Flavour of Indian cinema catches on
Saibal Chatterjee

Films with India and Indians as the theme have had a great run at the global boxoffice lately. In fact, these are increasingly breaking boundaries and making connections through faith, food and families

Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children
Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children

Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Anup Singh’s Qissa

Amit Gupta’s Jadoo

India seems to be the current flavour of the season in cinema. And we mean it quite literally. Jadoo, directed by British-Indian filmmaker Amit Gupta, opened in the UK on September 6 and has been tickling the palate of moviegoers ever since. Jadoo, which screened at the 15th Mumbai Film Festival in mid-October, cast a spell on the audience with its appetising mix of feel-good family drama, the appeal Indian cuisine and a gallery of endearing characters.

The film, starring Harish Patel, Amara Karan and Kulvinder Ghir, centres on two brothers, who run rival restaurants in Leicester after they fall out with each other following a dispute over a family recipe. It is left to the elder sibling’s daughter, who is preparing for her wedding with her English boyfriend, to bring the estranged brothers back together.

Indian food is also at the centre of Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, an upcoming adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ bestseller. With a cast spearheaded by Om Puri, Helen Mirren and Manish Dayal, the film scheduled for release in August next year is about an Indian family that moves to France and opens a restaurant 100 feet across the street from a Michelin-starred French eatery.

The rivalry sparked off between the two restaurants forms the crux of the story that hinges on family ties, the pull of love and loyalty. Could this be described as the Lunchbox effect? The epistolary romance starring Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur revolves around the culinary skills of its female protagonist. The film’s remarkable exploration of loneliness in the big city has struck a chord wherever it has been shown. The Lunchbox, acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for US distribution, has been sold in virtually every single major global territory, triggering a renewed interest in Indian stories.

Another Indian film that has the makings of a global success story is Anup Singh’s Punjabi-language film, Qissa — The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, an Indo-European co-production that had its world premiere in Toronto in September.

After a stop at the Mumbai Film Festival, Qissa travels to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. It is now all set for worldwide release. India-themed films have had a great run at the global boxoffice lately and it is only natural that one of the nation’s most successful ‘cultural’ exports, its cuisine, is finding its way increasingly into international cinema.

In 2005, Mistress of Spices, adapted from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel of the same name by Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, did not quite make the grade despite the presence of Bollywood diva Aishwarya Rai in the cast. In 2009, Dilip Mehta’s Cooking with Stella did not exactly cook up a storm at the boxoffice although the central performances by Seema Biswas, Don McKellar and Lisa Ray were widely applauded. But the scenario has changed significantly since then, especially post-Slumdog Millionaire. Indian subjects, in general, and not necessarily just the food of the subcontinent, have been quite the rage at the movies.

Since Danny Boyle’s dramatic ode to the never-say-die spirit of Mumbai’s perennial underdogs, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and John Madden’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have projected India on the big screen and left their marks worldwide. It was exactly 20 years ago that British-Indian director Gurinder Chadha tasted big-time success with Bhaji on the Beach. The bhaji that she rustled up has clearly moved beyond the Blackpool beach where the film was set and invaded other parts of the cinematic universe. And it isn’t merely Indian cuisine that is spreading its flavour all around the world. The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra’s applauded debut film, isn’t the only Indian product that is selling globally. Pan Nalin’s feature length documentary, Faith Connections, has also been picked up by sales agents globally.

Faith Connections is about the Maha Kumbh Mela but it negotiates its way through the sea of humanity to pick out a bunch of immensely interesting characters who sum up the essence of the world’s biggest religious congregation.

English actress of Sri Lankan descent Amara Karan, the leading lady of Amit Gupta’s Jadoo, explains the success of the film thus: "It is a film about the British experience but it comes from the director’s personal memories, from the culture of his own mother, who ran an Indian restaurant in Leicester for more than three decades."

Genuine stories that reflect real cultural nuances are primed to travel around the world. Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s career-defining novel Midnight’s Children, and Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid’s best-selling novel, are two other films that have sprung from ethos of the subcontinent and have succeeded in attracting positive notices the world over. While Midnight’s Children is set in India at different points of its history since the nation became independent, The Reluctant Fundamentalist talks about Pakistan in a way that questions the point of view that seeks to brand the country as a hub of religious extremism.

It is undeniable that Indian stories are in demand but unless they are told well, and with a degree of understanding of the world's shared humanity, they are unlikely to move beyond the confines of the diaspora. The fact that these films are increasingly breaking boundaries and making connections through faith, food and families is a sure sign that more and more Indian filmmakers are getting their act together. These are, therefore, exciting times for Indian cinema, full of possibilities and opportunities.