen on the movie screen. And in fact, everyone comments on Maya’s voice. When Manu asks Kalidasan how old Maya is, Kalidasan is stumped. “May be 30 or 45,” is Kalidasan’s guess. When Manu asks why he’s never asked after all the time they spend on the phone, Kalidasan responds, “Her voice is nice.”
I felt such a connection to Maya – perhaps because I met Mr. Totally Filmi at about the same age as Maya meets Kalidasan, and I could understand who she was and what she was feeling. On the one hand, she is fiercely independent; on the other hand, she finds herself happy and transformed at the budding relationship with Kalidasan, taking off the glasses she almost seems to hide behind, swapping her dowdy clothes for an elegant sari. It’s such a lovely change from what she usually has to endure from the men in her circle. Maya confesses to being arrogant, but she’s also sad because, as she puts it, she never sees love in men’s eyes anymore, only lust.
Maya cooks to feel a connection with her mother: as she describes her mother to Kalidasan: “After tasting, if she thought it was okay, then she would hit the pot with the spoon – tap tap.”
And I loved Kalidasan, too. I found it so touching that he was so out of his depth when it came to Maya. When Maya begins to cry after remember her mother tapping the pot, he asks if she’s okay, and when she responds, telling him, “No, I am not okay,” his discomfort at dealing with her emotion is such that he has to hang up and put the phone down on the table in front of him, his nervousness palpable.
When Maya asks to meet Kalidasan he puts on a good shirt and perfume, gets in his car, catches a glimpse of himself in the rear-view mirror, rubs his salt and pepper beard, and decides he can’t go. As he tells his nephew: “My look is not good.” Manu tries to reassure him: “Have you seen superstar Rajnikanth?” he asks his uncle, adding that it’s not looks, but style that counts. When Kalidasan says he feels old, his cook Babu tries to cheer him up by reminding him of Salman Rushdie’s marriage to the much younger Padma Lakshmi (and seriously? A film with a Salman Rushdie reference? To die for.).
Salt N’ Pepper is filled with lovely touches, from Kalidasan’s car radio that comes on every time he hits a bump; to the story of Joan’s Rainbow Cake (that Kalidasan and Maya bake each in their own kitchens); to Maya’s first failed attempt to get her scooter permit; to Maya drinking on the rooftop with her friends, getting drunk and revealing why she never married (she was found to be “manglik” and no man wanted to take the risk of marrying her); to the reason Kalidasan has never married, and how his cook, Babu (Baburaj, terrific here in a change from his usual villain roles), came into his household; Maya and Kalidasan both riding on the same bus but not knowing the other is there because they have never met and have no idea what the other looks like.
But mostly, Salt N’ Pepper is a breath of fresh air. Here, the young couple takes a back seat to the more mature romance. If I’ve included it as part of my offerings for Adam’s Rib, it’s because it presents a balanced view of a relationship. No man-child and manic pixie dream girls here: Kalidasan is no hero; Maya is no heroine served up only as eye candy. Together, they offer us a glimpse of two fiercely independent, average people, complete with flaws and inadequacies. Kalidasan and Maya are incredibly appealing because they are well-rounded, imperfect and yet likeable characters. We root for them to finally meet, but we trust that whatever happens to them, they’ll know how to pick up the pieces and deal with it.