Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Cooking with Stella
Dilip Mehta, director and co-script w/Deepa Mehta
Starring: Seema Biswas (Stella Elizabeth Matthews), Don McKellar (Michael Laffont), Lisa Ray (Maya Chopra), Shriya Saran (Tannu), Vansh Bhardwaj (Anthony)
How do you define a successful comedy? Simple—it’s when you laugh. You don’t have to cry to enjoy a good drama. That’s one essential difference between Jim Carrey and Christopher Plummer as Caesar; there may be others. And why do we laugh? Because something quite visceral strikes our funny bone. (We all have one, I’ve been told.) If you don’t laugh, what would the French say: “chacun a son gout,” to each his—or her—own taste.
Which brings us to a Stella that wants to make us laugh, not cry, like that sad, sexy one in Tennessee’s Williams’ Streetcar. No, this Stella is a slightly rotund (in Yiddish, we’d say “zaftig,” which is sexier) South Asian woman who has been the cook at the New Delhi Canadian High Commission for three decades. She’s a great cook and a good Christian with only one flaw: she pilfers. Stella raids the larder of raw foods, condiments and even detergent. It’s a new way for Canada to give back to another member of the Commonwealth although Stella’s motives aren’t that altruistic. In fact, this is one chef who doesn’t want to be naked; she’d like to retire fully clothed and relatively well off.
Enter Michael and Maya. They’re a brave, new Canadian family, who upturn the clichés of marriage. Stella is shocked to discover that Maya is the brilliant Canadian diplomat and Michael is a househusband and aspiring chef. Mind you, they do have a child: at least that part is traditional. Stella has to acclimatize herself to Michael, who wants to turn her into a gourmet guru chef. He learns lots about cooking but nothing about the larder depletion.
It’s harder to keep secrets from Tannu, the new nanny. She is an idealistic threat, which Stella hopes to neutralize by introducing the pure young woman to her handsome cousin, Anthony. (Sneakily, of course—by having Anthony save her, a knight to her damsel in distress.) And, as Stella hoped, the two fall in love—but who will get the upper hand, the conflicted young man or the pure and beautiful woman?
Dilip Mehta directs this theatrical frivolity with a light touch. And there are some laughs—especially as Stella adjusts to the “new world” of Michael and Maya. Regrettably, the narrative lurches into drama, with Stella engineering a criminal plot that goes awry. In the end, it’s “all good,” as the kids would say today. But the heavy plotting robs the film of its nimble and lovely feeling for far too long before a “feel good” ending makes everything alright.
With a terrific performance by Seema Biswas as Stella and a winning one by Don McKellar as Michael, Cooking with Stella has a lot going for it. I could even imagine another version of the film where Acts Two and Three would be about Michael and Stella launching a restaurant in Delhi with comic results. But—hey—that’s my film. Cooking with Stella shows off Dilip Mehta’s talent; he’ll go further in his filmmaking career. The film is a charmer, which needed more raita (cool yogurt) and less achar (hot pickles) for its dish to be completely successful.