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The vibrant red of paprika and bright green of freshly chopped cilantro makes up traditional Tandoori chicken wings. Shots of this spicy dish are contrasted to simple, beautiful French cuisine: beef bourguignon, gratin daupinois. The Hundred Foot Journey features two distinct cultures. Not only does it contrast them with each other, but also it brings them together and creates something even more beautiful—both in the kitchen and in relationships.
The story begins in India, where Hassan Haji and his family are forced to leave due to political unrest and the very violent loss of his mother. The Hajis travel to Europe, where they open a restaurant, because that is what their family has always done. Hassan is a magnificent cook, even though the only training he has ever received was through his late mother. He keeps the memory of his mother alive through recreating the foods she introduced him to over and over again.
Due to more hardship, the family—made up of Papa Kadam, Hassan, Mansur, Mahira, and two younger siblings—find themselves stuffed inside a van scouring Europe for a place to open a successful restaurant. The Indian family ends up in a small town in France, probably the exact opposite of everything they’ve ever known. Despite complaints and warnings from his son Mansur, Papa Kadam believes this is where Mama’s spirit has brought them. They will stay.
Even without the language barrier and color of their skin, Hassan and his family couldn’t be more different from the French people who make up the town. The Haji family wears bright colors, is noisy, and makes food with flavors even louder than they are. The French wear muted colors, are beautifully reserved, and have been eating the same food for centuries. The Hajis decide to open a traditional Indian restaurant across from the award-winning traditional French restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).
Director Lasse Hallström, famous for capturing the beauty of Europe in Chocolat (2000) and breaking hearts in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), worked alongside executive producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who recognized how the story showed the bridging of cultural differences through passion and decided to bridge their own cultural differences through their passion for the story.
In an interview, Spielberg notes, “we had a chance to put our creative energies together in a very compatible way to find a way to tell this story about compatibility amongst people that you would never imagine could even be compatible . . . whether it’s love or food.”
Hassan’s family opens their restaurant, Maison Mumbai, and experience continual discrimination. Some of them begin to fight back. But this “eye for an eye” behavior does not go unpunished. Hassan recognizes the wrongdoing and apologizes to those his father has wronged. He even tries to bring a peace offering. Hassan’s kindness—and turning the other cheek—begins to bring about change.
Hassan sees the differences between his family and the French town, but rather than fight the distinctions, he wants to learn from them. He is fascinated by the world of French cooking and the flavors they bring to the table. Through his love of food, Hassan sees past the hatred and is able to be a catalyst for love (in more than one sense of the word).
“Food is memories,” Hassan says several times. For Hassan, the Indian spices he cooks with instantly take him back to the time when his mother was alive. The five French sauces he learns to cook bring with them the creation of new memories and new relationships—like with the Amélie-esque French beauty (Charlotte Le Bon) who works at Madame Mallory’s Michelin star restaurant.
This “food is memories” mantra might sound familiar: it shows up in another film with similar results. Pixar’s Ratatouille features the nasty French food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), who gets taken back to his childhood in just one bite. Suddenly mean Mr. Ego’s heart is softened and all is well. The once lonely man suddenly has a full stomach and a handful of new friends.
Similarly, it is the sweet combination of kindness and good food that is able to bring together even the most diverse characters. Just as Hassan tries some twists on French cuisine that lead him to new heights, relationships are forged in the most unexpected of places. These relationships range from the beginnings of young love, to the hilarious bond formed between a stubborn patriarch and uptight workaholic.
The Hundred Foot Journey is a sweet tale that reminds us of an easily forgotten truth: differences aren’t bad—they’re just different. And through those differences we can learn a lot about each other and probably create something new that was never possible until the union of those two things.
Besides, what’s the point of good food and great memories if there’s no one to share them with?
The Hundred Foot Journey is rated PG. Although the film is relatively clean, there are a few things worth noting. There are two mildly violent scenes that involve fire. One character’s hands are badly burned and we see the wounds for a few seconds. There is a brief moment where it is suggested that two characters just had a sexual encounter, but nothing is actually shown. Aside from one s-word and a character taking the Lord’s name in vain once, there is no profanity. Viewers may be uncomfortable with the discriminatory phrases made against the Indian family, but there is nothing over the top. Overall, it’s a family-oriented film that creates a great space for the discussion of cultural differences and how we can not only accept them, but learn from them.
Larisa Kline is CT Movies' summer intern and a student at The King's College in New York City. Follow her on twitter @larisakline.