Synopsis: When Canadian diplomat Maya (Lisa Ray) and her stay-at-home husband, Michael (Don McKellar), are relocated to exotic New Delhi, they inherit a household of Indian servants ruled by the sweet and charming Stella (Seema Biswas). An out-of-work chef back home, Michael persuades Stella to impart her culinary wisdom and help him spice up his own repertoire. As the two prepare a mouth-watering array of colourful and sumptuous cuisines, an unlikely bond begins to form. But Stella isn’t who she appears to be. In fact, she’s secretly cooking up a few schemes of her own…
Oh, how I wanted to see this film. Oh, how I wanted to savour it. Oh, how I was disappointed.
‘Cooking with Stella’ is the story of a Canadian diplomat and her chef husband, who are sent to India for a term. The movie is about their experiences in this new world and their interactions with its inhabitants.
The film is about its inhabitants. The Canadians are only a vehicle for exploring the life of Indians who work in diplomatic missions – who live in their own country but, for all intents and purposes, work abroad. In this film, they have privileges that their countrymen don’t have, but they are also treated differently, based on the values of the people they work for.
Which leads us to Stella, the diplomat’s housekeeper.
She has been around for many years, and has seen many people come through that place. She is taken aback by this new couple, especially the husband, who treats her with respect and more equality. Still, over time she has made herself comfortable, setting the rules and having devised a system to pillage from her employers to the benefit of some of her kin. Despite it all, she continues to do so.
…and then in comes a new maid, potentially grinding her carefully-greased existence to a halt.
The trailer and the title made it seem like a light, food-related film; it sounded like a lot of fun. I soon discovered, sadly enough, that it was mostly a drama, and that the “cooking” part had only little to do with food.
While I enjoyed parts of the film, my expectations were clearly not met. Most of all, I was unhappy with some of its main ingredients:
While I liked her in ‘Bollywood / Hollywood’ and ‘Water’, Lisa Ray was unconvincing in the role of a diplomat; her line delivery was unrealistic and she seemed to sleepwalk her way through her scenes. Meanwhile, Don McKellar was alright as her spouse, and was not as grating as he can sometimes be. Seema Biswas, who plays Stella, was fairly good, but the character was so unpleasant that it was hard for me to see through it.
What I mostly didn’t like was her morality. While some might argue that she had every right to skim from the top to make up for the average quality of life in India, which is comparably poor, my issue is that she never seemed to question her sometimes cruel actions or even hesitate before doing something that would benefit her to the detriment of another; she seemed wholly amoral to me.
In my mind, she must have had it good compared to her peers, so this behaviour could be seen as a “give ’em and inch and they’ll take a mile” scenario. I didn’t understand why she would take advantage of a premium position and why the film wouldn’t question this in any way shape or form – even going so far as to rejoicing in her duplicity.
The ambiguous morality of the film left me perplexed: were they actually supportive of the theft and gross manipulation that was taking place at the hands of Stella?
Another thing that struck me was the thought that perhaps the film might be irresponsible, in that it could reinforce stereotypes about “foreigners” in some people’s minds. By portraying non-white people stealing from whites gleefully and making them the central, if not heroic, figure, doesn’t the film essentially add fuel to the fire? I was left unsure about this matter as well, but it nonetheless left a bad taste in my mouth.
On the whole, ‘Cooking With Stella’ is a good production and it’s a decent first effort by new director Mehta. It’s hardly perfect in tone and the acting can be uneven, but if you think that you can enjoy what’s on the menu despite the subjectively unpalatable overtones, then I would suggest giving this film a taste.