I feel like a Japanese Daruma doll when defending Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred-foot Journey. Whichever way you strike them, they bounce right back.
Journey is a good film, not great. I’m a big supporter of the middle ground between mainstream and arthouse films. When mainstream movies — primarily entertaining, feel-good films — also give us something to chew on, they may nudge a wider audience to reflect on issues, than an arthouse film would. Journey is about a Muslim family (Om Puri, Manish Dayal et al) who, fleeing the Mumbai riots, settle in a French village and set up an Indian restaurant that competes with the French restaurant across the road run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). But after Mme Mallory takes the young Indian chef Manish under her wing, he earns her restaurant a Michelin star, and wins the love of her charming French sous-chef Marguerite.
As a feel-good film, the Hundred-Foot Journey could have been content to be a food-porn film with an international star cast, peppered with romance and a happy ending. But in exploring the journey as metaphor, it is also a paean to the enterprise of Indians in exile; it addresses racism and communalism in both India and France, and hints at how one may conquer racism and cohabit. Of course, the plot is pat and airbrushes horrific communal violence, and one does expect more from a film produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. But in fact, it’s a Hollywood masala fantasy film, like Bollywood’s Chennai Express, from which nobody demands logic or realism. Besides, according to boxofficemojo, Journey has so far grossed $32 million in the US alone.
Journey dislodges the tired, enduring Oriental/Indian stereotypes, from The Indian Tomb, The Tiger of Eschnapur and Gunga Din to Indiana Jones — portraying Indians as inscrutable, wily, sexually predatory thugs who need Westerners to save them from themselves. In Journey, a Frenchwoman needs an Indian to earn a Michelin star and rise in her own society. Pas mal, eh? Never mind that Manish’s route to the Michelin star is via cauliflower ice cream (eeuuww!) and Indian spices sprinkled over pigeon and truffles (kabootar, bah, please take them all).
A slew of recent foreign films has Westerners discovering that Indians are the good guys — films aimed at tapping the Indian market, and peddling universal stories set in exotic India. Apart from Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, these include John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which ageing British pensioners discover a warm, resourceful India; Craig Gillespie’s Million Dollar Arm, in which a desperate American sports agent grooms Indian sportsmen to play baseball in America; and John Jeffcoat’s superb Outsourced, in which an American, about to be laid off, finds a job — and love — in India.
And India isn’t only passively accepting images of itself manufactured in the West: we can give back as good as we get — well, almost. In Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan, a Bollywood film had the gumption to send an ordinary Indian on a mission to meet the American President, with an anti-racist message that demanded justice and humanity. A strategic Hollywood-Bollywood-Arab collaboration, the film, co-produced by Karan Johar, Image Nation of Abu Dhabi, and Fox Star Studios, found audiences worldwide, including underserved Muslim communities, earning $42 million globally, according to boxofficemojo.com.
It is significant that Image Nation, an Arab company, has co-produced My Name is Khan, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Hundred-Foot Journey. India’s Reliance Entertainment, which has a $325 million investment deal with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, has co-produced many films, including Lincoln, War Horse and The Help. Yash Raj’s YRF Entertainment coproduced Grace of Monaco, that opened the Cannes Film Festival. As more money from South Asia and West Asia funds international films, images of Asians and Arabs will accordingly be upgraded to business class. We’re getting there. My favourite line in Journey comes when Mme Mallory sniffs, “Why add spices to a 200 year old recipe?” and Manish coolly retorts, “Perhaps 200 years is long enough?” Touche.
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.