Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Movie: Today's Special
A feel-good comedy about Indian food and culture in the United States, Today's Special is a good, if not great, movie that serves authenticity on a well-garnished platter.
The Details: The new (English-language) feel-good comedy Today's Special really hit home with me. Maybe a little too closely, actually.
It's the (fictional) story of an Indian sous chef named Samir (Aasif Mandvi) who has to take over his father's failing Indian restaurant, except that Samir doesn't know how to cook Indian food. As an Indian food blogger who didn't know how to cook Indian food until, oh say about three months ago -- yes, that would be when I started this blog -- I could empathize with the plot. Lucky for both of us, Indian food encourages -- nay, demands -- improvisation, which seems to have worked out well for both of us.
The best scenes in this movie are those in the kitchen of the restaurant,Tandoori Palace, especially the interaction between Samir and the Indian chef he hires -- a former chef-turned-cabdriver (who's also done everything in between) named Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) -- and his unorthodox cooking methods. The best lesson Akbar teaches Samir is one that any Indian auntie will agree with: it's all about translating your feelings onto the plate. About six years ago, I was trying to cook Indian food for some friends back when I lived in Atlanta -- I vaguely knew how to create about two Indian dishes at the time, and that was only because I wanted to be able to answer "yes" without technically lying every time a non-Indian person asked me if I cooked Indian food. (I never bothered to lie about this failing to Indians, most understood.) I called my mom for help with the recipes, and her response was, "Just make the food with love and it will turn out fine." (I can hear you "Aww"ing out there, but I need you to remember that the next time you make a recipe from my blog and you aren't happy with how it turns out!) There's even a Bengali word for this cooking method -- andaj or "estimate." There are no written recipes passed down from generation to generation in most Indian families -- it's all about estimating amounts of spices based on instinct and experience.
The movie also focuses on the drama between Samir and his father Hakim (Harish Patel), in whose eyes Samir's career and other life choices have made Samir a failure. Here's where the movie hit a little too close to home for me, as I have a tumultuous relationship with my own dad for similar reasons. In a culture where doctors, engineers, and in recent years we can maybe add businessmen and bankers, reign supreme, writing is not considered a choice profession. My dad literally wouldn't pay for me to go to any of the elite colleges I desperately wanted to attend and was accepted into, unless I enrolled as a science major. (I wouldn't do it, wound up going to an in-state public school instead, and have never regretted it.) So some of the scenes -- like when Samir is trying to tell his parents some important information about his career and they both blow him off -- were hard for me to watch. But I appreciated the scenes for their authenticity.
I will warn you that the movie will make you hungry. I felt famished after watching the film, and Nick and I had eaten right before. Nick audibly gasped when his favorite Indian food, puri, made a cameo at the beginning of the film. (Which reminds me: I need to get his mom's recipe for for a future post.) I watched the movie with a group from NETIP (Network of Indian Professionals) Los Angeles-Orange County Chapter (thanks to the NETIP board for organizing the screening!), and everyone really seemed to enjoy it. One critique several NETIP members made was that Tandoori Palace's cuisine didn't look like Indian food. It's true that the high-end Indian food -- complete with garnishes and fancy swirly designs -- being served by Tandoori Palace by the end of the movie was too high-end to really be served at a low- to mid-end restaurant like a Tandoori Palace, but it reminded me of the food served at restaurants like Tanzore and Chakra Cuisine.
My biggest problem with the film is that it's slow to get to the point -- that Samir gets forced into helping with the family restaurant. I mean, could Samir's dad just have the heart attack already? (Mind you, I don't make it a habit to wish Indian uncles ill -- but let's keep this plot moving!) Nick didn't think the beginning was slow at all though. And he's not shy about broadcasting his feelings, so he would have told me if that were the case. So maybe it was just me.
Have you seen Today's Special -- What did you think? What parts of the movie did you find authentic (or not)?
Today's Special, Los Angeles Showtimes