Bridging cultures with food and proximity

Karl Wells
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‘Hundred-Foot Journey’ celebrates food, life and love

“The Hundred-Foot Journey”
Directed by Lasse Halström
Empire Cinemas

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” was based on the novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais. Morais also penned the novel “Buddhaland Brooklyn.”

I was introduced to the former novel many years ago by John Crosbie, a longtime reader of this column. His Honour was in Government House at the time and he and Jane Crosbie were hosting a private visit by the Morais family. Morais senior had resided in Newfoundland for a period years ago.

Richard C. Morais had just completed the first, shorter version of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and John gave me a copy to read. He thought I’d like it. Well, I loved it.

Later I wrote to Morais to tell him how much I’d enjoyed the book and was thrilled to be told that he was expanding the book with new chapters dealing with Hassan Kadam’s (the protagonist’s) time in Paris.

Later Morais kindly sent me an email with the new chapters of

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” attached. I remember telling him, or perhaps the Crosbies, that the book would make a wonderful film. “It will be. Merchant and Ivory have bought the rights,” I was told.

The film

The movie has been made (not by Merchant-Ivory) but by DreamWorks SKG and directed by Lasse Halström. If you’re familiar with some of Halström’s later films (“The Shipping News,” “Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules”) you won’t be surprised to learn that “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is dialogue driven. And the dialogue is darn good, thanks to writer Steven Knight. I think I’d be right in guessing that actors must love appearing in Halström’s films because they know they’ll get to speak believable, meaningful, to-the-point lines.  

Hassan Kadam’s (Manish Dayal) story begins in Mumbai where Hassan’s family operates a restaurant. We learn early in the film of Hassan’s special relationship with food, captured succinctly by the few closeup frames on young Hassan’s (Rohan Chand) face as he smells a fresh sea urchin at a Mumbai market. We know the perfume rising from inside that shell is speaking to him like it could never speak to most mortals. It will come as no surprise, later, to learn that Hassan has a special gift for cooking  

As Hassan grows, he is taught the art of Indian cooking by his mother who dies early and tragically in the “The Hundred-Foot Journey” as a result of violence that forces the family to move to London. They do not thrive in England and move to the continent. Old Blighty was too cold, and as Hassan forthrightly tells an incredulous Rotterdam customs agent, “The vegetables in England had no life, no soul.”

Seeking vegetables

As Hassan, his Papa (Om Puri) and siblings wander through Europe in a clapped out van, Papa periodically stops so they can taste the local fruits and vegetables. Presumably he is in search of produce that will be worthy of the Indian dishes (precious family recipes) a future Kadam restaurant will serve.

Eventually the van breaks down in the southern French village of Saint Antonin Noble Val and that is where the bulk of the film unfolds. Papa Kadam (who regularly speaks to his deceased wife) stubbornly decides to open a restaurant, Maison Mumbai, in the village because that is what his wife wants.

His children think he is bonkers because not only does he want to open an Indian restaurant in France, where people live for French cuisine, he wants to open a restaurant exactly 100 feet across the road from Le Saule Pleureur, a restaurant with a Michelin star. (The French see one star as great, two as utterly amazing and three stars as a gift from God.)

From the moment the Kadam family moves in, rising tension exists between Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the arrogant owner of Le Saule Pleureur. The tension is based on a clash of cultures, insensitivity, misunderstanding and ignorance.

Duelling restaurateurs

For the most part this theme plays out in humorous sophomoric attempts by Mallory and Papa to foil each other’s business. Mirren and Om Puri were perfect casting choices for these particular characters and play their scenes at just the right comedic temperature. Papa’s displays of indignation are particularly effective.

Eventually, the war of words and misdeeds ends ,and Mallory and Papa become very close friends. The catalyst is Hassan, who makes the 100-foot journey across the road and joins Le Saule Pleureur to learn classic French cooking. He becomes such a success that he is lured to Paris with the promise of fame and stardom.

There’s a richness about the novel “The Hundred-Foot Journey” that is barely suggested in the movie. An example would be the treatment of food and cooking. Where were the lingering food close-ups, the colour? An exception was a beautifully shot sequence of an omelette being prepared by Hassan and Mallory. Brilliant yellow egg yolks gently fall into a bowl with fine grains of salt slowly raining down to join them.

I came away from “The Hundred-Foot Journey” finding it difficult to remember many food images apart from fleeting shots of a tray of Indian food (chana masala, dal?) and a plate of pigeon with black truffles prepared by Hassan for Mallory.

Questionable casting

More consequential was casting Manish Dayal as Hassan. He did not successfully convey the character’s passion for food and cooking. Not once did he convince me that he had actually cooked anything he was supposed to have prepared in “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” unlike Tony Shalhoub’s Primo in “Big Night.” (Oh how I’d love some of Primo’s Timpano now.)

Sadly, Dayal wasn’t much more effective in convincing me, as Hassan, that he had what it took to win over Hassan Kadam’s love interest in the film, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow cook, or that she aroused any carnal urges in him. There was zero chemistry between these two. Falling for each other seemed implausible.

On a positive note, I was convinced that Marguerite was capable of cooking something.

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” really belongs to Helen Mirren as imperious Madame Mallory and Om Puri as feisty, relentless Papa Kadam. Their scenes, together and apart, are delightful to watch. Arguing in the street or embraced in a romantic slow dance.

With Mirren and Puri, you’ll witness real film acting craft. It is what saves “The Hundred-Foot Journey” from being just another run-of-the-mill foodie flick.

 

Rating: * *          

* Fair  * * Good  * * * Excellent  * * * * Exceptional

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of

“Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of

Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells.

Organizations: Government House, DreamWorks SKG, Shipping News Cider House Rules Canadian Culinary Federation Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Mumbai, England London Rotterdam Europe France Paris

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