I was working as a third assistant director on what was my third or fourth ad in Bombay. The third assistant director has a very important job profile. We do things like tell the actors ‘Your shot is ready’ or tell costume ‘Iron the clothes now’ or tell the guy running the electricity in the godown ‘AC switch off karna’. It’s a hard life up the ladder. This was an ad for an AC brand. The brand, because they had no sense of what the honest fuck they wanted had dispatched me off to Himachal Pradesh to recce. The idea was (surprise, surprise) the AC transports you to snowfall. It was great for me because my initial idea after college had been to take a month or two off and ‘find myself and write.’ Usually, this is a luxury reserved for people who roll in money, and I didn’t belong to the bracket. So I decided to find my romanticism in the struggle of Bombay. I wanted a story I could tell MY kids about how I landed in the middle of the July floods with five hundred bucks and no money for brokerage or deposit.
So anyway, back to Himachal Pradesh. This was our second day and we were in the outskirts of an absolutely untouched national park about to be attacked in full force by an army of gaffers, light-men and extras. An average independent film gets made in about a couple of crores, which is more or less the same budget a bloodsucking brand spends for 1 minute’s worth of screen time to let people know their skin whitening cream is better than crack. We were travelling in luxury I had never experienced in two decades worth of my life. They were paying me 5000 bucks a day as a ‘miscellaneous’ allowance, which was tantamount to me skinny dipping in a pool of cash, considering my monthly salary then was about 15,000 bucks. My friend Jalal and I (Jalal was a veteran AD who had lost all sense of hope after Bombay had hacked at his soul for a decade and a half) were using our three day recce time to live the life we never could before our dreams were snatched away from us.
We got our approvals on the second day. The requirements were simple. Snow – check. Trees in the background – check. Sunset in the horizon – check and check. We had budgets and time for a third day of recce and our director and producer (both in Bombay) were both treating this ad like they could fart it out in their sleep without much time or effort. They urged us to take a day off, blow some money and come back in peace. We decided to go for a trek.
While this idea of exercise and inhaling decent oxygen was all good in theory, three years of making it a point that I had to blacken my lungs with every available cigarette around me had rendered my once whattewow stamina redundant. I started wheezing by the tenth step and got several stitches in places I didn’t know existed in the first hour. Jalal was telling me amazing stories about previous ads and films he had worked on. Jalal was just great to listen to in that sense. He truly didn’t give a fuck anymore. Like really. He dissed all my favourite directors in the industry in the first half hour of the trek. The EXACT names you’re thinking off right now. Yeah! That guy who made that film about the blind and deaf girl. That woman who made the film about those three guys going on vacation, her brother, all of them. Take a hint. It was like a rebranding in my head. Like five mixed up stages of grief and loss. His started with anger. Now we were moving towards his denial about the industry and any scope it had for well written content. I kept listening. I needed to hear his depression out so I felt better about my future.
Himachal’s dotted with villages up the slopes. I say this with arrogant confidence despite being a head to toe city boy because I worked in the area in my first internship in college. Yeah, go laugh get it all out. It was supposed to be an NGO internship and I wanted to spend a month in a place where, well…no one knows me and *relatively softer tone* – I managed to convince my mother to shell out thirty grand so I can stamp social service cred on my CV. With my chest out flaunting my privilege, I spent thirty days telling people whose problems I had no fucking idea about how to cope with generic statements like – 1) the man and woman must share work at home 2) you should educate your girl child 3) you should vaccinate your kids and the kind of stuff you learn as fill in the blanks in your value education class in the seventh standard.
The trail we had gone for was a long nine hour walk. People would usually do this over two days. The route had been recommended to me by a bunch of Israeli martial artists who I had bumped into at a tea stall near Aut (That is a place). They had called it ‘challenging’. My brain didn’t make a note that if a person with abdominal muscles strong enough to be seen through his shirt had called a route challenging I should have ideally sat on a ledge accessible by a four wheel drive vehicle and taken that as an accomplishment. I insisted to Jalal we’d be able to do it. Jalal had failed to let me know then that he spends every morning alternating between two hours of semi-professional badminton or running till he vomits himself in front of strangers on Carter road. He was fairly ready for this challenge.
My wheezes punctuated the first entire quarter of the trek. I mostly listened, very amused as Jalal’s stories moved from star tantrums, to intern gaffs, to communication breakdowns on set and my most favourite – client requests. These were the most bizarre. He was telling me about how Cadbury had stalled production (every hour’s worth of a delay is worth roughly a million rupees) for two hours because they weren’t happy with the exact colour of the milk moustache their ad protagonist was supposed to have. Despite the cloak of negativity he wore with pride, he was a great mentor to have for your first couple of years in the industry. He was a no bullshit person, and his years in the industry had made him as hard as nails. So you couldn’t muck around him. You’d do your work and shut up, and he’d do his work and shut up. He was your ideal first AD. Okay, I should explain the job profile. His job (arguably the most important one on set) is to make sure shit gets done exactly on time and schedule so the director can get exactly he wants. For example – If and I say if as hypothetically as hypothetically can be – if Sanjay Leela Bhansali would like to end the climax of a war scene with Ranveer Singh throwing a spear on top of an elephant, it’s Jalal’s job to A) Get the camera in position on a crane at the crack of dawn B) Make sure the scene is lit exactly as Bhansali wants which is a scary proposition because Bhansali will throw a hissy fit if one of the background elephants tusks’ reflect more sunlight than he wants C) get actors in place in the right costumes and makeup, which means Ranveer will have to have his Quinoa salad at 4 in the morning and he can’t drink water after that. D) Coordinate with twelve elephant handlers to keep them in check and ready for the shot E) Repeat said exercise for the entire day.
It was March in Himachal. Wasn’t exactly freezing cold in the middle of the day, but you needed a light sweater to be comfy. Perfect trekking weather. My stomach groaned by about noon. It let out a roar. “You better find the most good looking leaves you can to wipe your ass” said Jalal. I corrected him and told him that that was a rumble of hunger. Not a rumble of indigestion. Jalal snorted. We decided to look for something in the next village we hit. This was a place called Jibhi. We hit Jibhi at about 3PM and to our surprise, the place was fairly welcoming. There were a bunch of home-stays around. I noticed two white guys who looked like they didn’t have a VISA and had overstayed their welcome by months, who we waved at – because they were white and what’s an Indian if he doesn’t look out for the validation of a random white person. By now my stomach was screaming, so I begged Jalal to look for a restaurant with me.
Jalal and I had both travelled enough to know the basics of eating out in unfamiliar territory. The first rule is you eat something preferably hot, high on carbs. Try not to burst your stomach with chillies, if the prospect of a loo isn’t nearby. Basically dal and rice is great. That’s all we wanted. Jibhi was asleep, the entire village. The three or four eateries promising rice plates all pointed me to their neighbours, who in turn pointed me to the original. In a nutshell, no food around. Our other options included potato wafers or bananas. But right then, all we wanted was a hot meal. We walked through Jibhi, the extent of the entire village was half the length of Carter Road back home. So there wasn’t much to explore. We had about 15 more kilometers to go before we hit the village we were going to stay for the night, called Sarthi. Going any further was a bleak proposition.
“What’s that smell?”, asked Jalal.
“Smells good, whatever the fuck it is.” I said.
“Does it smell…?” Jalal
“Yeah, doesn’t smell Indian.” Me.
We followed the trail to this place which had steel shutters down. It was the most unsuspecting wood and concrete building, looked old on the outside. There was a sign board outside that said – Dodo Chinese, authentic Chinese with a couple of Mandarin letters right next to it. I giggled looking at the board itself. Dodo Chinese. Fucking hell. There’s no way in a hundred years I would have caught myself dead in the place. From what I could gather from Jalal’s face, he seemed to echo my sentiment. I needed divine intervention to decide whether to lower my guard and ego and check the place out. My stomach growled loudly. I took that as a hint. I winked to Jalal and knocked on the steel shutter. (There was no bell)
Promptly, it was raised to half mast and a woman who looked like she wasn’t used to being disturbed this late in the day or for the matter disturbed at all poked her head out of the door.
“What is it? Hotel is on the first floor, go there”, she said in English after evaluating us from head to toe.
“No, no. We don’t want to stay here.” Me.
“Just wanted to know if we can get something to eat” Jalal added.
“Anything is okay.” Me
“Dal and rice, anything.” Jalal.
The woman narrowed her eyes and considered us. She opened the shutter and pointed at the signboard. “We have chowmein (the north indian accepted word for noodles) and we have chicken. Nothing else is there right now.”
Jalal and I exchanged a glance. “Hurry up and tell me. I don’t have all day to waste.” she barked at us.
“Okay.” I said. Jalal and I walked in. There were literally two tables. I walked over to the second one. Jalal crashed on the plastic chair and put his head down. I was just trying to get a sense of the place. There were nine calendars hanging on the same wall. The woman had disappeared behind a curtain behind which I realised lay the source of the delicious smell that we had been attracted to in the first place. Behind where Jalal was power napping on the table was a small cabinet where there were small porcelain figures of a rabbit, snake, bull and rooster gathering dust.
I heard loud noises in the background. Through the curtain gap I saw her blaze through scallions and drop them off as a garnish in two bowls. She picked up the China and got them to the table. I don’t know too many people who’d argue with me but there’s no better feeling than seeing steam come off your food in liberal amounts especially when you’re in a fifty kilometer snow radius. The two bowls had soupy thin but incredibly fragrant stock topped with scallions. She got another bowl of steamed noodles.
“Wait, did you make these?” I asked her.
“No, they just popped out of the clouds like rain” she said rudely with a cackle. She looked at Jalal, whose plans of resting his head on the table for a quick five minutes had moved into full blown sleep. She rapped the table. He woke up with a start. “Does this look like a bed to you?”
I dunked the noodles in the broth and had a bite. It was sensational. I felt like how that critic in the rat food film, what’s the name? Yeah, Ratatouille did when he had his final meal in the restaurant. My eyes rolled over. I just tasted flavours I didn’t know existed. Jalal actually moaned a little when he had his first bite. She was visibly pleased with our reaction. I think she softened for the first time since we had entered.
“You like it?”
“It’s…amazing.” Jalal and I.
“My grandmother used to make this for me when I was small.” she said. “Her’s was even better.”
“Where are you from,” I asked her.
That was bizarre. I did not expect to find an actual traditional Chinese restaurant in Himachal Pradesh in a hundred years, let alone this little village we were in. She disappeared into the kitchen and brought out a tub of flour and started kneading it.
“See your noodles? This is how you make them” she said. She was making actual Lo Mein noodles from scratch. After binging on several seasons of Masterchef I had a working knowledge of food enough to understand that making Lo Mein was tedious and as most Indian restaurateurs would say – unnecessary.
Turns out her husband and her used to work in Delhi for a Chinese company. After working in India for ten years, her husband decided to open a home stay in Himachal Pradesh to get the fuck away from the madness of the capital. She decided to run the kitchen. Given how many white people would frequent the spot, their place became a regional hit. She had customers who’d been visiting her place for ten years.
“You want to try some Bao?” she asked me.
“I’ll eat anything you give me ma’am.” I told her.
She went inside and got out two open baos dripping with a dark brown (it looked hoisin) sauce. “We make this with pork at home. But nobody eats pork here so we use chicken.”
It was the fluffiest, lightest bao I had ever had. The chicken was so incredibly crisp. We shamelessly attached the bowl to our mouths and drained it off. I asked her if she had ever worked in a kitchen before. “I used to make food for my mother’s kindergarten in Beijing. We’d cook for thirty to forty kids every single day. They’d cry and throw tantrums if they didn’t like it, so it had to be very tasty. If you can cook for kids, you can cook for anyone.”
Both of us were reeling from the meal. We had been inside this place for barely half an hour, and I don’t remember being this satisfied after a meal since…I don’t even know when. We asked for the bill, she shrugged her shoulders and asked us to give us whatever we wanted. I think she had eventually warmed up to us. She explained, “This is what was left from my home food. I don’t charge for this.”
We put down a couple of notes on the table. She wagged a finger at us and said – ‘It’s too much.’ We beat her down and told her it’s the best meal we’ve had this year. She cackled again.
We raved about the meal for an hour during the next leg of the trip. It has to be mentioned that it was the absolute highlight of our recce. We got her down to cook for the entire set when we shot there, and she was absolutely delighted. She took photos with the two actors (who were absolutely random models from Andheri) but she assumed they were Bollywood superstars and fed me baos on the sly whenever I wanted for the day. She told me she earned more money over the two days of the ad than she usually does in six months. I told her if there’s anyone who deserves to profit off the capitalist greed of the brand, it was her.
Before we left from her place I asked her, “Why the name Dodo Chinese?”
She laughed and said,. “My husband calls me his Dodo. That’s how.”
I have never judged a restaurant by its name since.