Migration is narrowing the distance among the people of the world and Hollywood is curious about it.
That’s the formula behind The Hundred-Foot Journey, the cinematic adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ bestselling novel, directed by Lasse Hallström and produced by Juliet Blake, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey.
A simplified rendition of Morais’ fiction, the movie introduces the Kadams, an Indian family that leaves Mumbai when political unrest claims not only their restaurant, but also the life of their beloved mother and chef.
After a pause in London where “the vegetables had no soul,” says Hassan, the Kaddams’ culinary genius (Manish Dayal), destiny lands them in France where the spirit-driven, headstrong father decides that they’ll be making their mark. The village they settle in is Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, in the idyllic Midi-Pyrénées section of Southern France.
“This is perfect! We can put our tandoori oven here,” says with excitement Papa (Om Puri) of the large, dilapidated house with a courtyard that sits a hundred feet from Le Saule Pleureur, a cultivated French restaurant with a Michelin star owned by the snobbish Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).
The dramatic and cultural tension is set. The comic flair helps to soften hostilities on both sides when Maison Mumbai, the Kadams’ boisterous restaurant, and the newcomers’ need for survival clash with Madame Mallory’s beliefs of what constitutes proper taste and good food.
“To survive here, we have to adapt. We need to make use of what is close to us, and then we pray God that it works,” says calmly Hassan to his brother Mansur, his right hand in the kitchen, when they have no choice but to pour wine in a traditional Indian dish.
Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the first character the Kadams encounter when their car goes off the road above Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, plays a big part in the family’s cultural adaptation. While her beauty quickly makes an impression on Haddan, it’s her role as Madame Mallory’s sous-chef that turns her into a fateful presence and a powerful ally in a strange land.
The movie delivers an inspired moment of civic duty, if not an unrealistic one under Europe’s current immigration climate, when Madame Mallory takes a personal stand against a hate crime that almost destroys the Indian restaurant and injures Hassan’s hands. Unmasking her own chef as one of the culprits, she first challenges him with a lesson on what being French really means, then fires him on the spot.
“You are a chef,” she tells the defiant Jean-Pierre (Clément Sibony). “I don’t pay you to burn things.” Next, in a departure from real life that often depresses immigrants’ upward mobility, she hires Hassan at Le Saule Pleureur and launches his rise to culinary stardom.
But it’s what happens to him in Paris, where he becomes a national celebrity, that addresses a powerful undercurrent of our postmodern, deracinated lives, and attracted me to the movie: where is home, and what makes it such?
That’s the question that lays at the foundation of my work, and propels my personal journey since I began to map a new life in the United States.
Once in Paris, Hassan no longer channels who he is into his work. Only his skills and expertise are wanted. Away from the acceptance he found in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and Marguerite’s friendship, he loses the emotional connection that grounds him in his new country and, in time, feels lost as well.
“Food is memory. Every bite takes you home,” he breaks down one night when a coworker offers him Indian food prepared by his wife. It’s then that Hassan realizes what he must do to regain his bearings and a sense of home.
An uplifting movie, both for the message of peace between vastly different cultures and Linus Sandgren’s striking cinematography that makes the food and the French countryside leap from the screen, I saw The Hundred-Foot Journey as a message for positive change. Not only for those of us who move around the world to start a new life, but also for the societies that receive us.
Take a city like New York, where I moved over two-decades ago from my hilly region of Umbria. I am one of three million of foreign-born residents, 49 percent of households speak another language besides English. (Data is based on the 2013 statistical report “The Newest New Yorkers,” published by the Population Division of the New York City Department of City Planning.)
All we have to do to interact with other cultures is open the door and let the world in.
Change isn’t coming, it’s already here.
The Hundred-Foot Journey opens August 8.
Some fun facts about the movie and recipes from The Hundred-Foot Journey
- The film was shot on location in the south of France to best utilize the beauty of the Midi-Pyrénées region. The village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val was the on screen home of Le Saule Pleureur and the Maison Mumbai, and several other homes in the neighboring town of Carlus were used to film exteriors of the two restaurants.
- When Hassan makes the omelet for Madame Mallory in the film, it was based on a recipe that Manish Dayal’s father used to make for him when he was a child.
- Every weekend during production, Om Puri invited his on-screen family to his home where he would cook traditional Indian dishes for them, which brought everyone closer and made their bond on screen more natural and believable.
As to the two giant talking heads of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey who came on screen before the movie began to gush about it, they are not one of the fun facts! They reminded me of Sheldon’s mother in “The Oedipal Wreck,” who speaks to Sheldon (Woody Allen) from a cloud as he’s hiding.
Thankfully, Spielberg and Winfrey were on the red carpet, but not on screen when The Hundred-Foot Journey premiered at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York, earlier this week.
Keep an eye on Life In A New World’s social media. We’ll publish selected recipes from The Hundred-Foot Journey over the next few days!