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When I went to watch “The Hundred Foot Journey”

Has the study of literature made me lose the ability to enjoy an ordinary film? Has it? Has it?

I went to watch “The Hundred Foot Journey”. The film promised the agreeable mingling of food and diaspora. Purab laughed, “Are you watching the diaspakoda?”

I wanted the movie to move me. It had Om Puri. Helen Mirren. But, I returned so deeply disappointed.  For days, I mulled over what to write, what to not write, in the shower I constructed sentences: “I had hopes.” On my walk back from work I deconstructed them: “I had hopes.” I hemmed the subject. I produced analogies, “It was like a collapsed soufflé.” That did not work. “It was a thick mousse.” And, that too did not work. Then I gave up. I gave up on trying to come up with something stupendously smart. This is my last resort: Honesty.

I think that over the years of studying characters, scenes, speakers, stereo types, paradoxes, irony, sarcasm, wit, and other such devices, I have lost the ability to enjoy an ordinary film. This applies with the assumption that ordinary film can offer some form of enjoyment, which I did not experience.

This is an ordinary film that I did not like.

The Kadam family owns restaurants in India. With escalating communal tensions they find themselves caught in a frightening evening of riots that leads to the death of Mama Kadam (Juhi Chawla). Little Hassan’s (Rohan Chand) love and aptitude for food lies deeply entrenched in his love for his mother. Uprooted, dislocated and depressed as refugees in UK they find it difficult – weather wise, the open grills are shown to be a disaster.

Eventually seeking a better fate they relocate to a small village in France with Papa Kadam (Om Puri) dictating every move and open an Indian restaurant called Maison Mumbai. Helping them along the way is Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) – a sweet French girl who offers them food, hospitality, openness, warmth – she is maternal and safe – an indulgence the Kadams miss. Clearly, French girls ride cycles with baguettes in their baskets, and are hopeless romantics with Juliette-esque balconies, picnic spreads and …other such contrived contraptions – a rant I shall not embark on today.

The hundred-foot journey in the title is the distance between Maison Mumbai and the French restaurant opposite them the Michelin-starred Le Saule Pleureur where Marguerite is a sous chef. And, in a Cruella de Ville avatar we have Helen Mirren as Madame Mallory the owner of the French restaurant. She and Om Puri share a special chemistry. As much as I enjoyed watching these two amazing actors what kept being a constant niggle was the gender bits (I will come to that eventually). So while Papa Kadam enjoys his kitschy glittery over-the-top flavors, Madam Mallory basks in subtle nuances, discreet manners, and a disdain for the grotesquely garish neighbors. It is also a clash of class. Somehow, being across the road, in a manner of speaking highlights differences, let me here assert that this isn’t India and France. Though the movie seems to allude to that, not all of India is the Kadams and not all of France is like the Mallorys. However, the gravel road between is rather accurate and poetic. As people come and go, visitors, evening walkers and vehicles the serpentine path becomes a living thriving being.

Some sub-plots are cute – the Mayor’s getting caught in the middle, the shopping strategies, the removal of wall scars (paint). Mirren’s comic timing is impeccable. But, the movie fails. The beautiful panoramic shots of France, the haunting sounds of the kitchen do not manage to grab. What bothers me the most is the gender depiction. It is the men who cross-over. Hassan (Manish Dayal) now all grown up gets involved with Marguerite. He moves to the next door kitchen. He masters both crafts – Eastern and Western cuisine. He is the hero — the guy who understands what it is like to come from a culture and integrate into another, without losing himself and displaying an appreciation for both. It is Hassan. Not Mahira (Farzana Dua Elahe) (the daughter, Hassan’s sister). What would have happened if Mahira was the one crossing over? Would Papa Kadam be as generous? Would he have given his blessings if Mahira was the one having an affair with the French chef? What if it was Papa Kadam who had died and not Mama Kadam? And, what about Madam Mallory – the restaurant becomes her life after her husband’s death – the narrative demands our sympathy for her hard-heart – she has lost her husband.

What I write is not the story. It is my reading of what I watched. And, I admit critical thinking has become a deep seated boil in the middle of my forehead. I love movies with food in them: “Ratatouille”, “Julie & Julia”, “No Reservations”, I even enjoyed “Chef”, which most my friends debunked. But, this one, I will have to pass. Because it’s problematic. Hassan’s success has baggage, Marguerite’s acceptance of him has issues, and I can’t look past the gender trouble (thank you Judith Butler) within the script.

I watched “Happy New Year” last week and enjoyed it — the song, dance, humor and massive scale were impressive. I accepted the genre with all its follies, some of which I have come to expect and enjoy. What troubles me is that while I could accept that a bunch of nit-wits from nowhere could win the world dance finale in Dubai in “Happy New Year” I could not digest that a bunch of Indians chefs could land up in the middle of France, start a kitschy Indian kitchen in front of a renowned French restaurant and make a success out of that story in “The Hundred Foot Journey”. My only explanation I can offer as of now (I am still dissecting this within my limited head space leisure time) – is that while “Happy New Year” only pressed my gender switch in one scene in the song “Manwa Laage” where Deepika is shown serving tea to the men who chat, “The Hundred Foot Journey” riled up the entire dashboard.

The question I want answered is – what happens to Mahira? Till then it remains a kebab that went too dry. Dammit still does not work!!!