Josna Rege

296. The Hundred-Foot Journey after Charlie Hebdo

In 2010s, Food, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Media, Politics, postcolonial on January 18, 2015 at 3:51 pm


A couple of days ago, invited by my friend Jude, I went to a movie night at the Leverett Library, where the feature was to be Lasse Hallström’s 2014 film, The Hundred-Foot Journey. All I knew about the film ahead of time was that it was set somewhere in Europe, involved an Indian restaurant at war with a competing establishment, and co-starred Om Puri and Helen Mirren. I can’t deny that I had my doubts, since the synopsis immediately put me on guard. Not the tired trope of Indian spices again: Mississippi Masala, The Mistress of Spices, Chutney Popcorn, Today’s Special (actually a thought-provoking film starring and written by Aasif Mandvi). And warring restaurants: hadn’t that already been done by Farrukh Dhondy in Tandoori Nights, the 1980s British TV sitcom starring Saeed Jaffrey? But I decided not to read reviews in advance, just to go out and enjoy myself on a frigid January night. After all, Om Puri and Helen Mirren were world-class actors, worth watching for their own sakes.

As it turned out, the timing was apt, since the film turned out to be about a family of Muslim immigrants to France, and the screening happened to come less than ten days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, amidst an international uproar about Europe’s Muslims, whom many are damning simply because they are Muslims, as the perpetrators declared themselves to be. In this context, the movie could be taken as the ultimate antidote to the virulent Islamophobia that has ensued. After the screening, an acquaintance in the audience asked me what I thought. Without engaging any of my critical faculties, I responded, “Sweet. And we need sweet just now.” He gave his head a dismissive toss and left without further comment. Evidently he was disappointed with my answer, and immediately, so was I. So I set myself to give it some further thought.

Since then I have read a few reviews, which mostly accuse the film of being simplistic and middlebrow, and of engaging in “food porn.” All fair points. Certainly it’s a safe film, anodyne in that it softens sensitive subject matter with a lightly humorous touch, smooths over possible political edginess, and conveniently dispenses with any attempt at realism.

To take one of many examples: based on their names, and other signs such as eating beef and shunning alcohol (at least, in the case of the daughter and youngest children), the family are clearly Muslims, but the words ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ are never once uttered. They leave India after their restaurant is burned down and the children’s mother killed when a Mumbai (presumably Hindu) mob storms the gates, but the film merely offers the vague explanation that in an election there are always winners and losers, and the Kadam family happened to be on the losing side. Unlike most of the Muslim population in France, they are also exceptionally wealthy, easily able to buy the gorgeous old country house in which they open their restaurant. None of the family is portrayed as religious. The film does not show them interacting with any other immigrants, Muslim or otherwise (of whom there seem to be none in the small town where they find themselves settling), although they do interact with the locals. The Kadams are also atypical in that they are of Indian rather than Maghrebi (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) origin like most of France’s Muslim population, so in their case the French colonial legacy doesn’t come into play.



imagesWhen the smoldering resentment of the chef of the competing, Michelin-starred French restaurant opposite unleashes right-wing French nationalist goons on “Maison Mumbai,” Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the proprietress of “Le Saule Pleurer” (the Weeping Willow) realizes that the competition has gone too far. She herself undertakes to cross the road to wash the racist graffiti off their wall and it is she who gently admonishes Mr. Kadam Senior (Om Puri) for defensively—and quite understandably—exhibiting an Us vs. Them attitude in the wake of the attack, pointing out that this is the attitude of the attackers themselves. In contrast with a film like My Son the Fanatic (1997, based on Hanif Kureishi’s short story in which the immigrant father (also played by Om Puri) is secular and his British-born son a religious fanatic), both father and son Hassan (Manish Dayal) are secular and open-minded. Rather than turning to a rigid interpretation of his religion when faced with French racism, Hassan is all for hybridity, allowing for delicious new flavors to enter traditional French cuisine, a two-way “hundred-foot journey” whereby both warring sides eventually cross over and mingle, and an inter-racial happy ending for both generations.

99e8778be50f534c8da6fcdca72c8740As for engaging in “food porn,” the film is guilty as charged. But in the dead of a New England winter, when we won’t see a real tomato for months, can’t one be excused for indulging in a little harmless ogling of the bodacious bounty of French market stalls? Or enjoying the orgasmic effects of the handsome Hassan’s sauces and omelette on Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and Madame Mallory (Mirren) respectively?

So what are my conclusions? The film is a harmless fairytale. Yes, it’s historically and culturally inaccurate; yes, it portrays anti-Muslim violence as simply part of the political landscape in India, whereas in France it is portrayed as fringe behavior, not tolerated by decent people; and yes, it disingenuously avoids the difficult realities of the lives of Muslims in France, French insularity and racism, and the turn to a fundamentalist form of Islam on the part of some French-born Muslim youth. The Kadam family is quirky and atypical of the French Muslim population, but surely no more atypical of it than those who were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack. I believe that that tragic incident has contributed to a dangerously polarized climate that must be countered with sober critical analysis. But I appreciate why Oprah Winfrey decided to co-produce the film. I’m going to stick by my original response to The Hundred-Foot Journey: it’s sweet; and, in the face of all this hatred, we need sweet just now.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. I totally agree. I saw it a few months ago and in spite of myself, and in spite of them killing off the mother in the beginning (I usually avoid films where the mother dies) I liked it.

    • I know; what is it about killing off mothers right at the start? Of course the way had to be cleared for the romance between Om Puri and Helen Mirren. And the mother was played by a famous, and beautiful, Indian actress, Juhi Chawla (who, it seems, was miffed at the special effects that were used to make her look much older).

  2. Now I want to see it. I agree, we could use some sweet. There’s plenty of opportunity around for all the other flavors.

    • Yes, I agree. It was what I needed that Friday night, anyway. Although the more I think about it it the more I feel that its soft-focus approach was a cop-out and a missed opportunity, given the realities on the ground in France, with Muslims, who make up 7.5-10% of the French population, making 60% or more of the prison population.

  3. There are many – equally valid – purposes of a film: and one of them is pleasure. We can’t spend 100 per cent of each waking day in a state of serious attention to injustice/terror; the seesaw needs to balance. E

    • That’s for sure, E. And I must admit that I mainly watch films for pleasure. The genre engages so many senses at once, which I’m not hardened to it because movies and television weren’t a regular part of my childhood. So watching a film can be a traumatic experience for me, which I’d rather not impose upon myself.

  4. I liked it as well. It emphasized the reality that whenever you get down to individuals as human beings we all have the potential for either great kindness and empathy with one another, or mean bigotry and stubborn ignorance. It is so easy for critics to trash anything that may threaten their snobbish little world of judgmentalism.
    I thought James Taylor singing Carole King’s lovely little song about being there for a friend was, in a strange way, similar to this sweet little film. The power of music can be overlooked
    in a world that has forgotten it’s healing capacity.
    We can’t solve everything with killing machines and threatening rhetoric.

    • Yes, Marianne, to everything! At every moment we have the potential, and we can either harden our hearts or allow them to soften, Even if it didn’t entirely ring true, I loved that moment when Madame Mallory stepped off her high horse, crossed the road, and started washing the xenophobic graffiti off her neighbor-competitor’s stone wall.
      I know what you mean about the sweetness and healing power of “You’ve Got a Friend” and feel the same way. There is some music that may be wildly popular and utterly romantic but is nevertheless true, and much, much needed. And as you say, what is the alternative: killing machines? x J

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