Food has become all the rage among filmmakers in recent years, what with The Hundred Foot Journey, Chef, Julie & Julia and many more (see here), and that’s without the myriad of documentaries and TV shows depicting food culture, recipes, the processing industry, the search for holy grail ingredients, competitions and pretty much everything else you can think of.
It’s no accident that in reviewing Today’s Special I start by mentioning The Hundred Foot Journey, since the two are spookily similar at face value in terms of plot (ambitious chef of a son gives up a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant to help out at troubled family Indian restaurant, and in so doing ‘discovers himself’, restores fortunes and finds love.) Both pile on cliches while trying to ladel on the sort of effortless insouciant charm that wins delights audiences – and in that respect both won friends and influenced at least some people.
However, further investigation reveals Today’s Special was actually made 5 years earlier than The Hundred Foot Journey so has a higher authenticity rating, though strangely it failed to acquire the same global celeb status. The fact that it is set in Brooklyn undoubtedly helped with the more parochial of American audiences, though to British audiences that makes little difference.
Its largely unknown Indian cast may have put off some, though in the light of the Marigold Hotel franchise and many travel programmes I think there is more than a little warmth and affection for the Indian people in general – among Brits anyway (I can’t comment on American perspectives in the Trump era.) That said, the inclusion of the venerable actress, writer and TV chef Madhur Jaffrey plus renowned face to British audiences (Harish Patel, a veteran of many Anglo-Indian movies) failed to compete at the box office with the attraction of Helen Mirren as a snotty French Michelin-standard restauranteur and the late Om Puri in the equivalent paternal restauranteur role in Journey.
Tant pis! say I, for Today’s Special is arguably the better of the two films, even scoring 81% on Rotten Tomatoes compared to a mere 68% for THFJ. The reason for the disparity of scores is plainly evident to my eyes: Hollywood overdid the schmaltz for Journey, and gave Mirren a role which failed to play to her strengths. Mockery of the French probably didn’t help much either other than to the virulently Europhobic.
Special, by comparison, keeps it simple and doesn’t force the pace, other than the transformation of Tandoori Nights restaurant from Indian slop to modernist delights and rave reviews, plus some mystic nonsense about spice mixes – though you couldn’t fail to delight in the performance of Naseeruddin Shah as he spouts endless twaddle but with utter charm.
Where Journey uses an English actress to demonstrate the alleged snobbishness of the French, Special gently pokes fun by drawing comparisons between Jewish and Indian families in terms of over-protection of their offspring and fierce pride in the family – certainly neither could consider this derogatory unless they were very touchy on the subject.
As lead, Samir (Asif Mandvi) in Special competes with Hassan (Manish Dayal) in Journey, and both come out smelling of garam masala, which I take to be a compliment. Both underplay their roles, which is absolutely the right approach in view of some of the more manic behaviour all around, though there’s no doubt Special reduces the ham content on their menu to best effect.
However, the real star of both films, as you would expect and as was intended all along, is the food. Rather more of it on show in Journey, though there’s no doubt they went to town in a couple of scenes for Special too. If you fail to finish either film drooling and calling your local Indian takeaway, there’s clearly something very wrong with you.