Cooking with Stella (2009)

(On DVD, January 2011) I wish I could say that I liked this film.  It is, after all, a brave little multicultural Canadian comedy that flips over the usual “Canadian goes to a developing country” storyline by pitting its Canadian characters against wilier opponents.  Writer/Director Dilip Mehta is committed to a film that treats its Indian characters are honestly as possible, and when a young couple of Canadians goes working at the country’s embassy in India, they quickly find out that the native help can’t help but help themselves to the riches of the Canadian government.  Their most formidable helper/antagonist is Stella, who has spent thirty years learning how to exploit her position and isn’t about to let the scruples of newcomers stop her.  Cooking With Stella is unarguably on Stella’s side as she raids the pantry of her employers, redirects grocery/housekeeping money in her pockets and schemes to extract even more riches from the first world.  There’s a lesson in the counter-exploitation of Rousseau’s Noble Savage for you.  At some point, though, one has to wonder where the film’s moral compass is going: Everyone’s a caricature, the honest souls are corrupted, Stella gets away with her schemes and the film struggles to make any kind of point.  It may be a bit more honest than what you’d expect in portraying Canadians as gullible naïfs outclassed by their Indian “servants”, but it’s not particularly pleasant in the slightest –and you have to wonder if the film ends up reinforcing stereotypes along the way.  The normally-reliable Lisa Ray is top-billed as a major character, but shows up in an unsympathetic bit part and goes missing for much of the film.  Stella’s final act of pocket-riffling blows the film up into too-silly territory, but the damage is done even by that point: Moving ungracefully between subplots ranging from young romance to cooking lessons, Cooking with Stella ends up being a very tepid comedy clash between cultures.  See it if you have an interest in modern India, in cooking or in tracking down Lisa Ray’s complete filmography… but don’t expect any kind of feel-good experience unless you manage to identify with Stella.

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