August 2014 – Unmapped
Back in 2008, as I was preparing to visit India for the first time as a study abroad student in Delhi, I went to see Slumdog Millionaire with my parents in Baltimore. I don’t remember thinking too highly of the movie, but I also don’t remember disliking it much. I do remember several people asking me in the course of the weeks that followed—that is, between the film’s release and my departure for New Delhi—why I would want to go spend the next four months in a place like that. (Keep in mind, Maryland is not exactly a backwater; it is, in terms of college degrees per capita, the best-educated state in the US.) I shrugged, having a hunch, though certainly not knowing for certain, that Danny Boyle’s version of Mumbai couldn’t possibly represent the reality of India, or at least not the whole reality. Most people in the US, still largely cut off from the outside world despite (or perhaps because of) our socio-political centrality, didn’t necessarily have that hunch. Slumdog told the two India stories that everyone in America wants to hear: spectacular squalor and economic miracle. That the characters were essentially cardboard cutouts made no difference: This was India.
Lasse Hallström’s latest movie, The 100-Foot Journey, begins in the type of Mumbai market that American audiences have grown accustomed to reading as prototypically Indian, thanks in part to movies like Slumdog. There are saris, flowers, tarps, animals and plenty of shouting, all played over a stirring soundtrack of tabla composed by—who else?—A.R. Rahman. We quickly zero in on a woman and her child as they catch sight of an old man carrying a basket of sea urchins atop his head. Before long, the market and the faceless Technicolor women who populate it are aflutter: they’re all of them desperate, it seems, for some sea urchin. With a single shout the sagacious salesman silences the throng of women and says, in the voice of a mystic rather than a merchant, “To the boy who knows.” The boy, of course, is our protagonist Hassan Kadam, and within a few short moments it becomes painfully clear that no one involved with this film, at least not on the production side, knows much of anything.
As the exposition continues—related, ridiculously, to a bereted customs agent just waiting to stamp the narrator’s passport—we learn that Kadam “was born in 1990 in Mumbai, India,” and that his family fled that dreadful place after their restaurant and matriarch were lost in a fire lit during a riot instigated by “some election” (yes, it really is that vague). The plot that follows is virtually inconsequential: The family enters France, the car breaks down in a preposterously pretty southern French village, the dead mother instructs the father (played by the legendary Om Puri) to stay put and open a restaurant, Puri opens his restaurant across the street from Helen Mirren’s stuffy Michelin-starred establishment, a pretty Indian boy (Hassan, Puri’s son) meets a pretty French girl (Charlotte Le Bon) who is also a sous chef at Mirren’s restaurant, sparks fly, racism is handily defeated, boy rises to fame, boy returns home to family and the pretty girl that waited, Helen Mirren and Om Puri (admittedly a pleasure to watch together) hook up. That about covers it.
Yet through all the film’s inane convolutions, that absurd exposition looms large; it’s the first in the interminable string of tone-deaf moments that together constitute this film. To begin with, if Hassan was born in 1990, he was born in Bombay, not Mumbai. The city’s name wasn’t changed until 1995. A bigger problem: In the scene of the riot, Hassan appears to be about 20, which would put us somewhere around 2010, give or take a year. But the type of rioting portrayed in this scene—an angry mob of arsons scaling a fence, etc—hasn’t taken place in Mumbai since the communal riots of ’92-’93, making this part of Hassan’s back story entirely implausible. Even Hassan’s name is implausible, combining as it does a decidedly Muslim given name with a surname that is specific to Hindus, which matters because, in India, riots like the one that resulted in Mama Kadam’s death are almost always driven by religious tensions.
The question of the Kadam family’s faith also bears directly on the film’s purported obsession with food. Whether or not Hassan’s family is Hindu matters at least in part because that essential biographical fact would change entirely the type of food his mother taught him to make. Instead of worrying about that sort of detail—the kind that could have made a film like this at least plausible and perhaps even interesting—the filmmakers (and presumably the novelist Richard Morais upon whose book the film was based) are content to let “the best Indian chef in Europe” prepare “murgh masala with cashews and cardamom” and “tandoori goat”, foods so generic that they, like the Kadam family, can’t be pinned down to any identifiable place or community or style.
But for me the most infuriating of all these factual anomalies is that sea urchin, the sight and flavor of which the filmmakers want so badly to make the emotional crux of their story. Hassan’s rock bottom moment comes at his new gig in Paris when a sea urchin dish is placed before him. He looks at the newfangled preparation of that totemic ingredient and says (after a swig of wine hidden sneakily below the counter—what decadence!) “You’ve ruined it.” He sees in this moment how far he’s come from his roots, how close he’s come to forgetting his place in the world (on which more later). But here’s the problem: sea urchins don’t exist in Mumbai’s fish markets, nor, as far as I know, do they feature in any of the regional cuisines. Period. Of course, the filmmakers are counting on the fact that the vast majority of people don’t know that. They probably don’t know it themselves. Slumdog may have been frustratingly sensational and two-dimensional, but at least it wasn’t flat out lazy.
To be fair, the filmmakers’ indifference to plausibility is equal opportunity: they seem to care as little about the French culinary world as they do about the culture they set up as its vibrant obverse. There’s the silliness about the Michelin stars, the absurd proposition that Hassan would go from Mirren’s traditional French kitchen to a purportedly ‘innovative’ kitchen in Paris where he would, within a year, master the art of molecular gastronomy, become Chef de Cuisine and bring in a third Michelin star, simply by sprinkling some cardamom on a dish or two, as though French cooks in the 21st century had never heard of the stuff. It’s all of it laughable to the point of being insulting.
Yet the real problem with The 100-Foot Journey is not so much these basic and really quite stupid factual issues; the problem is the total lack of interest in the humanity of its characters that these inaccuracies reflect. Questions of continuity and plausibility are irrelevant in a movie like this because these are not people with actual inner lives or histories that we’re watching: They’re barely animate clichés. The French are snobbish and pragmatic and racist; the Indians are zany and loud and spiritual. The father is kind but stubborn. The pretty young ingénue is doe-eyed and soulful (the girl he chastely pursues isn’t too bad herself). Women are old spinsters (Mirren), talented-but-not-that-talented cooks (Le Bon), a dead spirit (Mama Kadam), or, in the case of the only living Indian woman on screen, a demure younger sister who exists for the sole purpose of being trotted out in a sari—three times. Any other ‘characters’ who turn up along the way are window dressing.
The universe through which these people move is no less sketchy. Though it claims to be a film about food and about the way it shapes our lives, our memories and our loves, The 100-Foot Journey evidently knows nothing about the culinary world(s) it attempts to portray. As A.O. Scott said in his review for The New York Times (a review, it’s worth noting, that many American readers found pompous and persnickety—further proof of how little most audiences know or care about basic fact-checking), “this film is not in love with food; it is commercially invested in the idea that food is something people think they love.”
All of which amounts to a movie that is, at best, pandering and condescending and stupid. That being the case, my complaints (and Scott’s, for that matter) surely seem over-the-top, and to some extent they are. Unlike Slumdog, The 100-Foot Journey is small in its ambitions and its significance. But while most most people in America—the US (along, I expect, with India: a goldmine) being very obviously the target demographic for a movie like this—seem content to shrug the movie off as entirely innocuous, I found it rather more troubling. Despite its easygoing call for cross-cultural understanding, The 100-Foot Journey is, at heart, both conservative and provincial in its outlook. To adapt Scott’s formulation, this film is not in love with cosmopolitanism; it is commercially invested in the idea that cosmopolitanism is something people think they love.
Sure, the Indian man turns out to be more refined than the French woman gave him credit for, and that French woman, for her part, turns out to be less of a snooty, racist bitch than she first seems. But you can’t effectively negate stereotypes through characters that are, when all is said and done, just accretions of stereotypes in the first place. What’s there beneath Helen Mirren’s pleasingly prickly surface, after all? A nice old lady looking for a man (and, lest we forget, a son to whom she can pass on her empire, because god forbid she pass the reigns directly to another woman). What’s beneath Hassan’s soulfully quivering lip and momentary lapse into Parisian quasi-decadence? Just a nice Indian boy eager to settle down and please his parents.
What this film does, I hope through simple ignorance rather than something more sinister, is reinforce stereotypes while pretending, with the type of self-righteousness unique to truly first class schlock, to debunk them. Yes, Indians are loud, but leave them in France for a year and they’ll learn to quiet down; yes, the French are racist, but force them to live next to a family of Indians and maybe they can learn a thing or two about life. French food really is stuffy and boring which is why it needs a little Indian spice, and Indian food really is unrefined, which is why it needs a bit of French rigor. The film spends a great deal of time trading in these kinds of insular assumptions and precious little time subverting them.
In the process, The 100-Foot Journey also joyfully reinforces a backward world order. It quietly denounces the manless, professional woman; it quietly denounces alcohol (booze only turns up in Paris to capture Hassan’s emotional and moral decline); it not-so-quietly denounces city life and anything too conspicuously new (even as it pretends to celebrate innovation, the film mocks the idea throughout the Paris sequence); and it practically insists upon the protagonist’s return to village and tradition and family in order to find happiness. This is pure Bollywood. The film’s lazy, cursory sketch of both French and Indian cultures, meanwhile, is very much the stuff of Hollywood: France is elegant and stuck in the past; India is frightening and full of magic. Paris is melancholy and soul-crushing; Mumbai is squalid and dangerous.
The film will undoubtedly be popular, both in the United States and, based on the reception it received from the Bombay audience I saw it with, in India, as well. Because audiences, after all, love to have their views reinforced, love to see the world portrayed exactly as they imagine it, love to be congratulated for their moral superiority to the people on screen. The 100-Foot Journey is one giant pat on the back.
India, on the whole, expects its films to vigorously reinforce a conservative status quo. The United States expects its films to reinforce its cultural isolationism, its belief that a cursory understanding of the outside world is really more than enough. I’m not asking for perfect verisimilitude; Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited, though not without its flaws, is probably the best American film to touch down on Indian soil in the last decade precisely because it is so obviously a fantasy. India, for Anderson, is another backdrop, no more or less real or magical or bizarrely prosaic than his imagined America and pre-War Europe.
Obviously, The 100-Foot Journey is a different kind of movie. It doesn’t intend to portray the ‘real India’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean) any more than The Darjeeling Limited (Slumdog seemed to intend just that, which was probably its greatest failing). But that does not change the fact that it is, on a very basic level, dishonest. It is a film about understanding that understands precisely nothing, a film about change that panders to our basest, most backward beliefs, comforting us with platitudes, telling us exactly what we want to hear: that it’s easy to live in familial harmony when no one has to give anything up, that it’s easy to embrace different cultures when you don’t have to know anything about them.
When early in the film Helen Mirren says to the assembled Kadam family “A curry is a curry, no?” we’re supposed to scoff at her narrow-mindedness, and to feel good about ourselves for recognizing it. What we’re not supposed to notice is that the filmmakers haven’t done a single thing to prove her wrong.