THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY. Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, and Charlotte Le Bon. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Rated PG (Mild themes and infrequent coarse language). 122 min.
Co-produced by Stephen Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, this American comedy-drama film is based on the best-selling novel of the same name written in 2010 by Richard C. Morais. It tells the tale of an Indian family setting up a restaurant in a French provincial town.
The Kadam family is led by a proud Papa (Om Purin) and he establishes his family restaurant in the picturesque village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in Southern France. Papa's gifted son, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), is the chief cook for it, and he has been taught expertly by a mother who believed passionately that "life has its own flavour".
Papa and his family are refugees from Mumbai in India and they experience major problems when they open their restaurant. Across the street from their business is an established, Michelin-starred, upper-class restaurant by the name of "Le Saule Pleureur" run by a stern, unbending proprietor, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Her Michelin restaurant doesn't sit comfortably at all with "Maison Mumbai" just opposite it, a hundred feet away.
Madame Mallory thinks the competition across the street lowers the tone of her establishment. She reacts immediately to the open-air seating, the loud music, and the chickens outside the new restaurant. She protests officially, buys up wanted produce from the local market, and engages in all-out war. For years, she has been desperate to add another star to her celebrated eating establishment, and Maison Mumbai threatens her dream.
She is incensed at what her neighbours have done, and she does everything she can to discourage them and close Maison Mumbai down. But all that occurs before she tastes Hassan's cooking, which is sublime. Such is his gift for food and fine cooking that she desperately wants to employ Hassan as the only way of achieving her extra Michelin star. She knows that Hassan working for her would also be his "stepping stone to the world".
People who love good eating will warm immediately to this movie. It celebrates the advantages of combining French cuisine with the allure of spicy, Indian cooking. In the course of the movie, Hassan extends his passion for Indian cooking to French cuisine and the artistry of his skill manages to blend two different ways of cooking, and thinking, together. Beneath all the talk about food is a film that demonstrates what can happen when cultures clash.The cultural conflict is reminiscent of some of the messages in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2012), combined with the social consciousness of "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008).
Maison Mumbai serves "murgh masala" and Le Saule Pleureur serves "truffled pigeon", and the coming together of the two ways of cooking make it possible to serve "Beef Bourguignon a la Hassan". Like "Slumdog", the film explores the fortunes and misfortunes of the socially disadvantaged, and like "Marigold Hotel" it shows the soaring of the human spirit over bias. The film tries to establish ethnic harmony through the combination of seemingly-opposing pleasures in eating. In the film, food becomes a metaphor for both cultural tension and cultural harmony. The film is directed with easy charm by Lasse Hallstrom, and excellent photography captures a French village's picturesqueness.
In the final stages of the film, human relationships result in romantic and cultural outcomes that are packaged too neatly. Papa and Madame Mallory are more similar than they care to admit, and Hassan acts predictably on his romantic attraction to the sous-chef (Charlotte Le Bon) across the street. Romance in each case runs its expected course, but it is the early cultural drama and cookbook connections that make the movie.
This film exposes us entertainingly to the subtleties and intricacies of different cultures trying to exist together. But above all, it is quality comfort viewing for all those who love good food and fine cooking.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Walt Disney Studios
Released August 14th 2014