Utpal Borpujari

September 21, 2009

Culinary Route to the World of Cinema

By Utpal Borpujari

He has earned global acclaim for his photo-journalism, so much so that Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Channel 4 of UK even made a documentary on him. His coverage of the Bhopal gas tragedy won him the World Press and Overseas Press awards. His work has been published in some of the world’s best-known publications. And his feature documentary on the widows of Vrindaban, The Forgotten Woman, received appreciation at several leading film festivals. So, it is quite but a natural next step for Dilip Mehta to venture into fiction film direction.

The result is Cooking with Stella, a light-hearted look at cross-cultural clashes starring Seema Biswas, Don McKellar, Lisa Ray and Shriya Saran, shot entirely in Delhi,  which was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. As the name suggests, the film, written by Dilip and his sister Deepa ‘Fire/Earth/Water’ Mehta, has a leitmotif of food around which the storyline evolves. But apparently, the film goes much beyond culinary details, making a comment on class differences that exist in society, which is where the film draws its strength from.

Mehta, who closely watched his sister at work, as production designer and associate producer in Water, production designer in Heaven on Earth and creative producer in Earth, is excited like any first-time filmmaker who gets to showcase his work at a major film festival. And he is confident that people would love the film for what it seeks to tell through its tale. “Cooking with Stella is a bitter-sweet social satire couched in light humour. It is very deliberately scripted and manouvred in a manner that doesn’t come across as pontificating or lecturing to the audience. I want the audience to smile and yet at the same time feel a certain uneasiness, a bit of discomfort,” he says, the ‘discomfort’ part coming from the way he has reflected upon the disparity between the haves and have nots, something that has rankled him for many years.

The film’s protagonist is Stella Elizabeth Matthews (Biswas), a cook in the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi for 30 years, and her interaction with a newly posted Canadian diplomat (Ray) and her husband Michael (McKellar), the latter turning out to be a chef interested in learning Indian cooking. The wily Stella becomes his guru and starts manipulating the scene to her advantage, but she feels threatened by the honest nanny (Saran) until circumstances force the latter to join hands with her.

The story has its roots in the growing years of Mehta and his sister in Delhi, where they saw the disparities between the ‘servant class’ and their employers. In fact, both of them had in mind to make a film on the subject together, bringing to the fore the complex relationship between the two classes. But the film’s storyline started developing when a few years ago Deepa Mehta’s goddaughter Ayesha Rekhi and her husband got posted to Delhi. While Ayesha was working at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, her husband Cameron Stauch was a chef tournant at Rideau Hall, the then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s Residence. The cross-cultural experience that the couple went through formed the core of the story.

Shot in the streets of Delhi, and in the Canadian High Commission precincts, with active participation from the high commission staff during the whole process, starting from research to acting. Incidentally, the self-confessed foodie in Mehta, who has used cooking as a vehicle to transport the viewer into the lives of his characters, has used Stauch’s services as a food consultant and stylist in his film, giving an indication of how important a role food plays in the film’s storyline.

For Mehta, switching to the moving images mode from the still photography was not really difficult. In fact, the process was quite smooth. As he says, “Performances by actors and visually capturing the moment is essentially what filmmaking is about. They seldom exist apart from each other. My background is that of a photojournalist and not of an advertising photographer. So, it’s not that I am driven by wave upon wave of a need to integrate ‘beauty shots’.”

Describing how he has treated his subject and the backdrop, he says, “As a lifelong professional photographer who loves New Delhi, I am sensitive to the images of this city and of India. In my film, I wanted to show a rather different India. Of course poverty and despair are huge parts of life in India and in its capital city, but that is not the world that this movie sets out to explore.”

Mehta, who describes his earlier involvement in some of his sister’s films as “a stroke of good luck and a tremendous opportunity to learn,” says he has been extremely lucky also in his casting. “Seema was chosen because she was Stella. Her chameleon-like ability, her acting prowess, both are stunning. Of course, the selection of the cast was not without some hiccups. Don McKellar came on two weeks prior to principle photography since the actor originally cast for the role and we elected to go our separate ways. Line for line, moment to moment, he gave Seema a matching performance. I feel blessed,” he says.

Well, now it is time to find out if the viewers too will bless the film.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 20-09-2009)

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/26165/highlighting-disparities.html

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