Cooking with Stella -- Film Review

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Dilip Mehta's "Cooking with Stella" is one poorly cooked meal, lacking authenticity in its recipe and ingredients, half-based and overcooked in equal measure and erratically plated and presented.

The Indo-Canadian curiosity won't venture much further than festival appearances and possibly modest releases in Canada and India. The pic was the opening-night film at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Mehta, who co-wrote the screenplay with his famous filmmaker-sister, Deepa, has come up with a situation comedy that at first glance seems workable: A newly posted Canadian diplomatic couple, Michael (Don McKellar) and Maya (Lisa Ray), arrive with their baby at the Canadian High Commission in New Dehli. Here, they encounter Stella Elizabeth Matthews (Seema Biswas), who for 30 years has acted as cook and housekeeper to a succession of diplomatic families.

The couples' interactions with Stella present all sorts of opportunities for East-meets-West comedy. Especially because the couple is an unusual one, as Maya, an Indo-Canadian out of touch with her roots, is the diplomat and Michael is the stay-at-home house husband.

Additional comedy should stem from the desire of Michael, a chef back in Ottawa, to learn Indian cooking. He proposes that Stella becomes his "cooking guru," a breech in the master-servant protocols that Stella warily accepts.

But the film veers off course almost immediately. Stella and, in fact, all the Indian characters are caricatured as thieves and connivers. Stella has developed a cottage industry in kickback schemes and pilfering freely from her families' jewels, liquor and food supplies to create a phone-order business. A devout Christian, she turns God into her co-conspirator in prayers to protect her illicit activities.

Subplots involving a new nanny (Shriya Saran), who initially disapproves of but then confusingly collaborates in Stella's schemes, the nanny's romantic interest in Stella's godson (Vansh Bhardwaj), Michael's cooking classes and a kidnapping scheme send the film into too many scattered directions.

Ray, who is a star in Canada, gets sidelined for much of the movie in a thoroughly underdeveloped role. Indeed, Mehta blows right by the most promising subplot in the encounter of Ray's character with her ancestral homeland.

Credibility gets strained at every point from the brazenness of Stella's criminal career to the nanny's credulity over her boyfriend's ulterior motivations. The kidnapping is a final straw, something so silly it doesn't belong in a comedy even this light.

Mehta's crew does a fine job of transforming the Indian capital into a visual wonderland of teeming humanity and spaces both open and claustrophobically hemmed in with glorious landscapes at sunset.

Venue: Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Production: Mongel Media presents a Hamilton Mehta production
Sales: Noble Nomad Pictures
Cast: Don McKellar, Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, Shriya, Vansh Bhardwaj, Maury Chaykin
Director: Dilip Mehta
Screenwriters: Deepa Mehta, Dilip Mehta
Producers: David Hamilton
Executive producer: Ravi Chopra, Sanjay Bhutiani, Deepa Mehta
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Tamara Deverell
Music: Michael Danna, Amritha Vaz
Costume designer: Rashmi Varma
Editor: Gareth C. Scales
No rating, 103 minutes
Sales: Noble Nomad Pictures
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