“Cooking with Stella” is a smug, uneven little film that pulls us in with its wacky misunderstandings and musical score out of a Friday night sitcom to knife us in the back with a venomous, loaded social message. If Ruba Nadda’s “Cairo Time” served as a Canadian “Lost in Translation,” Dilip Mehta’s “Stella” is a sort of Canuck “Julie & Julia” crossed forcefully and unnaturally with “Slumdog Millionaire.” Written along with his accomplished filmmaker sister Deepa, the Mehtas’ film, based on an “almost true” story, jumps back and forth in its barely attached subplots until everything is quite overdone.
Indian-Polish-Canadian diplomat Maya (Lisa Ray) has been sent from Ottawa along with husband Michael (Don McKellar) to live at the Canadian High Commission compound in New Delhi. Michael is a former chef to the Governor-General and has been relegated to the role of stay-at-home dad. Servant Stella (Seema Biswas) is initially confused by the unconventional arrangement, but Michael is desperate to up his productivity and implores Stella to help him learn to cook Indian food. Stella seems to be well-meaning at first, beaming away as the guru stereotype. We expect Michael to learn a few things about life, love, the Indian culture and himself that he didn’t know before. Roll credits.
Not so fast. Stella is part of the poor class, resentful and determined to get out of her circumstances. She fences the Canadian family’s groceries, steals their jewelry, and lies about costs in order to skim a bit of money off for herself. For a good long while, the family is never the wiser. They decide to hire a nanny, Tannu (Shriya Saran), who Stella sees as troublesome. This is Stella’s racket, and even though Tannu has a sob story about a sick brother she must send money to, she won’t betray the family’s trust. Tannu meets a young man named Anthony (Vansh Bhardwaj), who comes swooping into frame to Tannu’s rescue and forces her to spend all of her money on tea.
That’s a long list of ingredients, and the film suffers from a fatal tonal imbalance as a result. Anthony and Tannu’s romance is insipid and unnecessary, given that her character’s sole reason for being is a crisis of conscience. The film works best when it provides amusing ironic moments, such as when a cell phone rings in the middle of confession. In fact, the digs at faith in the midst of personal gain could have turned “Cooking with Stella” into a nice little black comedy, but it’s too ready and willing to be all things to all viewers. And given the fact that so much of the servants’ actions comes out of desperation, Mehta rarely shows much of the alternative to scraping by. Over 40% of India’s children are suffering from malnutrition. None are to be found in the film.
I suppose this is where I include the obligatory line about the fact that “Cooking with Stella” doesn’t quite please the palate or what have you. If that’s your kind of review, you’re welcome. The sequences involving food preparation are yummy looking, to be sure. But what begins as a film of the guru-student vein begins to take several sharp turns into different generic categories. “Cooking with Stella” is a light-hearted farce one minute and a weighty social commentary the next, with dashes of Bollywood romance and political intrigue thrown in. By the time a kidnapping plot was thrown into the mix, I wasn’t hungry anymore. You’re welcome again.
What is Mehta trying to communicate with this story? That poverty in India has forced many to bend their ethics and principles in order to get by? That people use religion as a justification for all sorts of unholy practices? That wealthy Canadians are largely ignorant of cultures outside their home country and their ignorance makes them prime targets for thievery and scorn? I doubt that’s the case, but there’s an undeniable pleasure taken in documenting Stella’s shrewdness. Mehta may indeed be making a valid point that those who choose not to see the poverty in India deserve what’s coming. Too bad we’re never given a chance to see it.
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