In the Netflix production Maska, a bunch of non-Parsis assembles for a twee tribute to Mumbai’s iconic Irani cafe that doubles up as moist-eyed homage to the city’s Parsi community. There’s a difference, for those in the know. The Parsis of Mumbai are descendants of members of the Zoroastrian faith fleeing persecution in Persia in the eighth century. Iranis are more recent imports, having left Iran in the nineteenth century. For the purposes of feelgood entertainment, these groups, which are different in their ways and cultural habits, are dunked into the same chicken soup for the soul that fuels the makers of Maska.
The 111-minute film, written and directed by Neeraj Udhwani, takes its title from the slice of buttered bread served at eateries run by the Iranis. Added to the bun maska, a breakfast staple and an all-day snack, is an ample stuffing of corniness.
Diana (Manisha Koirala) runs Rustom Cafe in Ballard Estate (presumably a hat-tip to the office district’s storied Brittania eatery). The cafe has been in the family for generations, and Diana hopes that her 19-year-old son Rumi (Prit Kamani) will take over.
Rumi has other plans. He is inexplicably selected as “Mr Firozsha Baag” at a local pageant meant for the residents of his residential colony. He gets ambitious: if Boman Irani can, why can’t Rumi Irani?
Rumi enrolls for acting lessons, and falls in love with his batchmate Mallika (Nikta Dutta). Some knowledge of Mumbai’s geography is essential in understanding why Rumi moves out of his beautiful and very Parsi house in Colaba in South Mumbai and into a not-bad-by-half apartment in the north-western suburbs with Mallika. This is where Mumbai’s film industry is located, and unless you live and work somewhere along the stretch, you have no hope of making it.
There are obvious reasons why Rumi isn’t the next Shah Rukh Khan, but encouraged by Mallika and beaming with the innocent confidence of the teenager, Rumi soldiers on. A producer offers him a lead role if he will raise the money. What better cash cow than Rustom Cafe?
This is the kind of movie that doesn’t need a spoiler alert. Maska is a fairy tale dusted with the sugar that powers the average cup of tea at the Irani eatery and then dunked into the butter that slathers their bread. The film beams away even when it is most contrived. At best, it reflects a gentler, unhurried and uncluttered time when the dynamics of Mumbai’s rapacious real estate didn’t operate with the same sledgehammer force. The film’s look resembles an extended Instagram video, and its message can be summed up in the space allotted to the caption text too.
The performances exude the same warmth as the writing and direction. Manisha Koirala, whose Diana borders on the smothering mother type, is more convincing when she isn’t trying to be a Parsi/Irani. Jaaved Jaaferi, as Rumi’s wisecracking father Rustom, has a good time mimicking the community accent, while Prit Kamani as a wide-eyed wannabe is sincerity personified.
One of the many roles Rumi is forced to portray is the Zorastrian stud. YouTube phenomenon Shirley Setia plays Persis, who is working on a coffee table book on Irani restaurants and who falls for Rumi while showing him the connection between happy memories and places that stand the test of time.
As Diana never tires of telling Rumi, Rustom Cafe is not merely a restaurant but a legacy. The movie is barely equipped to examine why Mumbai swallows up and spits out slices of history, let alone why Irani cafes have been shutting down. Viewers looking for a deeper and cliche-free examination of Parsi or Irani life can seek out the films Percy and Little Zizou instead. Maska sets its sights far lower: it flatters to please, and in this regard, it succeeds.