Anyone going into Dilip Mehta's Cooking With Stella expecting a savoury culinary comedy — a Julie & Julia with curries — will be in for an unpleasant surprise. Mehta's first feature film turns out to be a mild culture-clash comedy about guileful Indians and gullible Canadians that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Like the soporific Cairo Time, Cooking with Stella is another tale of Canadian innocents abroad.
Like the soporific Cairo Time, Cooking with Stella is another tale of Canadian innocents abroad. This time, the greenhorns in question are Maya (Lisa Ray), an Indo-Canadian diplomat from Ottawa newly posted to the High Commission of Canada in New Delhi, and her husband, Michael (Don McKellar). While Maya adjusts to her important new job in the Indian capital, Michael, an out-of-work chef, has agreed to play househusband and care for their infant daughter.
Only Michael is more ambitious. He wants to use his time on the subcontinent to learn the art of Indian cooking. When he meets Stella (Seema Biswas), the motherly cook and housekeeper assigned to the family at their official lodgings, he thinks he's found his guru. Stella, a lifelong servant with a strong sense of propriety, is disconcerted by Michael's insistence on hanging out in her kitchen and treating her as an equal, but she finally agrees to teach him her classic South Indian recipes.
Stella, however, is not quite the sweet "auntie" she appears to be. When not whipping up dosas and dal, she runs a profitable black-market operation out of the Canadian compound, secretly selling off duty-free supplies like Tide detergent and Big Rock ale (nice to see some Canadian product placement in a movie for a change). Nor are her schemes limited to petty theft. After Maya and Michael hire Tannu (Shriya Saran), an honest young woman from the sticks, to serve as a nanny, Stella slyly sets out to corrupt her and make her an accomplice.
We ought to enjoy Stella's cunning, the way we love watching a slick con artist fleece the suckers. It's not much fun, however, when those suckers are just guilt-ridden Canadians who'll give you their rupees before you can steal them. Michael and Maya are such soft targets, we begin to lose interest in them — and so does the movie. About midway through, Mehta shifts his focus to the attractive young Tannu, who becomes enamoured of the mysterious, dashing Anthony (Vansh Bhardwaj) after he gallantly rescues her from molesters in a scene spoofing Bollywood romances. Shades of Deepa Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood!
Deepa is Dilip Mehta's older sister, and she was heavily involved in Cooking With Stella, as both executive producer and co-author of the screenplay. The picture feels like an attempt to combine Bollywood/Hollywood's frothy parody with the contemporary social commentary of her dramatic films Fire and Heaven on Earth. If that's the case, it doesn't succeed. The character of Stella is meant to confound South Asian stereotypes — she's a devout Catholic who prays fervently to the Virgin Mary when not cutting crooked deals on her cellphone (her ringtone is Jingle Bells). At the same time, though, the film promulgates the notion that India's poor are all crafty and venal. The Mehtas want to both subvert clichés and revel in them.
Then there's Michael, whose blithe attitude makes him kin to Patricia Clarkson's sheltered UN wife in Cairo Time. In the era of the global village, I find it hard to believe that intelligent middle-aged Canadians — especially ones with spouses attached to the diplomatic corps — would blunder into foreign countries with no sense of how these societies operate. These New World naïfs are a throwback to the age of Henry James.
Besides, Michael and Maya turn out to be a boring couple. The film makes a lame attempt at working up some tension between them, with Michael venting his resentment over putting his own career on hold in favour of his wife's. Cry me a river, white boy — you're living a life of luxury in India and you're married to Lisa Ray.
Biswas (who appeared in Deepa Mehta's Water) brings some subtle spice to the role of dumpy, bespectacled Stella, the submissive domestic with mischief in her heart. However, McKellar is so bland in that well-meaning-Canadian way that he barely registers as her foil. As a result, the aforementioned "culture clash" has all the force of a piece of fluffy naan landing on a plate.
Ray is unsympathetic as Maya. Saran and Bhardwaj as the young lovers never develop beyond their stock characters. At one point, the doe-eyed Saran even sheds that lone, gem-like tear so beloved of Bollywood. By then, the movie has slipped from a semi-realistic comedy to a broad satire. Before you know it, we're dealing with wacky plot twists and a squad of Indian Keystone Kops.
Shot by Giles Nuttgens, Deepa Mehta's longtime cinematographer, the film contrasts the Club Med-like luxury of New Delhi's Canadian compound with the teeming street life beyond its walls. The latter is mostly restricted to the market where Stella takes Michael in the search for fresh, authentic cooking ingredients. What's missing is any real sense of the grinding poverty that leads India's lower castes to turn to crime — something that Slumdog Millionaire, despite its fairy-tale story, did superbly.
Finally, Cooking With Stella is belittling both to Indians and to Canadians. It may introduce us to some mouth-watering dishes, but its regressive viewpoint is hard to stomach.
In English and Hindi, with subtitles.
Cooking with Stella opens in Toronto and Vancouver on March 19 and in Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria and Winnipeg on March 26.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.