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Culture food clashes

Helen Mirren teaching Manish Deyal cooking.
Helen Mirren teaching Manish Deyal cooking.
(c) 2013 DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC

A book and a new movie share the same title: The Hundred-Foot Journey.

The 245-page novel by former Forbes reporter Richard C. Morais (2008, Scribner) is an interesting tale of a Muslim family who lived in Bombay, Indian. The story teller, Hassan Haji, is played by Manish Daval. Some one in the name of political correctness changed his last name to Kadam. As the conflict in the book is about cultural food differences, it would be even more interesting if the movie followed the original story line instead of changing and leaving out a great deal to get a happy Hollywood story and ending.

Facts from the book

In the book, Hassan’s grandfather traveled from Gajarat to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1934, riding for three days atop the roof of a hot steam engine in the sweltering Indian sun. Haji says his Grandfather Bapaji seldom talked about his early Bombay days when he slept on the streets and later hired employees to deliver every day thousands of lunch boxes (also called tiffin boxes or dabba-wallah) to clerks and bank tellers all over Bombay. “These boxes smelled of daal and gingery cabbage and black pepper rice.”

In the late 1930s before WWII, Bapahi and his wife, Ammi, opened a clapboard house in slums off Napean Sea Road in Mumbai.

There is no way from the book to tell if these are actual or made-up places. They can be Googled. Many, including Napean Sea Road, are real.

Hassan’s grandparents sold the troops coming into Bombay snacks and operated food stalls. The book describes these treats. The sweets and dishes sold were nuts and honey, milky tea, bhelpuri, and paper cones with a mixture of rice, chutney, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, mint, coriander, and other spices. On a clear lot on Napean Sea Road, his grandparents built a roadside restaurant.

Hassan learned to cook from his grandmother, not his mother as in the movie.

Hassan describes how his grandparents bought four acres of land on Napean Sea Road from the British Administration in 1942. Hassan’s father, played by O.M. Puri, was born after the family acquired the land.

Family split in two

After Independence and Partition, the Haji family was split in two and many relatives left for Pakistan. “Bapaji stayed in Mumbai,” says Hassan. Bapaji “hid his family in a Hindi business associate’s warehouse basement.” How similar this story sounds to members of my own family in France and Germany who were hidden to avoid Hitler’s wrath.

Eventually the family moved out of the basement and Hassan’s father went to an Institute of Catering Technology, a polytechnic school in Abmedabad. This institute is real.

Hassan’s father’s name is Abbas and his mother’s name is Tahira. Her family is from Bombay. Hassan’s father was jealous of another Indian restaurateur, Uday Joshi, owner of Hyderabad. Here is where the story line gets confusing. Hyderabad restaurant exists, but the owner’s name provide by Morais seems to refer to a discredited Indian cricket star.

After Bapaji, Hassan’s grandfather, died the Haji family restaurant was attacked by Hindu nationalists and Hassan’s mother burned to death. Her husband, helping the children escape, could not reach her.

After that event, Papa was ready to leave India. He sold the four acres his father purchased on Napean Sea Road in a bidding war to a developer. The area was in the middle of a building boom. Morais writes that the family immediately thereafter boarded an Air India Flight for England.

The Movie

The movie never really explains why the family left India, or where their money to go to England came from. The movie picks up with the family’s brief stay in England and move to France, where they opened Maison Mumbai in Lumière, on the failed Duford estate across from Le Saule Pleureur, a French restaurant run by Madame Gertrude Mallory, played by Helen Mirren. A real Le Saule Pleureur exists, but it is in Beauregard, Monteux, France.

The Haji family’s conflict with Madame Mallory is well portrayed in both the book and the movie. The cultural habits of the two groups upset each other. Noise is a big issue: quiet western classical music versus very loud Hindustani classical Indian music.

Each wanted the best fresh fish, vegetables and other items to be offered from the vendors at Lumière’s early morning street market. They do their best to one-up each other by awakening ever earlier to race one another to market. Madame Mallory and Hassan’s father both harangue Lumière’s mayor, played by Michel Blanc, to take their side. All the mayor wants is for the bickering to stop and to eat good food.

The rest of the movie is a mixture of Richard C. Morais’s story and the creative mind of scriptwriter Steven Knight.

The book tracks Hassan’s changes even more than the movie. He does not come home and get the girl, La Saule Pleureur’s sous-chef (played by Charlotte Le Bon).

Hassan eventually inherits Madame Mallory’s “priceless collection of antique cookbooks” and her hand guides him the rest of the way through his life, when her extensive group of friends come forward to help him, keeping her interest secret. One of these friends has the name of Paul Verdun, a famous French chef.

One of Mallory’s regular guests is a count, Le Comte de Nancy Selière. That’s the name of a real person. Le Comte is a regular dinner at Le Saule Pleureur, but no actor’s name is associated with him. His life is very different from that of the character in the book, who is very good to Hassan in Paris.

Madame Mallory in the book has a private relationship with her driver/restaurant manager, Monsieur Henry Lebland, and not with Hassan’s father.

Morais’s food descriptions are detailed and realistic. The book contains passages that made me starve for well-prepared French and Indian cuisine, and so does the movie.

Hassan’s heavy drinking, the large French restaurant in Paris, and its owner calling for innovation are creations of the movie.

The biggest surprise is that Hassan’s future food contributions, detailed in the book, are not mentioned in the movie. It’s a shame.

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