“The Hundred-Foot Journey” - Lasse Hallstrom (2014)

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) is an American-made dramatic comedy set in France.  Based on the novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais, it tells the tale of the cultural clash and rivalry that takes place in a French town when an Indian restaurant is opened across the street (100 feet away) from an upscale, haute-cuisine local restaurant.  Directed by veteran Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, 1999; Chocolat, 2000), the film has been a big commercial success.

The story begins with the Kadam family migrating to Europe after (as shown in flashbacks) an unruly mob in India that was embroiled in some unspecified political conflict had burned down their family restaurant in Mumbai.  With Mama Kadam having been killed in the blaze, the family now consists of the vigorous patriarch, Papa Kadam (played by Om Puri), along with his five children. Due to the happenstance of their family touring van breaking down on the road near a picturesque, provincial French town, they decide to settle there.  The middle-aged, but still energetic, Papa Kadam soon decides to buy a defunct restaurant site and turn it into his own style of Indian restaurant.

The problem with Papa Kadam’s plan, as his young-adult children point out to him, is that French people don’t customarily eat Indian cuisine, and the site he has chosen for his restaurant is directly across the road from an established French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur ("The Weeping Willow"). The restaurant is owned and run by a haughty middle-aged woman, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who treasures her sense of class and the fact that her restaurant is the only one in the area that has the difficult-to-achieve Michelin one-star rating.

So the stage is now set for an all-out “war” between the two competing restaurants, which represent contrasting extremes along several lines – food, culture, cosmopolitanism.  The narrative focalization centers on three key figures:

  • Madame Mallory, the culinary perfectionist who represents the refined and disdainfully exclusivist French.
  • Papa Kadam, the never-say-die competitor, who represents the boisterous and scruffy Indians.
  • Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), the second-eldest son of Papa Kadam and the chef for his restaurant.  Partly because of his romantic interest in Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a French girl who works as a sous-chef for Madame Mallory, he politely tries to be a peacemaker and find an accommodating common ground between the two seemingly irreconcilable competing camps.

The comedic elements of the film arise from the various belligerent ploys undertaken by the two warring sides.  Throughout much of it, most of the characters, especially Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam, are shown as exaggerated stereotypes, with only Hassan appearing to be a normal and compassionate human being.  This naturally makes him the hero in this tale. 

The escalating conflict culminates when Jean-Pierre (Clément Sibony), the belligerent and racist chef for Madame Mallory, arranges for some thugs to torch the Kadam restaurant, just as had happened back in Mumbai.  This regrettable event, which results in serious injuries to Hassan, is a step too far for Madame Mallory.  She summarily dismisses her chef and tries to make amends with the Kadam family.  Eventually, she even hires the talented Hassan, at a good salary, to be her chef to replace Jean-Pierre (thereby inducing him to take a “hundred-foot journey”). This rapprochement, combined with the emerging culinary talents of Hassan, leads to aspirations for Le Saule Pleureur to achieve a second Michelin star.

To be sure, The Hundred-Foot Journey is one of those “food movies”, and by this I don’t just mean a movie in which food is an important factor in the story; I mean a movie that is virtually about food.  Throughout the film there are closeup shots of either French or Indian cooks preparing their scrumptious dishes with carefully chosen spices.  It doesn’t show the food being delivered to the clientele or being eaten, just the obsessive preparation of it.  There is a tradition of such films, including Babette’s Feast (1987), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), and Chocolat (2000), and they seem to attract a devoted following of food (preparation) lovers.  I am not a devotee of this genre, but I do have a particular liking for Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), and The Fish Fall in Love (2006).

Outside of the scope of the genre, the film has some limitations.  The characterizations are a bit too over-the-top to have any believability, although both Helen Mirren and Om Puri (who has appeared in an astonishing total of about 280 mostly Bollywood films over his career), do very well within the limitations of their roles. For the one role that is more nuanced and realistic, that of Hassan Kadam, there is a different issue. Manish Dayal affects something of a cherubic demeanor in this role, but his persistent stubble-beard looks slovenly and put me off. I know there is a whole sector of society that likes to see guys sporting a perpetual 3-day facial hair growth, but to me it displays an attitude and represents a weak attempt to project manhood.

The cinematography in the film is variable. For example, the two fire-bombing scenes when the two Kadam Indian restaurants are torched on two separate occasions are so chaotic and stroboscopic as to be just confusing blitzes of flashing lights.  On the other hand on the occasion of when Papa Kadam is having his new restaurant built, there are two sequential tracking shots – one of 40 seconds and the following one of 66 seconds – that are truly wonderful. Actually these two shots are almost seamlessly put together and work as a single roving witness, as the camera almost hypnotically follows the multifarious activities undertaken by the various family members.

Anyway, if you truly are a food-movie fanatic and you are really into food, then you would probably know that the competition was always likely to be one-sided.  After all, is there any other national cuisine in the world as rich and tasty as Indian food?

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