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Cooking with Stella

  • Directed by Dilip Mehta
  • Written by Dilip and Deepa Mehta
  • Starring Seema Biswas and Don McKellar
  • Classification: PG

The place is India, in the capital of New Delhi, and wouldn't you just know it - once again East meets West. Yes, Cooking with Stella is meant to be a funny clash of cultures but, suddenly and with scant warning, it turns into a confused clamour of genres. What begins as a simmering social comedy ends as an over-boiled farce - the first is easy to take and the second hard to swallow.

Love the start, though, when Michael (Don McKellar) and Maya (Lisa Ray) fly from Ottawa to take up a diplomatic post in this exotic land. Well, maybe not so exotic. They're housed in the sprawling compound of the Canadian High Commission, ensconced in an apartment that would look right at home on Rideau Street, insulated from the sights and smells and sounds of the city. With one exception: Stella (Seema Biswas) is their assigned domestic, a veteran of the scene and quite the two-tiered cook - steak for her employers, Kerala shrimp curry for herself.

This is where director Dilip Mehta (working from a script he wrote with his sister Deepa) adds a couple of spicy complications. Naturally assuming that "Sir" is the diplomat and "Madam" his tag-along, Stella is taken aback to learn that the current is reversed in this clan. What's more, the house-husband is a former chef who, having put his own career on hold, is keen to "broaden his palate" by studying in her kitchen. Damn the steak, he wants the secrets of that shrimp curry.

At this point, the opportunities to tap into cultural tensions are abundant, and, with a gentle humour, Mehta explores all of them. For example, there's the mutual unease between masters entirely unaccustomed to having a servant, and a servant equally uncomfortable with having such docile masters. "Why do foreigners treat us like their friends?" complains Stella. "It's very confusing."

More intriguing still, she's not above taking advantage of their naiveté - accepting kickbacks from overcharging grocers, selling items from their storehouse on the black market, swiping earrings here or cufflinks there. For Stella, a devout Christian with a pragmatic bent, the good Lord put these patsies in her way for a reason - padding her salary is just a part of her job.

With Biswas so captivating in the title role, such a sly blend of the subservient and the domineering, all this is a delight. Until it isn't. The change comes with the introduction of a further servant to the household - Tannu, the pretty young nanny (Shriya Saran), who's as honest as Stella is crooked, a sweet country girl sending money back to her crippled brother.

After that little shard of melodrama, cue the amour. Pretty soon, Tannu's got a love interest and, as the two court in the park, the movie's got a brand new agenda - using their encounters for some campy send-ups of Bollywood romance.

At least the campy stuff is quick, unlike the final act, which pushes so hard for a resolution that it shoves the whole picture beyond the pale. Inexplicably, characters developed one way begin to behave in quite another, simply to serve the demands of an increasingly Byzantine plot. Gone is the nuanced comedy, in comes the awkward farce. That spoof of shameless Bollywood contrivances has grown perilously close to the real thing.

But does that other star of the show, the glorious Indian food, get on the screen? Despite Mehta's conscious efforts, the kitchen scenes, in which Stella plays guru to Michael's acolyte, are mildly tempting but well short of tantalizing. Ditto for the film: Really, it's an appetizer in search of a meal.