Film: The Hundred-Foot Journey
Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Juhi Chawla, Amit Shah, Michel Blanc, Clément Sibony, Farzana Dua Elahe, Vincent Elbaz
Director: Lasse Hallström
Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey joined forces to produce Swedish director Lasse Hallström’s flavoursome adaptation of Richard C. Morais’s first novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey about Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), a lowly Indian chef who breaks into the rarefied echelons of French haute cuisine. That the novel was a semi-finalist in the 2004 William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition shows in the dialogue tailored for the film by Steven Knight.
Hallstrom and Knight adhere faithfully to Morais’s account of the true costs of rising to the top in one’s profession while following cinematic demands and condensing, for example, Hassan’s 20 page coming-of-age in London to snatches of dialogue between the narrator and the ravishingly pretty sous chef Marguerite (le Bon) or her boss, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who converts from haughty rival to formidable mentor.
An “uniquely Gallic look of nuclear contempt” is Mme Mallory’s initial response to the Indian restaurant located across the street from her elegant, gastronomically exciting establishment. Everything about the eatery (spicy food, décor and loud Bollywood music) appals her refined French sensibility. When Hassan wins a star and yet another in a year or two or less, the press concocts a slumdog personae when he was born above his “grandfather’s restaurant on the Nepean Sea Road.” Hallstrom loves feel-good fairytales (example, his previous helming of Joanne Harris’ postmodern fable Chocolat) and you just know, the two restaurant owners will eventually find common ground in food, glorious food.
The culinary competitors embark on a voyage of discovery and acceptance, in the hundred feet it takes to cross the street winding through the picturesque little village in the Midi Pyrenees. The Kadams new home is a far cry indeed from the hurly gurly of Bombay, which they were forced to flee in the wake of a communal conflagration which consumed Hassan’s mother (Juhi Chawla in a cameo).
The tragedy compels Papa Abbas (Om Puri) to migrate with his children to London (whose veggies were too “cold and soulless” for Hassan’s liking) and subsequently to Europe, where serendipity, a minor mishap and Marguerite make them settle opposite Mme Mallory’s. Food is memories, every bite takes you home are two of the more memorable lines in the movie. Indeed, food serves as a metaphor for the clash of cultures, but it is the human relationships that make the film an interesting watch.
The interactions between Mme Mallory and Abbas, who proceed from insults to dancing; between Marguerite and Hassan and between the insular French chefs in Mallory’s employ and the Kadams are the heart of the narrative. Prejudice is universal, but the film plays safe in its depiction of racial tension.