Thursday, April 1, 2010

Greasy Pan: Cooking with Stella

I'd like to think that Canadians have a sense of humor -- after all, we poke fun at ourselves as if it's second nature. No doubt this is due to our undefined national identity toppled by a vast amount of strikingly absurd stereotypes, ones that are ripe for comedy. Canadians know this, just watch an old rerun of SCTV or even try to catch an episode of Degrassi Junior High. Americans definitely find the joke funny; the academy of voters even went so far as to nominate a song called "Blame Canada" for an Oscar. The Canadian film industry doesn't mind tossing out grants to have our culture mocked so long as our cultural diversity shines through. The problem inherent through Cooking with Stella is that we're not in on the joke. Canadians are presented as little more than friendly idiots with deep pockets.

Cooking With Stella is a slight comedy about a Canadian diplomat (Lisa Ray) and her husband Michael (Don McKellar) living in New Delhi with their cook, Stella (Seema Biswas). All through Dilip Metha's film, she works overtime to build a positive relationship between Michael and Stella. But Stella, who is at first kind and willful, quickly gets transformed into the villain of the picture, gleefully stealing thousands from Michael (and others) through a very profitable black market business. What is problematic about this is that Metha doesn't view her as the story's antagonist. Allegories instead get drawn to Robin Hood, but unlike that prince of thieves, Stella's hand is merely a selfish one.

Dilip and Deepa Metha (sister, cowriter and producer) suggest a few times that poverty is the reason for her deception and thievery, however it isn't just Stella with corrupt morals. Every character native to New Delhi exploits the Canadians at every possible turn. Even the ones offered up as morally innocent end up rolling around in another's stolen riches. Stella frequently laughs and thanks the Lord whenever more money comes her way, but Dilip and Deepa Metha are also laughing at Canada for helping make this film possible. Not only is Stella stealing from Michael and his wife, but Dilip and Deepa Metha are taking money to turn the camera on Canada and laughing at us.

It's entirely possible that the movie is slightly misconstrued by poor storytelling and a novice use of tone. Any moment of drama or comedy winds up having the opposite reaction. The jokes get muffled by bizarre deliveries and a lack of focus. Any seriousness is all but lost in energetic music that doesn't even match the scene it's scored to. Even if the drama had been rawer and the comedy well done, Cooking with Stella would be stale and offensive. This little film, that seems so innocent on the outside, is instead filled with filth and depravity at its heart.

All the residents of India's capital seem to know each other, and have their own form of unity. But they only seem to bond over the exploitation of foreigners and bask gloriously in their easily won forgiveness. Though the film's importance within the realm of Canadian cinema and at the box office will be inconsequential, it's upsetting to see such a disturbingly naive representation of two peoples. Everything from the cityscapes and the slums to the diced vegetables on Michael's frying pan are bursting with colour, but they can't hide the dark heart lurking beneath Stella's smile. Cooking with Stella has a cold heart and leaves an awful aftertaste.

-- Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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