Lost in all the hoopla surrounding last year’s Hollywood release of Julie and Julia was the release of two Indian-themed foodie flicks in Today’s Special and Cooking With Stella. Both films have toured the film festival circuit rather well in the past few weeks, and the latter film (Cooking With Stella) opens the eighth annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles today (April 20th).
Directed by Dilip Mehta (brother to acclaimed Indian director Deepa Mehta), the Indo-Canadian filmmaker tells a riveting tale of a young couple’s struggled balance of family, food obsession and social standing in his feature film debut.
The story itself is an interesting triangle between Michael (Don McKellar), his wife Maya (Lisa Ray) and veteran chef Stella (Seema Biswas). Michael and Maya, a Canadian couple, get settled with their daughter into a new home located on a government compound in Delhi. In a reversal of roles, it is Maya who is the breadwinner, working as a high-ranking government diplomat, while Michael securely plays Mr. Mom.
Tensions arise in, of all places, the kitchen, where Michael wants to make a contribution, only to be deceptively blocked at all angles by Stella, a professional chef working the Canadian diplomatic circuit.
As Michael and Stella try to find common ground, an interesting twist is thrown in the mix, what with the diplomatic chef caught up in a few unsavory activities without her latest family suspecting a thing.
Just as the film’s title indicates, Stella is the central character of the story — at first an innocent character that is easy to root for because of her apparent frustrations pursing a (presumably) low-paying, service-oriented dead-end career rubbing elbows with many who consider themselves to be society’s elite. Even Michael and Maya have moments where they blatantly express some level of guilt for Stella’s position near the bottom of India’s totem pole that is a harshly inequitable society. All the while, Stella is scamming everyone in her path with her illegal operation.
It is this dichotomy that gives Cooking With Stella its unique edge, making it a film that is more about anal-retentive chefs being territorial about their artistic endeavors in the kitchen. By aptly massaging into the story perspectives on society-defined separations of class politics, Cooking With Stella is an interesting and refreshing look at how human relations are consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously dictated by how one perceives themselves in relation to others.
Indeed, Dilip Mehta’s film is much deeper than any of the foodie-themed cooking shows on television, the story itself presented in a manner that allows Cooking With Stella to hold its own ground in competing against the likes of Julie & Julia, all without being overtly preachy about the social relations so aptly discussed in the film.
Simply put, Cooking With Stella has all the exoticism one would expect from a foodie-themed film, all while balancing an important storyline that make audiences think more than just about eats once the movie’s end credits begin to roll.
That being said, the film did have a few flaws, such as the occasional over-the-top scenes that take away from the plot’s overall realness. In fact, there are moments where Dilip Mehta appears like he is just trying to hard to force the issue, taking the story places that do not naturally flow with the overall plot scheme.
There are also moments where the film feels disconnected, especially with Stella’s big secret. While an intriguing twist, Dilip Mehta just did not do a good enough job on solidly connecting her unsavory activities to the overarching themes of the film.
Still, Cooking With Stella is a pleasant watch. All three lead actors maintain strong presence throughout the film and are equally convincing in each of their respective roles. Specifically, Biswas’s performance as Stella could not have been better played by anyone else, as the actress perfectly drove home the inner conflicts and struggles of a character of a seemingly innocent woman turned jaded. McKellar and Ray were perfect complements to that inner struggle, with each of their two performances making it easier to understand Stella’s mentality.
All the while, the foodie elements of the film will definitely make the audience’s stomach growl.
The film screens tonight as the Opening Night film at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which runs at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood from today (April 20th) through April 25th.
For more information about IFFLA, please visit its website.