In mid-March, Don and I were lucky winners in a recent Urban Element contest, hosted by Marysol Foucault, event manager and blogger. The prize? Passes to see a sneak preview of Cooking with Stella on the evening of March 25th. Contestants had to answer several questions, such as: “Do you have a favourite Indian restaurant?” “What is your favourite Indian recipe or dish and is it something you make at home?” After emailing Marysol our answers, we soon received word that we won a pass for two.
Here is foodiePrints’ first foray into the movies:
Cooking With Stella
Starring Don McKellar, Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, and Shriya Saran
Directed by Dilip Mehta. Written by Dilip and Deepa Mehta
In English and Hindu with subtitles
Currently playing at major theatres
Running time: 104 mins.
Set in New Delhi, India, Cooking with Stella is an East meets West film. It is meant to be a humourous clash of cultures (Indian vs. Canadian, Hindu vs. Catholic, Old World vs. New World), but what started off as warm and charming becomes confusing, messy, and forced.
The beginning is funny enough, starting with the movie being based on a true story “almost” in the opening credits. Then, it introduces Stella (Seema Biswas), praying fervently in a blue room filled with religious trinkets when her cell phone suddenly rings. She looks to the heavens and gives thanks for blessing her “work.” Later on, we discover she was taking orders for western goods.
The movie then brings us to Michael (Don McKellar) and Maya (Lisa Ray) with their baby daughter, flying from Ottawa to take up a diplomatic post in the Indian capital. There, they are housed in an apartment in the large compound that is the Canadian Consulate. Stella is their domestic and a two-tiered cook, grilling a fine steak for her employers while she cooks a Kerala shrimp curry for herself. Fine cuisine for the Master, traditional peasant food for the domestic help.
Thereafter, some spicy complications begin occurring. Stella, naturally assuming that “Sir” is the diplomat and “Madam” is his tag-along wife, is shocked speechless when she realizes she has it reversed. In fact, the house-husband is a classically trained and award winning chef and the primary caregiver of their daughter.
With his career on hiatus, Michael is eager to expand his culinary skills into the world of Indian cuisine in Stella’s kitchen. Who cares about steak? Michael just wants to learn the secrets of that tantalizing shrimp curry. It is evident Michael is adventurous and determined to introduce his palate to new sensations.
By this point in the movie, numerous culture clashes have occurred, all handled amusingly and with flair. There’s the mutual awkwardness and unease between masters completely unaccustomed to having servants and a servant uncomfortable having such a friendly, accommodating, and gentle masters.
However, despite this seemingly delightful and confusing relationship, Stella is only too happy to take full advantage of Michael and Maya’s naivete and “Canadian” generosity. She helps herself to their enormous walk-in pantry, later selling items such as baby diapers, bottles of Tide, and cases of beer on the black market, making a tidy profit. Stella accepts kickbacks by overcharging grocers, the laundryman, and other domestics. She also swipes jewelery, earrings and cuff-links. Almost ridiculously religious, Stella is convinced God approves of her actions. After all, he must be helping her pad her salary.
Biswas plays the role of Stella well, commanding and captivating the audience’s attention. She is cunning and bossy, and fun to watch until it just stops being funny. The movie’s course changes with the arrival of Tannu (Shriya Saran), the pretty young nanny, hired to take care of the baby. Tannu is as sweet and honest as Stella is crooked. She is a country girl sending money back to help pay the medical bills of her crippled brother. Tannu quickly realizes Stella’s scheming ways, but will she blow the whistle?
Interestingly, there is little warmth or chemistry between Michael and the stunningly beautiful Maya. Maya seems cold and unfeeling, prioritizing her career over his. She often appears to have little care her husband has given up his career.
As for the cooking? Michael repeatedly asks Stella to be his cooking guru, which she eventually accepts. Unfortunately, the title of this movie becomes misleading. Despite a handful of scenes of Stella teaching Michael her secrets, taking him to outdoor markets for fresh ingredients, and Michael trying street food, there is surprising little cooking involved. The kitchen scenes that showcase the teacher-student relationship are few and seem after thoughts in a movie that has too much going on.
Its director Dilip Mehta has all the ingredients to make Cooking with Stella a standout. However, what starts off as a delicious appetizer moves on to a mediocre entree, and ends with a rather confusing dessert. It did not please the palates of these foodie movie goers. The meal was disappointing.
Determination: Two and a half Stars out of five (—**1/2)