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The Hundred-Foot Journey, served with a lot of heart

By Aseem Chhabra/
August 08, 2014 14:50 IST
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Oprah Winfrey and Helen MirrenThe Hundred-Foot Journey treats its Indian characters with respect, discovers Aseem Chhabra/

Someone first reading the premise of The Hundred-Foot Journey may think it is an implausible fairy tale -- an Indian Muslim family seeking refuge from communal tensions in Mumbai, lands in a small French village.

There they open an Indian restaurant called Maison Mumbai, with open-air seating, loud Bollywood music and chickens running.

One hundred feet across from Maison Mumbai is an elegant Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Saule Pleureur run by a finicky widow, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who abhors the noise, the unnecessary competition and the foreignness of her new Indian neighbours and their food.

As the film progresses, she does warm up to the neighbours and eventually takes their older son -- Hassan (Manish Dayal) -- as her apprentice and prodigy.

Oscar-nominated Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom's The Hundred-Foot Journey supports the statement Shah Rukh Khan's character makes in Don 2 that Indians are all over the world now ('Kya karen sweetheart, we are everywhere,' SRK's Don tells Lara Dutta's character).

Based on Richard C Morais's bestselling novel of the same name, the film has a universal fairy tale quality -- that anything is possible with a lot of determination and hard work. Even in an idyllic small French village, Indian food will survive if it is served with a lot of heart and dedication.

Despite a touch of racism (which quickly dissolves), the film suggests people are open to new ideas, tastes and certainly those who look different from them. It is a Utopian belief, given all the anti-immigrant politics that is mushrooming across Europe. The Utopian belief works well with Hollywood, and especially the society that Oprah Winfrey believes in and projects through her shows, and the kind of cinema Steven Spielberg makes.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is a pleasant, happy film that even celebrates fusion cooking -- French food with a touch of Indian taste.

It is the kind of cinema that Hallstrom does rather well. He is best known for whimsical films likes Chocolat (with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche), What's Eating Gilbert Grape (again Depp and a very young Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cider House Rules (Toby Maguire, Charlize Theron, Michael Caine).

Films about Indian food and immigrants often tend to be over-the-top broad comedies.

Sometimes, there are even jokes at the expense of the new immigrants -- mocking their accents, eating and hygiene habits. The recent film Today's Special made fun of South Asian immigrants in Jackson Heights, Queens in so many ways and almost suggested the food in the neighborhood could not be appetizing until the restaurants there acquired the trendy quality of Manhattan eateries.

There are often additional problems when European and Hollywood films companies produce films about India.

The recent hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made Dev Patel's character into a caricature, a clown to please the British tourists who stay at his family's run-down hotel.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is not without flaws, but one thing the film does rather well is to treat its Indian characters with respect. All of the Indian actors in the film from Om Puri (who is wonderful in the role of Hassan's father) to Manish Dayal and others speak in normal accents, like regular Indians do.

There is no put-on Indian accent, no overplayed characters that may appeal to a certain segment of the audience but would be insulting to Indians at large. There is also the Slumdog Millionaire phenomenon where we heard a range of English accents by the actors. The Hundred-Foot Journey avoids all of that.

"When you overplay the accent, it is kind of derogatory," Hallstrom told me. "I cringe, I don't like it."

The Hundred-Foot Journey has enough of crowd-pleasing elements that should make it a success among Americans who watch foreign, art-house movies (the film is in English) and appreciate different cultures. It should also work well with Indian Americans who may be looking for non-Bollywood fare, and seek a truer representation of their selves on screen.

Image: Producer Oprah Winfrey with Helen Mirren

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Aseem Chhabra/ in New York