Today’s Special -- Film Review
A dozen years ago, Aasif Mandvi, the Indian-born actor who is now a correspondent on "The Daily Show With John Stewart," wrote and performed a superb one-man show called "Sakina’s Restaurant." He played a young Gujerati sponsored by a New York Indian family to come to American and work in their restaurant. Switching accents and costumes with abandon, Aasif played every character -- the father, daughters, son and, of course, the fresh-of-the-boat youth encountering the American Dream.
Using this stage show as its inspiration, Mandvi and a group of filmmakers have cooked up a thematically similar movie, Today’s Special, a feel-good fable about a talented cook and second-generation Indian, who discovers his destiny and own version of the American Dream when he takes over his father’s run-down Tandoori Palace restaurant. While it tracks familiar themes of generational clashes in immigrant families, upward mobility and Old World vs. New World values, Today’s Special does so with vigor and a pleasing sense of comedy. Not hurting matters for foreign and Indian film devotees, the film features two icons of Indian cinema, Madhur Jaffrey and Naseeruddin Shah.
The film should attract adult viewers interested in not only immigrant stories but perhaps foodies as well since the film’s cooking lessons are not the kind you’ll find on the Food Network. Today’s Specialis directed by David Kaplan, whose previous film, Year of the Fish, was set in New York’s Chinatown so he is apparently becoming the go-to guy for ethnic stories.
Mandvi plays Samir, a sous chef working for one of those rock-star celebrity chefs. Naturally, Samir dreams of running his own kitchen. When his boss (Dean Winters) selects a 25-year-old culinary whiz instead of him to open his next upscale establishment, Samir quits in a huff.
He develops a vague idea of going to Paris and working there for a master chef. Already estranged from his Indian Muslim family due to his failure to pursue a most appropriate career and family life -- as compared to the imagined successes of his late, desperately missed older brother -- Samir sees his father Hakim (veteran Harish Patel) collapse with a heart seizure when he breaks the news of his imminent departure. So Samir has little choice but to take over the family’s nearly bankrupt restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, a “Little India” in New York City.
Good fortune comes his way when he meets a taxi driver named Akbar (played by the legendary Bollywood star Shah), who claims to have once cooked in one of India’s top hotel restaurants. Akbar comes aboard to reorganize the kitchen and not incidentally teach the snobbish Samir, who never cooks Indian, the essence of that cuisine.
“The Masala is the symphony and the oil is the orchestra,” Akbar tells Samir. Other sayings and aphorisms he admits come from fortune cookies but all together Akbar teaches his pupil what was missing from his cooking in the first place -- passion.
This passion leads to a romance with a white American (Jess Weixler of Teeth), a vastly improved restaurant and a re-engagement with his family, heritage andits cooking traditions. Jaffrey, not only a renowned actress (Shakespeare Wallah, Six Degrees of Separation) but a cookbook author in her own right, doesn’t have as much to do as Samir’s mother as you would like, but this is a perfect example of how a great actor’s presence can lift an entire movie. The same goes for Naseeruddin Shah, who so inhabits the character of the itinerant cabbie and chef that he virtually steals the movie.
The script by Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, a writer on Jimmy Kimmel Live, is not always subtle and Kaplan’s direction only underscores this tendency to overreach for comic moments. But the film’s actors win you over. There are many poignant scenes in the kitchen and family home where you find yourself liking all the characters despite their foibles and conflicts.
The transition from stage to screen is now a success and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Today’s Special become a sitcom as well, especially given the high visibility given to Indian culture in NBC’s Outsourced. The film, like a great meal, leaves you wanting more.
Opens: Nov. 19 (Reliance Media Works)
Production companies: Inimitable Pictures/Sweet 180
Cast: Aasif Mandvi, Madhur Jaffrey, Naseeruddin Shah, Jess Weixler, Harish Patel, Kevin Corrigan, Dean Winters
Director: David Kaplan
Screenwriters: Aasif Mandvi, Jonathan Bines
Inspired by the play by: Aasif Mandvi
Producers: Nimitt Mankad, Lillian LaSalle
Executive producers: Rengan Rajaratnam, Beth Dembitzer
Director of photography: David Tumblety
Production designer: Darcy C. Scanlin
Music: Stephane Wrembel
Costume designer: Theresa Squire
Editors: Chris Houghton, Rich Fox
Unrated, 98 minutes