Sobs, stars and sentimental paneer. Masterchef India could have been so much more, says Madhu Menon
AKSHAY KUMAR has an intense look in his eyes in a face-off with a man who looks suitably nervous, standing with a plate of food in front of him. In apparent contempt he asks, “Yeh kya hai?” and the camera shows us a tangle of vegetables on a plate. The Bollywood hero does not know where to start eating the dish. Several alternating camera shots follow, of Akshay and the unfortunate cook, interspersed with sounds denoting suspense — to remind us that this man’s fate hangs in the balance. Akshay sternly asks if he should start with the peanuts used as garnish. Confused, the cook barely manages to shake his head, and Akshay concludes that he needn’t bother tasting it, since he already knows the taste of a peanut. Wow, that Akshay sure is a tough cookie.
Ten minutes later, Akshay is touching an elderly contestant’s feet, who sobs as she professes love for Akshay, feeds him with her own hands, and almost convinces us he is her longlost son. There is, of course, nothing better than the taste of a mother’s love, purrs Akshay the kitten.
This is Masterchef India, Star TV’s adaptation of the famous UKTV series that spawned clones in Australia and the US. The Australian version became popular in India on Star World and so it was time for a desi version.
When I had first heard about the show, I was excited to see what Star TV would do. Masterchef is different from other cookery reality shows in that the contestant are not professional chefs, but just regular folks who make great food. I’m a real sucker for food shows, and loved the chance to learn from the food that contestants came up with.
An uneasy feeling, however, started when I heard of the great Akshay Kumar hosting the show. When you’re paying big bucks to fetch yourself a Bollywood superstar, you have to make his best use, and that would probably shift focus from the cooking.
The show did just that. Right from the first episode, where Akshay breezes in indoors wearing sunglasses, the show seemed determined to change from being about great home cooks to a Bollywood tear-jerker.
The audition round had people cooking their signature dishes to please the judges and earn the magic apron that would get them into the “Boot Camp” round, after which 12 finalists would make the weekly elimination round. Apart from Akshay, the other two judges were executive chefs from the JW Marriott, Goa, and Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon. I am guessing their purpose was to serve as foil for Akshay because they had the collective personality of a doorknob. During the auditions, I wanted someone to sneak up and tickle them to get a semblance of emotion. Akshay, of course, spoke like he was in a movie, with long pauses to help the viewer know how serious the whole thing was.
Not that it mattered to some people, who seemed to be there just to catch a glimpse of the superstar, and having done so, cried tears of joy.
And how they cried! A quarter of the audition round was just people crying when they got selected, crying when they didn’t, and collapsing into the arms of their loved ones. Another half of the show was dedicated to telling the classic reality TV trope of “against all odds” stories of people who had made it there despite having only enough money for bus fare. Somewhere, wedged in between all this drama, a few dishes got shown.
Wasn’t this supposed to be a show about cooking?
Despite the online backlash against the first episode, I decided to give the show another chance. I figured that perhaps when they cut out the chaff, Masterchef India could go back to being about the food.
WELL, THAT didn’t happen. The show loosely follows the format of the Australian sibling familiar to Indian viewers, but the pace is slower to allow for Akshay’s dramatic pauses. The first part of the show is a “mystery box” challenge where contestants must conjure up a dish from an eclectic list of ingredients inside a box. Winners of this are safe from elimination. The rest compete in an elimination challenge and the bottom three face off in a “pressure test”, whose outcome decides who goes home that week. So far, the challenges have not been ambitious in scope. There is a notable absence of meat in all challenges, and the food has been mostly confined to North and West India, with that popular vegetable paneer showing up two times already.
A contestant launched into a long speech on his mom’s chapatis, while others felt moved to tears. Somewhere in the midst was some food
The latest Children’s Day episode had the winner of the previous round choose the theme of the first challenge — a choice between “Pyaar ki Saugat” and “Bachpan ki yaadein”. The contestant (clearly coached) wasn’t content with just choosing one. He launched into a long-winded speech about how his mother made chapatis for him, in vivid detail, for five minutes, before finally choosing the childhood theme. Following this was another five minutes of crying as other contestants felt moved to tears, followed by yet more personal stories of children and childhood. Please God, make the pain stop!
JUST HOW much cooking is there in this show anyway? Not enough. And that’s where this show takes a huge step back from its predecessors and descends into the kitsch that it should have avoided. Masterchef Australia shows the food being prepared in great detail, with contestants describing what they’re using, how they’re making it, and the judges providing detailed feedback in a professional manner about what was good or bad. Instead, all we get in the Indian avatar are fleeting shots of pans and chopping boards. Even in an elimination challenge to recreate a vegetable biryani made by the chef judges, where the chefs provide the recipe on paper to the contestants, they don’t bother telling the audience how it’s done, robbing us of the joy of discovering dishes and techniques everyday folks can use.
Despite the hype, Masterchef India is a disappointment in its execution. If a second season is produced, the producers would do well to return the focus on the food, minimising the saas-bahu style drama, and possibly replacing the other judges with people who have more screen presence. It’s not supposed to be the Akshay Kumar show. And for heaven’s sake, don’t take contestants to a dhaba and make them cook bloody paneer makhanwaala for innocent truck drivers.
Menon is a Bengaluru-based chef and a restaurant consultant