Ani Sasi's Ninnila Ninnila is a wonderful study in contrasts. The lives of the principal characters, Dev (Ashok Selvan) and Tara (Ritu Varma) couldn't be more different from each other " Tara has OCD, but Dev couldn't care less; Tara follows rules and instructions, but Dev is more intuitive " just like various ingredients in a dish. But a lot happens when their paths criss-cross each other, akin to what happens on a pan while making a recipe. The trick to make a delectable recipe lies in the art of cooking, and Ani Sasi lets the drama simmer just enough to leave you with a smile in the end.
The story follows the journey of Dev (Ashok Selvan), who goes to London to work under a famous chef (Nasser). He's an insomniac, obese, and suffers from sporadic muscle spasms which catch people off-guard both in the kitchen. The head chef (Nasser) is ruthless when it comes to judging the food being cooked at his restaurant, and he doesn't mind throwing away food, if it isn't up to the mark. Tara (Ritu Varma) works in the same kitchen and she considers the head chef as her role model and follows all his recipes and instructions down to the last detail. Slowly, Dev surprises everyone in the kitchen with his cooking skills, but not everything is as simple as it looks. As the story unravels its layers, the characters are burdened by a sense of nostalgia, grief, loss, and feelings that haven't found a voice yet.
It's hard to overlook Ratatouille's influence on Ninnila Ninnila, especially, when writer and director Ani Sasi focuses on the bustling activity in the kitchen, and how well Dev displays his skills as a chef. But Ninnila Ninnila isn't Ratatouille. It isn't solely about food or creating the perfect recipe either. Ani Sasi treats food as an adhesive in people's lives, and it's intertwined with their memories and families. There's a reason why everyone talks so much about food and that special dish that each one of them likes, because it reminds them of something from their past. This remains consistent throughout the film and it creates a tantalising effect where even if characters don't talk much, their love for food makes them shed tears of joy, open the floodgates of their heart, and even melt egos. In short, the aroma of the food captivates not just the characters but also the viewers too.
Ninnila Ninnila knows that it's playing a low-stakes game and so, even the drama between the characters doesn't overwhelm you. It's not meant to, so to speak. The conflict in the story revolves around the past of each of the principal characters, and it's all handled in a subtle manner till the end. Since there's no sense of urgency or dramatic highs, the pace of the narrative slows down at times. Even if there's a familiar sequence, Ani Sasi and the principal cast make it endearing enough to keep you hooked to the proceedings.
Among the actors, Ashok Selvan is fabulous as Dev, a talented chef who has his own emotional baggage, and he instantly makes you empathise with him. Perhaps, it's his eyes or that dazed look of a person who has nothing to look forward to, except to cook well, that truly intrigues you. Some of the best moments in the film revolve around Dev's obsession with food, and full credit to the actor and the writer for breathing so much life into the character. Then, there's Ritu Varma as Tara and she shines in a well-written role. The climax, in particular, is beautifully written and Ritu nails the character in the film's defining moments. The big surprise in the film is Nithya Menen whose impishness in the story is unlike anything else that she has portrayed over the years, and her on-screen chemistry with Ashok Selvan is a delight. Satya and Nasser pull off their roles effortlessly.
Ninnila Ninnila has a magical element to it, and it reflects in how cinematographer Divakar Mani sees the world that the story is set in. Christmas is just around the corner and London could witness a snowfall at any moment. There's love in the air and the kitchen is where all the magic happens, both in terms of food and people who make them.
Divakar Mani captures the essence of all this so well that it's visually as appealing as the food itself. Rajesh Murugesan's music is pleasant to the ears. This is a simple film about food, people, love, and everything in between. It tells us that cooking is love, while love is cooking simultaneously. A heartwarming drama, this film is like eating your comfort food. It won't take you by surprise, but it'll leave you with a good feeling in the end.
Ninnila Ninnila and its Tamil version Theeni are currently streaming on Zee Plex.