A modest taste of India
Cooking With Stella serves rich characters, but plot lacks proper blending of spice
Time to put on elasticized pants: Foodie movies are all the rage.
From the buttery scenes of Julie & Julia to this week’s release of Cooking With Stella, filmmakers have rediscovered the simple pleasure — not to mention easy eye candy — of food preparation.
We all like to eat, and we all like to watch delicious food being prepared. It’s a primal thing, no doubt, and Dilip Mehta uses this sensual pleasure as the front door to his narrative feature debut.
Set against the textured backdrop of Delhi, India, the movie opens with Michael ( Don McKellar) and Maya (Lisa Ray) moving into their new home: a government compound in a nice part of the capital city.
The Canadian couple have a young daughter, and in the opening frames, we learn the central caregiver isn’t mom, but dad. Mom is a high-ranking diplomat who spends her days working. Dad stays home and tries to be as productive as possible.
Michael is your classic emancipated male and he’s not hung up on the gender power imbalance, but when he’s denied access to the kitchen, he gets a little frustrated. He wants to make a substantial contribution, but Stella (Seema Biswas) has her own agenda.
A longtime cook for the Canadian diplomatic corps, Stella has seen couples like Michael and Maya pass through Delhi for decades while she lingers in the same dead-end position, completing the same dead-end tasks.
Stella and Michael have a few bad moments at the beginning, but when Michael asks Stella to be his cooking guru and educate him about the secrets of Indian cuisine, Stella gets the ego strokes she craves and warms up to the new boss.
Yet, for all her apparent selflessness, Stella’s got her own groove — and her own contraband dealership.
Without getting into the details of her scam, Stella turns out to be a little more troublesome than we first imagined — but neither Michael nor Maya suspect a thing.
They look at Stella with lingering guilt about the social inequities of everyday Indian life, and try hard to be the openminded social-justice heroes most Canadians imagine themselves to be.
This creates a good wrinkle in Mehta’s rather smooth narrative silk, and gives an otherwise formulaic idea a lot of subtext to play with. Suddenly, this isn’t just a caper comedy, or a foodie movie featuring beautiful people and exotic visuals.
Mehta finds a meditative corner to sit in with the political and social meaning of masters and servants, and with McKellar and Biswas in the central roles, there’s a palpable sense of mental fodder.
The resulting bolus is as colourful as it is ambitious, but by the time it’s finally broken down and digested as the movie progresses, it loses a lot of its flavour.
Mehta tries to keep the dish sizzling with new material and some over-the-top moments, but the harder he tries, the further the f ilm slips over the edge.
Cooking With Stella does a good job of balancing the real and the surreal that is the Indian experience, but it never quite nails the magic alchemy residing in its moving parts.
The story of Stella’s big secret doesn’t mesh with the f ilm’s narrative structure, and at one point, it feels like we’re watching three separate movies.
Because Biswas, McKellar and Ray are standout talents with endless screen presence, Cooking With Stella is easy to watch and a cinch to digest. It’s also guaranteed to make you hungry.
But without a strong ending or a tight plot weave, you may walk away with a frustrating gurgle in the pit of your belly as you seek that little something extra that never quite hit the plate.