Utpal Borpujari

November 4, 2008

For the love of food


A senior editor with the Forbes magazine, Richard Morais has cooked up his first novel as a tribute to his friend, the late Ismail Merchant, writes Utpal Borpujari


The story goes that Ismail Merchant, the late filmmaker of the Merchant-Ivory duo, used to whip up some mouthwatering Indian dishes meal whenever he would want to get a top Hollywood star signed for one of his projects. And more often than not, they would fall for the trick – obligingly signing on the dotted line after a finger-licking meal. Well, it seems that the magic of his cooking also inspired hard-core economic journalists – at least one of them – to turn to fiction writing.


The journalist in question is Richard Morais, US-based senior editor with the Forbes magazine and a foodie himself, and the outcome of his inspirational friendship with Merchant is The Hundred-Foot Journey, his debut novel published by Harper Collins. 


It all started with the occasional cooking sessions and frequent eating-out sessions Merchant used to have with Morais in London, where the latter was posted then. On one such occasion, when the two were dining at the legendary Bombay Brasserie, one of the oldest Indian restaurants in Central London and a favourite joint of stars like Marlon Brando, Tom Cruise  and Will Smith, that Morais asked Merchant why he had not yet merged his two loves – cooking and filmmaking. The reply simply was, “It is a good idea.” Soon thereafter, Morais was on holiday with his wife and daughter, walking on the beach at an island located between England and France, when it suddenly struck him – the idea to write a story that could be converted to a film by his good friend.


“That’s how my novel got started, but unfortunately he died before I could finish it,” says Morais, fondly recalling that the character of his protagonist Hassan’s father was modelled on Merchant, with his gregarious traits reflected on how he behaves – “the way Merchant was loud and got into a lot of trouble in a funny way but quickly made up everytime by conjuring up a great meal!”


Morais, who has been to Mumbai and Gujarat on professional assignments before he wrote the novel, has a transcontinental setting for his story that starts in Mumbai and has its end-game in Paris. Hassan Haji, the protagonist, travels from his family-owned modest restaurant in Mumbai to become a hot shot chef in Paris, making many a compromise on the way. Though with comic undertones, the story talks of clash of cultures fought in a culinary way, as Hassan finds his antagonist in an ageing woman chef in France.


“Yes, my story uses food to talk about clash of cultures. In fact, I myself am culturally confused – I was born in Portugal, raised in Switzerland ,where I spent 16 years, and then went to America to university. Even though I had an American passport, for the first time I set foot there was when I was 16. I worked for few years in New York before I was sent to London, where I lived for 18 years, lived a year in Paris, and only five years ago we moved back to America. I am 48 and have lived only 14 years in America. Everywhere I go it is a clash of cultures for me, because I never belong really to any one place,” says Morais. “The way you strengthen your culture is to bring in outside influences to your culture. If you say the height of your culture was 200 years ago, it’s atrophy. Food, family, mission in life are the things I look for to do cultural communication with people.”

Morais, using his journalistic training, did a lot of researching to develop his characters, particularly that of Hassan. “I am certainly not an Indian, and not a Muslim. So, it is part imagination, part factual details to give the illusion that the setting is real.” And eating and cooking have been “always primary” to him, it was not difficult for Morais to go ahead with developing the setting. “My father is a very good cook. The men in my family show off by cooking when guests come. That’s the basis of this love. I am actually a very good cook, and my wife gets very angry when I say this – that I actually taught her cooking!” he says.


Now that Merchant is no more, Morais is hoping some other talented filmmaker would pick his novel up for a celluloid venture. And though he does not have much knowledge about Indian cinema, except for Satyajit Ray’s films and the work by Deepa Mehta (whose brother, photographer Dilip Mehta he has worked with professionally) and Mira Nair, he says an Indian director could do justice to the storyline. “This is a potential Indian film with great worldwide potential. While I know about only a handful of Indian filmmakers who have made it big outside, I am sure there must be many other good filmmakers in India who would like to become an international filmmaker. I have seen Namesake by Nair, and I actually loved Ismail’s In Custody. In fact, Shashi Kapoor is the one I imagine playing the father’s role, though his health is not quite keeping well,” says the author.



Next on is a fictional work with the World Economic Forum in Davos as the backdrop. “All the politicians and and business people go there and through Forbes I have been there several times. And remember I grew up in Switzerland. It will be a story within story, quite complicated, but there will be a few characters which might be recognized,” he says, promising that it will have a serious issue to tackle – but treated in a lighther vein.


(Published in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 01-11-2008)




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