Plot: The Kadam family of restaurateurs (endearingly patriarched by Om Puri) moves to a little village in France and set up shop right across the road (“it’s a hundred feet, we measured!”) from a single Michelin star-toting restaurant owned by the ‘rarely seen to be in sympathy with anyone’ Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Hijinks and romances ensue; really, use your imagination. Includes a nubile sous-chef (Charlotte Le Bon) who teaches the young Indian son (Manish Dayal) French cooking in the first steps of his ascent to glory (as defined by the third Michelin star).
Papa Kadam: “Indian cannot be French, and French cannot be Indian!”
Madame Mallory: “I think I just spent all day rubbing those words off your walls.”
I’m rather torn about The Hundred-Foot Journey. In its main thrust it is an entirely wee romcom-y addition to the budding genre about the integration of southeast Asian families into Western countries starring Om Puri as an irascible patriarch; on every other dimension it is a rather non-trivially intelligent movie acutely sensible to the conditions of its world. Originally, I led with a joke about how everyone, unbeknownst to zirself, has always been shipping Om Puri and Helen Mirren (this is true, by the way), but that was clearly doing the film a disservice – which caused me to begin with a tongue-in-cheek summary and one of the film’s most powerful moments (which I won’t bother to explain).
The main thrust of the film is, in case you haven’t yet grokked it, that it’s a romcom. Now, I live for romcoms – or any of the similar genres which consist of people just existing – so I consider that an entirely positive thing. But, here’s the thing, the best romcoms talk about things. The rest, as smiley-weepy as they may make me, are wee. And they don’t even have to be good to not be wee – oddities like Break ke Baad mine non-trivial thematic ground too. This one here, it’s a remarkably well-made romcom; its characters and their motivations and stakes are well-drawn and efficiently exposited, it’s always competently and often beautifully shot, and I was jumping up and down in glee at people deciding to be together. This, make no mistake, is good stuff – no less than you’d expect from Lasse Hallstrom (the director of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) and Steven Knight (writer of Eastern Promises). It, however, is basically wee – to the extent that it thinks that relating food to memories is thematic ground.*
And there’s some actively bad stuff too. Mostly, the first half stinks of the kind of idiotic mysticism that romcoms so love. The film begins with a scene in the market where the young Hassan causes his mother to win a bidding war for sea urchins by smelling the part you’re supposed to eat, because apparently the fisherman is an artist who’ll sell his stuff to… wait for it… the boy who knows. Shortly after, Hassan the youth smells another sea urchin in sea urchin soup while Chawla spouts some arbitrary mysticism about how people like food because there are ghosts in food (and when she began, I thought it was a rant again non=vegetarian food – thus letting me down doubly). This is followed by the Kadams’ car breaking down outside a village because, you know it, ‘brakes break for a reason.’ Fortunately for us and for the film, it soon leaves this sort of stupidity in the dust, only looping back to it selectively at moments of emotional power. Oh, and it really does love its bad jokes – ‘brakes break for a reason,’ anyone? Even though Om Puri can make anything adorable (including the fiim’s funniest moment, which I won’t reveal).
Now for the good stuff. It’s all sideways, for some inscrutable reason.
As Puri and Mirren are fighting their hilariously mundane turf war, we get to see is a clear-eyed development of the integration problem, which recognises all of its participants’ failings and racisms, while all the time maintaining sympathy for all – well, most – of them. This, as well as it is done, is not the best of the film’s qualities.
That would be its almost lived-in understanding of devoting yourself to creation of something matching a standard external to yourself, a situation that is common to artists and scientists and even uncommonly particular carpenters (well, I meant those particular about furniture, but also Jesus if you insist). As an insomniac whose sleep situation is often considerably worsened by the proliferation of malignant negative signs, I can attest to the fact that this shit just doesn’t leave you alone. When the chance turns up of you improving your craft by going somewhere else, it makes absolutely no sense to say no. When the love of your life is considerably your inferior, it can’t but hang between you two. When you find yourself wearing a gas mask while cooking a fish… obviously you have to, otherwise the sparks will fly in your face!
Oh, and it also understands the joy of food, despite its attempts to fool us into thinking the contrary by talking about ghosts. So much so, I’ve decided it’s a disgrace that I don’t know how to cook an omelette and plan to get down to correcting that deficiency… some time.
And! And! The Music was done by A R Rahman. I had no clue till the name flashed on the screen at the end, and for good reason. I mean, there are a few moments of crystal-clear inspiration but otherwise is rather standard.
*I wept a little bit when Hassan remembers all that he’s left behind in the little village by tasting some (horribly misshapen) naan and sabji,