Film critics all over are going overboard with the food metaphors while reviewing “A Hundred Foot Journey”. I shall try to avoid similar pitfalls. Lasse Hallstrom, who directed this has used his earlier hit Chocolat and substituted chocolate with Indian food. Sadly, the result resembles a diluted packet version – overly sweet and rather watery. In A 100 foot journey, a stranded Indian Muslim family fleeing persecution from the riots in Mumbai escape to a wet Britain and eventually end up in the south of France. The scenery is nothing short of … mouth-watering.
In Chocolat, a nomadic single mother and her daughter come with a suitcase of precious cocoa products to cure the ails and ailments of an equally quaint, remote French village. Of course, in that film, there was the rakish Irish-accented Johnny Depp who played the role of a sexy vagabond to everyone’s satisfaction. Issues around racism towards gypsies were explored. Here, the extreme right vandalise the restaurant and spray graffiti on the wall. The big name actors – the gorgeous Helen Mirren and the gruff Om Puri do a good turn, but even they couldn’t do much for the lack of….yes, spice. There were plenty of colourful tandoori platters and fragrant inhalations by Dame Helen, but for some reason a quote from Goodness Gracious Me kept ringing in my ears, “What is the blandest thing on the menu?”
The story begins with a moment of epiphany over a basketful of wriggling hedgehog-like creatures in a seafood market in Mumbai. Sea-urchins, we are told, hold the essence of all truth – turn over the prickly spheres – they could be the passion-fruit of the sea. Oh, weren’t oysters supposed to hold that privileged position? For me, it began to go downhill from there on. The Kadams, who made their living selling kebabs on Chowpatty beach are forced to flee to wet West Drayton, in the flight path of Heathrow, London. Skewering tender delicacies over hot coals in the pouring rain was not a moment of directorial wit. Neither was the prolonged immigration scene at Rotterdam airport where the eldest son, a self-effacing, talented cook offers the official a samosa to prove his culinary credentials.
Hassan Kadam is eager to learn classic French cooking – his family have set up Maison Mumbai with him as the main chef, much to the outrage of snooty Madame Mallory of the Michelin star restaurant opposite. Soon, he perfects the five sauces (Béchamel, Espagnole, Veloute, Hollandaise, Tomate) from a book the lovely Marguerite, a sous-chef at Madame Mallory’s establishment has lent him. He fancies her, but she warns him off – saying that they are both in similar professions. She displays more than a little frisson of jealousy at his overnight success – but in this cliché-ridden film, even that stood out as a pointless attempt at originality. It was an unconvincing pairing up – Hassan and Marguerite shared almost zero on-screen chemistry. Sadly, Manish Dayal has a long way to go before proving himself to be a decent actor, leave alone presenting glazed beetroot. Even the music, by Oscar-winning Indian composer, A.R. Rehman lacked sizzle and was a let down.
There were moments when it felt like a bad Bollywood melodrama – when genius Hassan, who heads off to Paris (at Cordon Bleu) has a crisis of confidence and is seen looking at a sea-urchin with despair. He downs many glasses of wine but doesn’t get convincingly drunk. He is reduced to tears when a fellow Indian chef shares his lunch-box with home-cooked desi food. The director could’ve used the wonderful film Lunchbox (Dubba) for inspiration here as the food they show in this scene was no Indian preparation – just a selection of vegetables. When his cooking gets rave reviews for the use of coriander in the boeuf bourguignon and cardamom flavoured red wine, as a substitute marinade, suspending disbelief was a real struggle.
French cooking, as we well know, is most reluctant to embrace the influences of the cuisines of its former colonies unlike Britain. Croque Monsieur is not served with a dusting of ras-al-hanout (a North African spice). A Hundred Foot Journey isn’t going to change that status quo anytime soon.