Cooking With Stella

If you read my posts regularly then you know I have a fondness for films that are about restaurants and or cooking. I’ve had pretty good luck dealing with films or an occasional TV series from Japan that fit into this genre. So when another film in this niche popped onto my radar – I couldn’t resist it.

This time we are looking at a Canadian/Indian made film that was set in Delhi, India, and was directed by Dilip Mehta. Dilip and his older sister, Deepa Mehta co-wrote the film. Deepa is herself a noted film director, most widely known for her series of three dramatic films entitled Earth, Fire, and Water that are about the nature of human relationships.

This time out, a Canadian diplomat has been posted to the Canadian Embassy in New Delhi, India. You will be surprised to discover, only moments into the film, that the diplomat is the wife, and her spouse is a house-husband who is also a chef. They arrive, as do most flights from the West very early in the morning which provides us with the first of many visual treats – the drive into town through the morning mists.

They’ve taken housing within the Embassy compound, and are pleased to discover that their condo includes the services of a cook/housekeeper named Stella. Now Stella has worked for the Canadian High Commission for 30 years, serving different families who have accepted the diplomatic postings to New Delhi. The film is entitled Cooking With Stella, and indeed, she is a superb cook.

You bring apple pie. Why would I do that? Because white people like Indian pudding and Indian people like apple pie …

However, that’s not all she is – but, for the moment –  I’ll leave that thought on the side, and get back to it.

The film is set in the present (2009) and was filmed on location in both New Delhi as well as Delhi. We are treated to the beautiful visuals of New and Old Delhi like the Rajpath, the India Gate, the Jama Masjid Mosque, and the Indian government and administrative buildings with their distinctive Edwin Lutyens designed, Rajput styled architechture.

We also visit various parks and some of the shopping bazaars likely in the Old Delhi area near Connaught Way, and everywhere we go, the colors are beautiful, the lighting is absolutely perfect and the film will dazzle you visually.

Let’s have a look at the cast which will also dazzle you visually:

In the title role of Stella, we have Seema Biswas. Stella is a cook, she will manage the family household, and beyond that she’s a thief. She’s literally got her hand in the cookie jar throughout the whole film.

As Michael Laffonte we have Don McKellar. He’s the house-husband and he’s chafing about it, meaning he’s had to put his career on hold, so his wife could advance in her diplomatic profession. You’d have thought that he and his wife would have discussed this posting in-depth before deciding that they would leave hearth and home in Toronto. But all is not lost. Michael believes that with Stella’s help he can get a cooking school up and running for ex-pat wives in the diplomatic community.  As his wife, the Canadian diplomat Maya Chopra, we have Lisa Ray. As Maya describes herself, her father was Indian, her mother was Polish. Stella wonders about this – half Indian, half Polish yet full Canadian? Maya is career-centric and is willing to give up the care and raising of her child to her husband and then to a nanny that they will hire.

As the nanny Tannu, we have the beautiful Shriya Saran. She’s hired because Stella is not a nanny. She’s gorgeous, she’s a small town girl, and she’s hired as a live-in nanny for $75 a month. On top of that, she’s scrupulously honest.

There are two other characters that come into play that should be mentioned. One is Maury Chaiken who plays the Canadian Ambassador to India. Chaiken, who you will remember for his role as the tough guy movie producer Harvey Weingard on the Entourage TV Series, passed away 16 months after this film was released.

The other character is called Anthony. He’s a young man who will be paired up with Tannu. The actor’s name is Vansh Bhardwaj.

On the Left is Lisa Ray as Maya. On the right is Vansh as Anthony.

There’s your set up. While the film looks great, and the actors do give fine performances, I think I have to say a few things about the perceptions that this film brings forth. First are the Canadians characters – they are good people, well intended, you could even call them egalitarian; but they’re oblivious (or simply dumb) to the fact that Stella is robbing them blind on a near daily basis. This isn’t much of a spoiler, as Stella is shown stealing pearl earrings only moments after we are introduced to her. But I’ve read in more than a few places, that some real life Canadian film goers were offended by how these Canadian characters were portrayed.

L-r: Mehta, Saran, Ray, Biswas, McKellar

Of course there is the other side of the same coin. From the green grocers to the embassy gardeners to the laundry-wallahs – they’re all sharing the proceeds in one scheme after another all engineered by Stella. No one is hurt, there are no assaults – the crimes are all about taking the money from the Canadian pockets and putting it into the Indian pockets. But Indian viewers as well as NRI’s (Non-resident Indians living anywhere in the world outside of India) would be offended by the portrayals of their countrymen and women. Stella believes she’s a modern-day version of Robin Hood – that she’s not really stealing, she”s simply re-distributing funds. While Stella espouses this, it still irks because so many of the Indians in the film are set up so we have no choice but to consider them as willing participants in the misdeeds.

The other point I must make is that from the title, you’d assume that the film would have cooking and delicious looking food at its core, and that we’d see it throughout the film. You’d also think that the film would be some what light-hearted and festive. But the film changes course after setting us up to expect a lot of cooking lessons and so forth. It turns dramatic, and this is where the screenplay loses its way. And this is where I thought the film was most disappointing.

On that basis, I’m going to rate this film as a three-point zero on the one to five scale. This is a film that’s nice to look at, has attractive characters, and excellent location shooting. In short these qualities are all very pleasing and absolutely presentable – but as you watch, you’ll be saying that this film is an equal-opportunity offender. And that could leave a bad taste in your mouth. The film’s tagline is Deception is best served spicy. From the DVD box – Sometimes the help must help themselves. But  no matter how much spin you add to thievery, and no matter how much saffron, turmeric, cardamon, and fenugreek spices are added to this over-seasoned  masala of a movie, you might come away from viewing this film with something like the sense of needing a mint. Sort of a filmy Delhi-belly if you’ll allow me that much. You will get past that sensation for sure, and would even watch this film again, if for no other reason than  the fine imagery.

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