In a particularly sparkling scene in debutant director Sameer Sharma's Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (LSTCK), Omi Khurana (Kunal Kapoor) finds himself tangled in a rather animated discussion by his family on the topic of underwear. What starts as a seemingly innocent question, quickly turns into a debate on every family member's stance on underwear. It's an endearing scene, and one of several examples of boisterous Punjabi charm that fills the film. However, despite its grounded, small town vigor, LSTCK moves at a sluggish pace and doesn't quite meet its potential.
Sharma and his writer Sumit Batheja keep the story simple: Omi is a NRI based in London, who falls on the wrong side of an eccentric gangster due to a large debt he owes him. In pounds, not rupees, he is reminded repeatedly. Out of nowhere, Omi decides that his grandfather's dhaba and signature dish - a lip-smackingly delicious chicken curry - is the solution to his problems. So he heads back to the village of Laltan Kalan in Punjab, back to a family he abandoned 10 years ago in search of foreign pastures.
The cast of supporting characters that fill Omi's village give the film its best moments. There's Daarji (Vinod Nagpal), the creator of the famous chicken dish. He also happens to be senile now, fading away without having told anyone his secret ingredient. There's the freeloading Titu Mama (Rajesh Sharma), who is desperate to know the secret ingredient in the chicken, if only to encourage his sister (Seema Kaushal) to cook better food for him.
Then there's Harman (Huma Qureshi), Omi's childhood sweetheart who he left cold 10 years ago. Now a doctor, she's equal parts angry with him, playing hard to get, and at the same time itching to be back with him. Qureshi, in her second role after Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur, is a talent to watch out for. She has minimal dialogue here but communicates effortlessly through her expressions.
While the premise of the film is meant to be a Omi's return to his roots (literally and figuratively), all the while hunting for his grandfather's secret ingredient that made his chicken curry into the heavily sought-after gold mine that it is, LSTCK moves way too slowly and then meanders off course before getting to the point. The first half is almost entirely dedicated to building up the mood of the place and characters and lingering in emotional flashbacks. It has several funny scenes and oodles of Punjabi flavor, but the story hardly moves forward.
The second half is where the film finally remembers its purpose and speeds up. It builds to a touching climactic family dinner, but once again, forgets its own premise.
Perhaps one of the most jarring aspects of the film is its editing. Scenes are cut at awkward moments and the soundtrack seems misplaced, all of which affect the flow of the film. It evokes a constant feeling that something is off. However, the songs themselves, by Amit Trivedi, are foot-tappingly fun. If only they were used more fluidly within the narrative, the film would have fallen together much more cohesively.
LSTCK is a film you really want to like, for the sake of its sincere writing and lovable supporting cast. But it's slow, meandering pacing, along with a rather passive protagonist played by an equally passive Kunal Kapoor, leaves more to be desired. The concept is fresh, the milieu is carefully constructed and the Punjabi spirit is definitely there.
If only the film delivered the tantalizingly delicious dish it promises all along. It just doesn't taste quite right.
The film screened at the recent South Asian International Film Festival in New York.