By Susan JAMES
Disney’s love affair with India (last seen in ‘The Million Dollar Arm’) is on display once more in director Lasse Hallstrom’s succulent foodie adventure, ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’. Adapted from the book by Richard C. Morais, the film makes shopping for tomatoes in an open air market and mushroom hunting in a mountain forest metaphors for love. Filmed in the picturesque Pyrenees, ‘Journey’ follows the efforts of an Indian family to establish their own restaurant across the road from a French one with a prestigious Michelin star.
Papa Kadem and his family are refugees. Former proprietors of a Bombay restaurant, their business was burned out in a political riot and Kadem’s wife killed. Now he and his five children are driving around Europe trying to find a place to settle down. A minor traffic accident lands the family in a small town in southern France and when Kadem sees an old stone building for sale, perfect for his restaurant, he decides to buy it. Unfortunately for him the building is directly across the road from Madame Mallory’s Michelin-starred establishment. She doesn’t want him there. He’s determined to stay. Let the battle begin. Touching on topics of immigration, native hostility and the sheer determination of refugees with no place else to go, the movie never turns into a docudrama but treads lightly, keeping the main focus on the food.
Cooking is the film’s central theme, eastern, western, their differences and what they have in common. And although the haute cuisine turned out by Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) justly famous restaurant is beautifully photographed and no doubt delicious, the exuberance, color and sublime chaos of the Indian food makes the French look a little bit pale, a little bit too polite. That goes for the characters as well. Helen Mirren is always a treat to watch but her Madame Mallory, an obsessed widow fixated on her restaurant and her Michelin star, is far less a main course than her competitor, Papa Kadem, played with omnivorous appetite by Om Puri. Veteran of dozens of Bollywood epics, gravel-voiced, and gravel-faced, Puri is the heart of the film.
Kadem’s second son, Hassan, the appealing Manish Dayal, is a culinary genius, taught how to cook by his late mother. While his father goes to war with Madame Mallory over zoning laws and chicken inoculations, Hassan makes peace with her sous-chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). They flirt in the marketplace; hunt mushrooms in the woods and share picnics that make a viewer want to climb through the screen and sit down besides them. But when Madame Mallory’s chef de cuisine is abruptly fired, Hassan requests a place in her kitchen. That puts him in direct competition with Marguerite and at odds with Papa.
Humor is an important part of the movie and Kadem’s efforts to pull in customers for his fledgling restaurant from kidnapping a dog to highjacking a bicyclist keep the mood light. Naturally the Kadem family will eventually triumph and naturally the cold heart of Madame Mallory will soften. The physical space between them may only be a 100 steps, from the Kadems’ door to hers, but the journey getting there is far from a straight line. See you at the movies!