There is a scene where Mr. Kadam (Om Puri) bellows at Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) “French cannot become Indian and Indian cannot become French”. This is when Mallory wants Hassan to work in her kitchen after she has looked down upon his cooking skills with abject condescension. On a previous occasion, the movie also invokes the French national anthem, which is filled with numerous references to blood, war and tyrants. Yet. Yet, when it comes to getting Hassan, Mallory chooses to just sit inside Maison Mumbai, a humble, cheesy restaurant opened by the Kadams, and wait for, in her own words “Hassan Kadam or death, whichever comes first”. There is something very Gandhian, or, Indian about this. Om Puri is forced to put a blanket over a tired, shivering Madame Mallory and allow Hassan to work with her.
As for the Indians, Hassan manages to convince Madame Mallory by modifying a 200 year old French recipe by adding coriander and fenugreek. He masters the five core French sauces (veloute, béchamel, hollandaise, tomato and espagnol). He even nails the pigeon in truffle sauce for the minister (that Madame Mallory throws in the dust bin but is later shown to acknowledge as being exquisite).
It is this amalgamation of French becoming Indian and Indians becoming French through food is what makes this movie a fun watch. It’s Madame Mallory, who prided herself in French cooking with all the subtlety of flavors, touching red chili powder with her bare hands and adding chopped coriander to an omelette. It’s Papa Kadam, whose food was as loud as the music he blared and refused to turn both down, appreciating beef bourgignon. When goons set the Kadams’ hotel in Mumbai on fire, they flee to London in a horrifying series of events. But when Jean Pierre arranges for the Kadams’ restaurant in France to be set ablaze, not only do they stay put, but rebuild from the ashes. This is where Le Saule Pleureur and Maison Mumbai, located right across the street from each other, start to (metaphorically) get closer to each other. I guess you can’t cook something without a fire…
The plot is simple and somewhat predictable. You could see several things developing and culminating the way you’d imagine. But somehow, you couldn’t help but drag yourself to the edge of your seat as Madame Mallory is about to announce her verdict on Hassan’s Omelette and hope she approves it. You wanted Madame Mallory’s restaurant to get the Michelin stars after Hassan took over the kitchen. You wanted Marguerite to accept Hassan’s love, in spite of her living in denial for the most part. You wanted Hassan to come back to that village in France, where he found the “soul” in his food.
But the soul of this movie is food and the love for cooking. It’s amazing how people are still stirring cauldrons in spite of knowing their restaurant is on fire (in the opening scene). It’s incredible how the Kadams try to open a barbeque covered with a sheet of plastic tied to a few wooden posts to protect it from rain. In spite of airplanes from Heathrow causing enough vibrations to topple the sheet and douse the food every single time.
The essence is captured very well when Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) removes a piece of leaf from Hassan’s (Manish Dayal) hair. Hassan then proceeds to remove something (imaginary) on Marguerite’s face and kisses her. Marguerite suggests it was not a good idea for two chefs to be in love. Hassan immediately pounces on the apparent compliment and exclaims “Oh but you DO think of me as a chef?” (And not a “cook”). He loved Marguerite but even at that time, he chose his love for cooking.
Do watch the movie. If not anything, I think when Hassan and Madame Mallory are done making an Omelette, as Madame Mallory is folding it, I couldn’t help but notice that the space between my tongue and lower jaw was filled with sweet saliva that gushed out as I folded my tongue inwards. Not only did I want that Omelette, but also to be in a village in France, cooking and enjoying food.