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Once Again review: Neeraj Kabi and Shefali Shah shine in this romance recipe

Release Date: 05 Dec 2020

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Shriram Iyengar

Kanwal Sethi's story is a well-made recipe that just about leaves you satisfied.  

The trailer of Kanwal Sethi's Once Again earned it immediate comparisons with Ritesh Batra's popular The Lunchbox (2013). However, the film is thankfully different in its treatment, performance, and style. What it lacks is a sharper definition of its characters, and conflicts to transform this satisfying film into a truly delicious one. 

The comparison to The Lunchbox is not unwarranted though. Once Again is the tale of two lonely souls who find each other through the common thread of food, served through a tiffin-box service. Amar (Neeraj Kabi) is a middle-aged star in the process of rediscovering himself and the love for his art. Tara (Shefali Shah) is the widowed owner of a Mangalorean restaurant where Amar gets his tiffin from. The two strike a friendship over the phone with food serving as the glue that brings them together.

Their love and attraction to each other has the curtain of their families in the way. Tara has a soon-to-be-married son (Priyanshu Painyuli) and a daughter (Bidita Bag), while the divorced Amar is grappling with his own sense of guilt over his daughter (Rasika Dugal). 

The connection of food, while omnipresent, manages not to overpower the flavour of the slow romance between the two leads. Sethi uses the two talents of Shefali Shah and Neeraj Kabi very well. Kabi's brooding personality is contrasted by Shah's confidence and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. Where Tara is a self-made woman, she does realise the limitations of pursuing a relationship at her age. Amar, meanwhile, comes across as a caged soul looking to Tara to help him break free. This conflict is the key element of the drama. 

Where the film falters is in its slow buildup to the conflict. Even though it spends quite some time on the slow unveiling of the two characters and their approach to love, it feels restrained. The slow procession towards their meeting is also a drawback. 

Once the twain meet, the film takes on multiple shades. The effect of their dalliance on Tara's son's wedding, the consequences of the star's new 'love' in the media make for interesting observations. Sethi allows these complexities to simmer slowly as the film veers towards its conclusion. 

Once Again trailer: Neeraj Kabi, Shefali Shah find love again

The length of the film is perhaps a drawback. A tighter, shorter film would have dramatically enhanced the flashpoints. There is also the element of the supporting cast, although performed well by Bidita Bag, Priyanshu Painyuli, and Rasika Dugal, they do not have enough scope in terms of involvement and reasoning. 

Sethi uses a very closed-in style cinematography to delve into the very personal nature of the story. The director's eye for detail is also praiseworthy. The use of the traditional Mangalorean tiffin-box, the cramped up kitchen, and the tea vendor at Marine Drive add a sense of realism. But it is the symbolism that catches your eye. The romance, building over a kitchen table, with smells of oranges and coriander, the conflict between Tara and her son symbolised in a fish being fried in hot oil, and the anger of Tara being reflected in her grinding chillies are standouts. 

The music by Talvin Singh is another beautiful current that runs through the background of the film. It is melancholic, and subdued just enough to not overpower the storyline itself. 

By the end, the performances by Kabi and Shah leave an impact that is enhanced by Singh's musical touch. It might not be once again, but Sethi's film is worth a watch for its varied flavours. 

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