A tricky subject is handled with taste, sly wit and some fine playing by the two leads in "Cheeni kum," a winter-summer romancer, sans action or dance numbers, that's pitched at the high end of mainstream Bollywood auds.

A tricky subject is handled with taste, sly wit and some fine playing by the two leads in “Cheeni kum,” a winter-summer romancer, sans action or dance numbers, that’s pitched at the high end of mainstream Bollywood auds. Dominated by vet Amitabh Bachchan as an ornery old London chef who falls for a woman half his age, tartly humorous pic is talky but engrossing, shading its stereotypes with enough human qualities to sustain the basically simple story. May 25 release is doing well in Indian metros and has so far seduced an OK $500,000 in the U.K.

Bachchan plays 64-year-old Buddha Gupta, tyrannical owner of London’s “best Indian restaurant,” who still lives with his grouchy old mom (fellow vet Zohra Sehgal) and hasn’t had a vacation from his beloved eatery in 22 years. His only emotional commitment is to a 9-year-old girl “Sexy” (played with amazing confidence by tyke Swini Khara), who is dying from leukemia.

One evening, a customer has the gall to send back a dish, claiming it’s too sweet (pic’s title literally means “Less Sugar,” and jokes about sugar pepper the script throughout). She’s Nina Verma (Tabu), a confident but unconventional 34-year-old, who won’t be bullied by Buddha. It’s the start of a very gradual attraction between two types who won’t compromise their beliefs but who, in a wonderfully offhand scene near a bus stop one day, decide to get married.

That’s basically all that happens prior to intermission, as scripter-director R. Balki (a longtime creative director at an ad agency, here making his debut), spends time building up his main characters in preparation for the emotional complications of part two.

When Nina has to go back to Delhi to visit her father, Omprakash (Paresh Rawal), who’s recuperating from a heart attack, Buddha tags along to ask for his daughter’s hand. Problem is, Buddha’s putative father-in-law is six years younger than he is. And Omprakash is as determined that the pair won’t marry as his daughter is determined they will.

One of the pic’s strengths is that it never gets too serious about the age difference, cleverly catering to both traditional and hipper Indian auds. It also doesn’t skirt the relationship’s sexual side, with Nina trying to get Buddha over for an intimate dinner and Buddha (comically) buying some condoms en route.

No other actress in commercial Hindi cinema could have played the difficult role of Nina than Tabu, who has the requisite maturity, down-to-earth manner and gift for offhand humor to counter Bachchan’s grumpy, selfish chef. Thesps’ chemistry is remarkable, and sustains the movie through pages of dialogue that could easily have fallen flat.

Balki directs without any visual flash, giving his actors (as in Buddha’s long speech to Omprakash) centerstage. Finale is a tad overwrought — with Sexy used more as a plot mechanism than as a real character — but still strangely moving, with Sehgal coming into her own here.

Tech credits are OK, though print caught was often murky. Insouciant score and catchy title song exactly match the pic’s tone.

Cheeni Kum

India

Production

An Eros Intl. release (in U.K.) of a Gautam Kumar presentation of a Mad Entertainment production. (International sales: Eros, London.) Produced by Sunil Manchanda. Executive producer, Anita Anand Zutshi. Directed, written by R. Balki. Associate director, Ashvin Naidu.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), P.C. Sreeram; editor, Chandan Arora; music director, Ilaiyaraaja; lyrics, Sameer, Manoj Tapadia; production designer, Julie Bonnet; art director, Kiran Khanna; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital). Reviewed at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue 4, London, June 5, 2007. Running time: 140 MIN. (I: 76 MIN.; II: 64 MIN.)

With

Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu, Paresh Rawal, Zohra Sehgal, Swini Khara, Vinay Jain, Krishna Bhatt, Kanwal Toor, Nikhil Ratnaparkhi, Pradeep Shukla, Jameel Khan, Alexander O'Neil. (Hindi dialogue)
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