Even though scenes of sizzling kerala shrimp curry make theatre popcorn depressing as hell, Dilip Mehta's Cooking with Stella isn't a typical feel-good foodie film. The satirical charm pops up immediately in the opening, with a statement that it's based on an almost true story.
Don McKellar downplays his usual Cancon quirkiness as Michael, a father, chef and the husband of Maya (Lisa Ray), a Canadian diplomat who is assigned to New Dehli, India. Unbeknownst to the couple, their cook Stella (Seema Biswas) is running a black market business out of their posh compound apartment, selling supplies and making side deals with local butchers, florists and launderers.
Mehta and his wife used to have their own "wonderful, wonderful cook named Stella," who's now retired. She wasn't a kleptomaniac, but "she did enjoy drinking though," laughs Mehta from Toronto, before a flight back to India. The real Stella would raid the liquor cabinet, filling bottles back up with water like a sneaky teenager, until Mehta's young daughter tipped them off.
"How can I get angry with someone who is diluting liquor? It's just so funny," laughs Mehta, who co-wrote the script with his sister Deepa (Water), who tried her own hand at satire with 2002's Bollywood/Hollywood. Mehta takes such delight in memories of Stella's stealth boozing, he made sure that the fictional cook was portrayed as more than just a thief too: She's a comically devout Christian who takes great pride in teaching Michael the subtleties of south Indian cuisine.
People from Mehta's real life formed the basis for Cooking with Stella's other characters. Virtuous nanny Tannu (Shriya) is based on his daughter's real nanny, who ran away with the driver---in the film, she falls in love with Anthony (Vansh Bhardwaj), Stella's nephew. Michael is based on a good friend's son-in-law, a chef at Rideau Hall until his family was posted in India, considered a "hardship post."
"They stayed in the compound because they were a young couple with a young daughter and they felt that the supplies and electricity would be better, the water cleaner, but I would be the subversive one saying, 'You have to live in the city, why leave Canada to live in Canada?'" says Mehta. "But I think their concern was for their infant daughter, though I think the concern was unfounded---everyone else has children in Delhi, not only Canadian babies."
This misconception of modern India is also why Mehta decided to present a middle-class culture. "I did not want to portray a slum India. I did not want to portray a Kama Sutra India, a maharajah India. Poverty sells. So do Kama Sutra and Ravi Shankar. It's the more bland aspect of life that people say, 'It's not big deal,' but it is---that's the engine that drives the nation."
And perhaps this is the sticky centre of Cooking with Stella: under the guise of sly comedy, Mehta is touching on cross-cultural sensitivities and stereotypes. He's pleased when people get its subversive intent, and sounds exasperated by those who think it suggests Canadians are naive and Indians are conniving thieves. At a recent screening a woman asked him if all Indian servants were crooked.
While Mehta is braced for that kind of bizarre dialogue, he hopes that Cooking with Stella isn't taken too seriously. "Just relax, take it easy, it's just a movie."