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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Hundred-Foot Journey, Review: Worth going far to watch

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Worth going far to watch

Riots, destruction of  his restaurant, and his wife (Juhi Chawla)’s death push Papa Kadam (Om Puri) and his four children out of India. The family moves to London, eventually settling in a quaint village in France. The village is both picturesque and elegant – the ideal place to settle down and open an Indian restaurant. And so, the Maison (house) Mumbai is born.

The cold and stiff chef-proprietress of Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin (hotel rating group of critics in France) one-starred (on a scale of 1-3), classical French restaurant, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), gets wind of it. Her protests against the new Indian restaurant a hundred feet from her own escalate to all out war between the two establishments – until Hassan (a cook prodigy)’s passion for French haute cuisine, and for Mme. Mallory’s enchanting sous (under/assistant) chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), combine with his mysteriously delicious talent, to weave magic between their two cultures and imbue the village with the flavors of life that even Mme. Mallory cannot ignore. Mme. Mallory eventually recognises Hassan's gift as a chef and takes him under her wing. More glory will follow Hassan.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is based on a 2010 debut novel by Richard C. Morais. Morais worked for Forbes magazine for 25 years. An American born in Portugal (he has Portuguese blood) and raised in Switzerland, Morais has lived most of his life overseas. To quote him, “A hundred-foot journey begins that moment when you bravely drop what is familiar and cross over into a new realm that is far out of your comfort zone. It is a profound journey, however small in physical distance, that materially changes the course of your life for the better.”

These words could easily describe producer Juliet Blake’s journey that began when she read, Richard Morais’s novel for the first time. At the time, Blake was an executive with National Geographic Channel. Blake already had Mirren and Puri in mind for their parts upon first reading the book. “I had always loved Om Puri and Helen Mirren, and I knew that they both had this extraordinary range.” When it came to selecting a screen-writer, Blake knew she wanted an English writer “because they understand the Indian immigrant experience. Steve (Steven Knight) and I had grown up 125 miles away from each other. We all grew up with Indian pockets around us and used to eat curries every Sunday night.” She was so very right on all three choices. Om is so appealing and natural, Helen is studiedly perfect and Steven’s screenplay is easy-flowing and slice-of-life. Morais is happy at the way he has made some of the portions lighter and more humorous than he had penned them.

Steve Knight read English Literature at University College, London. In 1988, he and Mike Whitehill started a freelance writing partnership, providing material for television. They wrote The Detectives and devised game shows, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with David Briggs. He avoids going deep into the Muslim identity of the family, and manages to deal cleverly with issues like their restrictions on food and wine. He (I assume) changes the family surname from Haji to Kadam, perhaps to avoid any controversy. (Haji means one who has performed the Haj, but is also a mere surname in some cases).  That does sound odd. Though Kadam is the surname of many a hotelier family in India, it is not a Muslim surname.

Talking about inspiration for the character of Madame Mallory, Morais has said, “She was modelled a little bit on my grandmother. She was very formidable, with very high standards, and also a little unforgiving of others when they didn’t meet her impossible expectations. But she also had a spiritual side that softened her with age. Madame Mallory is probably drawn more from some of those severe, elderly Swiss women, like our landlady in Zurich, who loomed large in my Swiss upbringing.”

But the film is as much the story of Hassan and Marguerite, as it is of Papa and Mallory. Manish Dayal, who plays Hassan, is relatively fresh and ideally de-briefed for the role. There is a natural vulnerability about him and a distant look that says a lot. He starred in the CW's 90210 reboot and AMC's Rubicon. Most recently, he co-starred in the ABC Family series Switched at Birth. Dayal was born in a small town in South Carolina, and grew-up with a distinct southern accent. In the film, he has to first deliver his lines with an Indian accent, moving on to that of ‘an Indian learning to speak French’, and finally to that of a French resident. He also took French cooking lessons to prepare for his role, though cooking was an important part of growing up in his Gujarati family. Dayal was not a huge fan of Bollywood while growing up, but is open to Indian cinema, minus the song and dance routines. For someone whose interest in films was sparked by Spielberg's Jurassic Park, meeting its creator at the start of the Hundred-Foot project (Spielberg is aslo a p[roducer on ths film, as is Oprah Winfrey) was a dream come true.

Montreal-born actress Charlotte Le Bon was discovered by Steven Spielberg for the role. Her French-language movie, Yves Saint Laurent, is a French drama releasing just about now. Le Bon just shot The Walk, with director Robert Zemeckis. Le Bon, now 27, is highly impressed with co-star Helen Mirren. “I want to be like that when I grow up,” she has said, of the Oscar-winning English veteran. “She’s so powerful. She is the kind of woman that just owns the place. And it was very inspiring to see her work and actually to see her struggle at times and she’s asking herself questions and she’s changing stuff and she’s talking with the director and with us, too.” Not that she chose projects like The Hundred-Foot Journey. They chose her. Spielberg picked her for her vitality and crazy sense of humour. In the film, she is intense, physical, spontaneous and sensual. Bien venue et bon chance, Charlotte Le Bon!

Morais’s book itself leads to such human drama that it makes the task of the actors that much easier. Many readers found it to be close to a screenplay. Guess why? “I always wanted to be an actor. My route into fiction is acting. For a little while, I get to pretend I’m in another culture. It’s a fine balance—that first layer of stimulating the imagination, then doing enough research.” Watch out for the scene where the now a national celebrity chef Hassan reveals his favourite dish---jalebi--and you'll get to know what I mean!

Swedish director Lasse Hallström is renowned for his sensitive but unsentimental depictions of childhood in films such as My Life as a Dog (1985, Spielberg’s all-time favourite), which brought him international attention and an Oscar nomination. He made his first feature, the romantic comedy A Guy and a Girl, in 1975, and soon afterward cheered pop-music fans with ABBA: The Movie (1977). He has directed several American productions, including What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000). Would Spielberg have made a better film than what Hallström has? I doubt. Characters, drama, greatest attention to detail, the felicity with which the cast translates dialogue from one language to another, vibrant images, colours that leap out (thanks to the preference of film over digital, at least in some parts), a natural approach to extracting performances—where do you fault him? Maybe the cutting points could have been better, maybe the three siblings could have delivered more convincingly, maybe a little back-story would go well, maybe some Muslim cultural and religious references (other than their code on food and wine) were in order! Never mind the side dishes; enjoy the main course.

Rating ***1/2



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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