In the last 15 years or so, Seema Biswas has appeared in more than 30 feature films. Virtually all of them have been shot in her native India, where she was born in 1965. Virtually all of them have occupied the serious end of the dramatic spectrum. The one exception goes into Canadian theatres this month.
True, Cooking with Stella, made about a year ago, is set in New Delhi, primarily in and around the compound of the Canadian High Commission, the first time that venue has been used as a location. But the reason it's a ground breaker for Biswas is that it represents her first filmic foray into comedy. A graduate of India's National School of Drama, she's done "lots of comedy roles in theatre, but not in movies," she acknowledged in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, where Cooking with Stella had its premiere. Indeed, among Western audiences, she's best known for her roles as the avenging, gun-toting Phoolan Devi in 1994's searing Bandit Queen and, a decade later, as the mysterious widow Shakuntula in Deepa Mehta's Water - a part that earned her a best-acting Genie in 2007.
"So, for me, it was a big responsibility to do it," Biswas said in her lilting way. "I didn't want it to be a shock for them. You know: 'Oh my God, it's the wrong casting.'"
The thought never seems to have crossed Dilip Mehta's mind. "Seema was my first and my last choice" to play the title character, the Cooking with Stella director/co-screenwriter said the other day. "There was no audition. She is so versatile, I just have this implicit faith in her. I mean, I didn't know if she had the timing you need for comedy -- but once we got going, she was way beyond what I ever hoped for."
Mehta, in fact, first broached the idea of casting Biswas well before he'd written the script. This was in September 2005 when Biswas was in Toronto to attend the gala premiere of Water at the film festival. Mehta, who's Deepa Mehta's brother, had been Water's production designer and associate producer and, after a successful career as a photojournalist, was keen to try his hand at his own feature film.
"Dilip told me, 'Seema, you'll have to put on weight,'" said Biswas, recalling the conversation with a laugh. "And I just said, 'The part sounds very good. I'd love to do it. I'll put on the weight.'"
Indeed, the part is very good, with Biswas expertly incarnating the soul and presence of Stella Elizabeth Matthews, who's been the chief cook and major domo at one of the diplomatic residences in the Canadian High Commission for 30 years. A devout Christian, Stella initially seems the essence of deference and rectitude when a new Canadian couple (Lisa Ray, Don McKellar) and their baby move into the home.
But the viewer quickly realizes she has a cunning side: To pad her modest salary, she discreetly pilfers items and occasionally overcharges while simultaneously running a phone-order "duty-free" business selling detergent, booze, food and the like from the commission pantry.
This profitable arrangement threatens to unravel when the couple - Ray is, in fact, the diplomat, McKellar the stay-at-home husband and chef eager to discover "the real India" by enlisting Stella as his "cooking guru" - decides to hire a seemingly straight-arrow nanny (Shriya Saran) who eventually gets wise to Stella's subterfuge.
Mehta, who splits his time between Toronto and New Delhi, wove his narrative from several real-life strands, albeit creatively, which is why he likes to say the movie is "based on a story that is true - almost."
For instance, he and his wife once had "an amazing cook" named Stella who was plump and a Christian but, contra Biswas's Stella, "not a kleptomaniac." In fact, her deceit was "hitting the bottle" - quietly taking slugs from a scotch bottle, then keeping the level up by adding water. ("I wasn't really a scotch drinker but I did notice the contents of the bottle seemed to get cloudier by the day.")
The Ray and McKellar characters, in turn, are loosely based on Deepa Mehta's goddaughter, who is a Canadian diplomat, and her husband, who had been a chef tournant at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Both Biswas and Mehta hope audiences, especially those in India and Indian expatriates, will embrace Cooking with Stella as a clever, affectionate social satire and not as an exposé of Indian duplicity and Canadian gullibility. Or as a retaliation of sorts for the rude reception Water encountered a decade ago when Hindu extremists forced the Mehtas and crew to move the shoot to Sri Lanka from India.
So far the response has been mostly positive. "Which is such a relief."
"If anybody really believes the film is about theft," observed Mehta, "they've missed the film entirely, in my opinion." Moreover, "does anyone really believe a nation is so weak that one film is going to rock its foundations? In England, everybody talks about the weather. In India, everybody talks about servants. Honestly, it's like a national preoccupation."
For me," said Biswas, "I see the film as a simple, funny story about a woman who has this simple dream to be a little bit rich . . . It's universal."
As it turns out, Biswas did not have to gain a lot of weight for the part. In fact, said Mehta, she showed up "painfully thin," having lost weight completing a movie just weeks before beginning principal photography on Stella. "We did put some pretty large padding around her bum," Mehta allowed.
At last year's TIFF, Biswas indicated her willingness to work again with either Dilip or Deepa Mehta "pretty much under any conditions. I once told Deepa that whenever you work with other actors, I feel very jealous."
Well, no need to worry about that. As Cooking with Stella enters theatres, Biswas is working with Deepa Mehta on her much-anticipated film adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel, Midnight's Children.
Not to be outdone, Dilip Mehta is preparing the script for his second feature,"and I want Seema in it." Called Second Best, it's a drama about the human cost of India's pharmaceutical industry - specifically about how "20 per cent of the life-saving drugs manufactured in India are spurious, counterfeit - a huge, huge amount."
Did we say it's not a comedy?
Cooking with Stella opens in theatres in Vancouver and Toronto March 19 and in Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax on March 26.