Monday, March 15, 2010

Out of the Kitchen and Into the Streets

One of my favorite movies is What's Cooking? (2000), a film by Gurinder Chadha set in a residential area of Los Angeles over Thanksgiving weekend. The homes which sit at the four corners of an intersection are populated by Asian American, African American, Hispanic and Jewish families.

As the four families prepare their Thanksgiving dinners (with ethnic enhancements to the traditional menu), the tasting, criticism of people's cooking, and hunger never abate. Tensions around family crises involving sex, children, guns, gangs, sperm donors, and ex-husbands may rear their ugly heads, but no one stops eating.

The connection between food and passion finds its way into all kinds of movies:

Using ethnic cuisine as an anchor for a romantic comedy or family melodrama is not as easy as it sounds. The characters must be believable and the script still has to have good writing. Three recent comedies framed by the role of ethnic cuisine in their plots showed that turning on an oven will only get you good results if you know what you're doing. As the old saying goes, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!"

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When I moved to San Francisco in 1972, one of my roommates was a major cock hound who asked me: "Why do you always talk about food the way most people talk about sex?" If he had lived long enough to see Today's Special (which opened this year's San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival) there's a chance he might have finally understood.

Written by and starring Aasif Mandvi (who is familiar to most people from his appearances on The Daily Show), this is what I like to call a triple-threat film. Part romantic comedy, part family drama, partly devoted to ethnic cuisine and multiculturalism, it succeeds primarily because of its intelligent writing, complex characters, and dramatic honesty. In the following clip from news coverage of the Mumbai International Film Festival, Mandvi explains the basic setup of the plot:

What one has to see the film to appreciate, however, is the elegance of Mandvi's writing, the slyness with which certain gags are set up, and way he captures the sensuality with which some chefs approach their work. The plot basically revolves around:
  • Samir (Aasif Mandvi), a sous chef at a fashionable restaurant in New York. Samir has been eagerly looking forward to being promoted to head chef when his boss opens a new restaurant.
  • Steve (Dean Winters), Samir's boss and owner of the Pacific East restaurant. Steve likes having Samir on the line but does not see his sous chef as having a "front of the house" personality.
Samir (Aasif Mandvi) at work in the kitchen at Pacific East
  • Stanton (Kevin Corrigan), one of Samir's co-workers at Pacific East.
  • Carrie (Jess Wexler), a smart new hire at Pacific East.
  • Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), a mysterious Indian taxi driver who drives Samir home from work one night.
  • Farrida (Madhur Jaffrey), Samir's meddling mother who keeps setting him up on blind dates with Indian-American women whose profiles she has found on the Internet.
Samir (Aasif Mandvi) and Farrida (Madhur Jaffrey)
  • Hakim (Harish Patel), Samir's father who wants out of the restaurant business and plans to sell the family business to a friend who wants to open a fast food franchise. Following the death of Samir's younger brother in an automobile accident, Hakim has never really been able to give his blessing to anything Samir has ever attempted.
  • Munnamia (Ajay Naidu), the sullen cook in Hakim's restaurant, a man whose despicable kitchen habits could easily lead to several health code violations.
  • Rasool (Sean T. Krishnan), one of Hakim's kitchen workers who can barely speak English.
As directed by David Kaplan (who did such an nice job with 2008's Year of the Fish), Today's Special takes the softer approach to setting up jokes and conflicts rather than the slam-bang technique favored by larger studio films. Because Samir and his family must walk on coals in order to finally connect with each other's emotions, Kaplan's film feels much more genuine than many others. It captures a deeper level of humanity in each character with which any member of the audience can sympathize.

Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah)

Today's Special is a refreshingly honest and intelligent film that (particularly in a post-9/11 environment) humanizes a Muslim-American family's challenges in such a way that Samir and his restaurant in Jackson Heights become one more set of immigrant spices added to New York's melting pot. Kaplan is helped tremendously by the Indian actors who play Samir's parents, kitchen staff, and Akbar (the crazy taxi driver who once cooked for important diplomats and who puts a sign in the restaurant's front window that says "Today's Special: Trust Me").

Mandvi's script, which grew out of his one-man show entitled Sakina's Restaurant, scored strongly with the opening night audience at the Castro Theatre. If all goes well, Today's Special will hit theatres within a year. Don't miss it!

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Another film in which Indian cuisine plays a major role proved to be a crowd pleaser at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival. Written by the brother-and-sister team of Deepa and Dilip Mehta (and directed by Deepa Mehta), Cooking With Stella reflects many of their experiences growing up as well as dealing with future generations in their family.

Before their relocation to India, Deepa Mehta’s goddaughter Ayesha Rekhi (whose Indo‐Canadian parents live in Toronto) was working at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. Ayesha's husband, Cameron Stauch, was a chef tournant at Rideau Hall (then the residence of Governor General Adrienne Clarkson). Their daughter Lyla was 16 months old when they moved to India.

As children, Dilip and Deepa were familiar with domestic help (as were their friends and families). But as Dilip began to travel widely for his work as a photojournalist, he would find himself looking at Indian society quite differently and questioning the denial of servants’ identities. As Dilip explains:
“So much of the film is based on my experiences living in New Delhi and my fascination with how different cultures interact -- in all sorts of ways, but especially around the question of omnipresent domestic help and how this 'culture shock' is often unsettling for new arrivals in India."
Following an exhausting flight from Toronto to New Delhi, Maya Chopra (Lisa Ray), her husband, Michael Laffont (Don McKellar), and their infant daughter Zara are driven from the airport to the compound for Canada's High Commission (similar to a consulate or embassy). There they are greeted by Stella Elizabeth Matthews (Seema Biswas), the Indian servant/dragon lady who has been looking after Canadian diplomats and their families for the past 30 years.

Seema Biswas as Stella

As an old-school servant, Stella is extremely shrewd and conniving while remaining conscious of Indian's class traditions. She is certainly not used to the liberated family style of her new "masters," where Maya is the family breadwinner and Michael (formerly a restaurant chef) is a househusband.

Whereas Michael is open to new experiences (and eager to learn about Indian spices and recipes), Stella is not used to being treated as a friend instead of a servant. Michael's inclusiveness could also put a crimp in her lucrative side business. For years, Stella has been receiving hefty commissions from butchers, florists, food vendors, and other lower caste Indians who provide services to the High Commission.

A devout Christian who feels a remarkable connection to Jesus, Stella enjoys gambling (she frequently plays cards in her room with other servants). She's also quite adept at stealing earrings, cufflinks, iPods, and other items that can be fenced on the black market.

Her secondary source of income is threatened by the arrival of Tannu (Shriya Saran), a young Hindu woman of high morals who has been hired as a nanny for Zara. The conniving Stella has long enjoyed a lucrative sideline whereby she takes orders over the phone from friends and relatives for items that she buys at the duty-free commissary, charges to the High Commission, and resells at a hefty profit ("Duty free for them, fully free for us," she explains).

In order to keep an eye on Tannu, Stella employs her hunky godson Anthony (Vansh Bhardwaj) to "rescue" the new servant from some thugs and compromise Tannu's integrity. After Anthony falls head over heels in love with Tannu, the three Indians come up with a brilliant scheme to make a killing. They will make it appear as if Stella has been kidnapped from the international market where she frequently takes Michael to shop for food and spices.

An unexpected complication arises, however, after Michael and Maya instantly agree to pay the ransom money (Maya has already informed the High Commissioner that the Canadian government's insurance policy will cover the costs). When the High Commissioner (Maury Chaykin) speaks to the press, he suddenly doubles the amount of the reward for Stella's safe return from $20,000 to $40,000.

Stella (Seema Biswas) and Michael (Don McKellar) go shopping

Stella knows a good deal when she hears one and, from that point on, the story takes an unexpected twist. When Michael originally convinced Stella to teach him the secrets to becoming a good South Indian cook, she refused to be paid in cash and, instead, insisted on a more traditional Indian arrangement. The concept of "Guru Dakshina" becomes a key plot point in Cooking With Stella.

An ancient Sanskrit term originally taken from the pre‐Hindu, Vedic religion, Dakshina describes the tradition of repaying one’s guru after completing a formal period of study. As an indication of gratitude and reverence, a Dakshina shows reciprocity and respect between student and teacher (a Dakshina is not necessarily monetary; it could be a special task that the teacher wants the student to accomplish, or proof that a spiritual lesson has been truly learned). As Dilip Mehta notes:
“Stella sees Michael’s predicament and throws him a lifeline of benevolence by agreeing to be his guru. In return, Michael not only comes to understand her, but he finds a way to repay and thank her and to properly show his gratitude to her -- in a way she fully recognizes. It is not really a lesson about 'forgiveness' (although that’s certainly a part of it). It really is about coming to understand someone else’s situation -- from a different background -- as best one can.”
Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who did such beautiful work on The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond) makes a major contribution to Cooking With Stella. While the principals do a solid job of acting, Vansh Bhardwaj's sendup of stereotypical male Bollywood lovers is what really wins over the audience. Too bad this hunk didn't make it into the trailer:

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Once, while visiting friends in Houston, I was watching late night television when a commercial aired boasting that "We sell sofa-sized art at reasonable prices. That's right, folks -- sofa-sized art that fits right over your sofa!"

Thinking of José Cruz Gonzalez's stage farce, Sunsets and Margaritas, as the dramatic equivalent of black velvet paintings will help ease the cringe factor when confronted with this playwright's plodding plotting as well as his perversely persistent pattern of pouncing on a pallid punch line to the point of perseveration. As I sat watching this mess of lazy ethnic humor implode on the stage of the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, I found myself wondering if even Carlos Mencia would be embarrassed by the piss-poor quality of Gonzalez's writing.

Gabby (Dena Martinez) and JoJo (Miles Gaston Villanueva)
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Set in a small town in southwestern Colorado, Sunsets and Margaritas is aimed squarely at the audience that thinks the George Lopez show is the modern equivalent of George Bernard Shaw. The action takes place on May 1 (International Workers' Day) which is, coincidentally, an important birthday in the Serrano family. At 78, Candelario (Daniel Valdez) has just swiped a case of Preparation H from a local Korean grocer, driven his convertible through the wall of his family's Mexican restaurant, and run into the streets armed to the teeth (and clad in little more than his boxer shorts) into the path of a protest by undocumented workers.

Although Candelario desperately needs to be placed into an assisted living situation, the concept of "la familia" runs deep in Hispanic culture:
  • His son Gregorio (Tommy Gomez), who is nearing the age when he can retire from the local fire department, lacks the cojones to stand up to his father and is prone to panic attacks. Frequently breathing into a crumpled paper bag to calm himself, Gregorio is also starting to have blackouts that are accompanied by hallucinations and apparitions.
  • Gregorio's wife Luz (Roxanne Carrasco), who is Cuban American, has changed the menu in the family's Mexican restaurant because the customers requesteded more Cuban food. At her wit's end, she is ready to lay down an ultimatum to her cowering husband: Either Candelario goes or she goes.
  • Their daughter Gabby (Dena Martinez), who is still lactating after having recently delivered a baby, is a Hispanic lesbian Republican whose wife, Andrea, can be quite demanding. Gabby is also an obnoxious, whiny brat who always needs to be the center of attention but, as soon as she gets her wish, immediately complains that everyone is ganging up on her.
  • Gabby's gangsta wannabe brother, JoJo (Miles Gaston Villanueva), careens around the stage in a motorized wheelchair bedecked with bling and custom-rigged with hydraulics like a flashy lowrider. Although JoJo wants everyone to think that he's a really cool cripple, the sad truth is that, as a teenager, he fell into the orchestra pit during a rehearsal of West Side Story in high school and has been in a wheelchair ever since.
  • Sheriff Hubert Montoya (Nestor Campos, Jr.) is the hunky sperm donor for Gabby and Andrea's baby. Not particularly gifted in the brains department, he tries to scare off the protesters by warning them that he only has room for two people in his jail.
  • Bianca (Erika Yanin Perez-Henandez) is the young woman Luz has hired to help out at Candelario's birthday party.
  • As a mysterious series of apparitions visible only to Gregorio, Lucinda Serrano alternately shows up as a bad stand-up comic with a touch of Carmen Miranda, Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Soldadera, and La Llorona.

Gregorio Serrano (Tommy Gomez) and the Virgin of Guadalupe
(Lucinda Serrano) Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

During the course of the evening the audience learns that Candelario never officially married Gregorio's mother and started a second family with one of the restaurant's former waitresses. Bianca is actually Candelario's daughter (he delivers her birth certificate to her at a critical moment in Act II), and the play ends with everyone eating Mexican food.

Set designer Frank Sarmiento notes that "When you look at images of food done in a Mexican style, it's presented on a very bright palate, platters with a lot of decoration." The same could be said of Gonzalez's writing. It's high on carbs, loaded with enough lard to qualify as refritos, and thrown onstage like steam-table slop.

Despite the best efforts of director Amy Gonzalez to squeeze humor from the playwright's use of magical realism, there was little if any magic to be found in the script for Sunsets and Margaritas. Unless, of course, one factors in the reaction of the audience, which greeted many tired gags with whoops of laughter, adding mucho gusto to the event. Their reaction completely baffled me until I reminded myself that:
  • The management of Theatreworks was serving free champagne before the performance and during intermission.
  • Some people just wanted to have a good time on their Saturday night out.
  • It didn't matter to the audience that this script was the theatrical equivalent of painting by numbers.
After I returned home from the performance, I did some online research to see what I could learn about the play's world premiere in April of 2009. Much to my surprise, John Moore (the critic for the Denver Post) had a similar reaction:
"Sunsets and Margaritas is remarkable only because it exists. It's difficult to believe it would have made it onto the season were it not a commissioned world premiere by a playwright of color. It's a superficial play that sounds like it comes with its own sitcom laugh track. It will stay with you about as long as a very special episode of the George Lopez show. It clearly connected with a hooting and hawing opening-night audience."

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