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LA Indian Film Festival opening film "Cooking With Stella"


LA Indian Film Festival

By Alex Deleon


"Cooking With Stella", Canada/2009/103 min. Director Dilip Mehta

The opening film of the festival was a re-run of the Toronto opener back in September, where 'Cooking Wiith Stella' was selected for that honor spot because of a a direct Canadian story  line connection and the fact that the director, Dilip Mehta, is a brother of eminent Canadian  based Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta.  "Stella" of the title (veteran indian actress Seema Biswas) is the live-in Indian cook at the Canadian embassy in Delhi when a new yuppie generation  diplomatic couple arrive -- the twist; she (Lisa Ray) is the diplomat, and hubbie  (Don McKellar) is a stay at home papa and a passionate cooking hobbyist (he must have been  a big Martha Stewart fan back home).  The second twist is that Stella, in her position of trust,  is ripping the embassy off right and left viewing herself as a "Robin Hood" in drag, because  she is robbing the rich (Canada) to give to the poor (Herself). Enter character number four, a very pretty young Indian lady (Shriya), the new nanny, who is honest and self righteous to the core, and threatens to expose Biswa's larcenous ways, but is eventually lured into collusion with her schemes for closing the gap between rich and poor.


Described in the catalogue as a "quirky warm hearted comedy" it is indeed both quirky and warm-hearted, and splendidly lensed with maple leaf flags flying, but great cinema this is not. 

The characters are just too shallow, especially the husband who is totally blah, and the style of the film is pure TV sit-com with one-dimensional personalities, except for Biswas who blows everyone else away, although there ain't much to blow on. Biswas had a major role in Deepa Mehta's 2005 maxim opus "Water", which also featured Canadian actress Lisa Ray, but here Lisais less than memorable in a background wallpaper part. This was a feature debut for Dilip and sister Deepa co-wrote the screenplay, but the bottom line is, alas; "A listless comedy that only a Canadian mother could love".  Item of interest, Lisa Ray, 38, is recovering from a rare form of cancer and has settled in India.


Harishchandrachi Factory,  /2009/96 min. Director, P. Mokashi

"Harishchandrachi Factory" (this year's Indian entry in the Oscar's foreign language category) is the debut film of Mumbai-based theatre actor-director Paresh Mohashi. It tells the story behind the the making of India's very first full length feature film, "Raja Harishchandra", in 1913 by the pioneer of Indian cinema, Dada Saheb Phalke.

 Phalke occupies a position in Indian film history very much akin to that of D.W. Griffith, the legendary pioneer of Hollywood cinema. Griffith's great Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation" actually came out two years later in 1915, and, despite it's very politically incorrect racism (by today's standards) is still regarded as one of the major landmarks of American film history. By the same token Phalke's film is the first great landmark of Indian film history.  However, the big difference between these two towering film pioneers on opposite sides of the globe is that Griffith died in abject poverty, a forgotten figure of the silent era, whereas Phalke was revered in his own lifetime, had a prolific career lasting two decades, and is remembered today via the highest personal award for lifetime achievement in the Indian film industry -- the highly coveted and not lightly bestowed Dada Saheb Phalke prize.  

The film was based on the legend of the righteous King Harishchandra, recounted in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It ran about 40 minutes and all female roles were played by men. The title of the present film is based on the fact that, when the film was made, working in films was taboo, so Dada Saheb advised his artists to tell people that they were working in a factory owned by a man called "Harishchandra".  

The film was a grand success, quickly established Phalke as a producer, and paved the way for the Indian film industry. Dada Saheb's wife cooked food alone, without any help, for the whole cast and crew, of more than 500 people and aided in the production in every way possible, all of which is woven into Mokashi's handsome new film. True to history, the language of the film is Marathi, the indigenous hometown language of Bombay, not Hindi, the imported language of present day Bollywood. There is no attempt to make the film "look old" with sepia tones or other tacky devices, but at certain key points the camera is speeded up to give the jerky effect of old times cameras --just to remind viewers, a bit jocosely perhaps, that they are lucky to be seeing such an antique biopic through modern camera eyes. An endearing leit-motif of the film is the way in which the early moving pictures are seen transfixing first time viewers and holding them in thrall -- even scaring them out of their wits, as if they were witnessing a new form of black magic --and, what indeed are the movies, if not magic?

H. Factory may not be everybody's cup of tea, but for those with an appreciation of film history in a whimsical mode this picture can only be a colorful treat and an ode to joy.



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