Ismail Merchant’s name is already a noun: Merchant Ivory films, so-called after the production company he cofounded, are synonymous with lavish period pieces. To those who knew him well, though, there’s a verb he could have inspired, too. The British-Indian movie mogul put his kitchen skills good use as a business strategy, says the author Richard C. Morais, who met Merchant some 30 years ago: feed first, ask questions later. “The actor Simon Callow used to say that the term ‘curry favor’ was invented for Ismail,” Morais recalls.
So it was that Morais learned an important lesson: food isn’t just for eating.
Morais turned that knowledge into his novel The Hundred-Foot Journey, about an upstart Indian restaurant that opens across the street from a Michelin-starred French joint, which he hoped Merchant would adapt for the big screen. Though Merchant died before the book was published, The Hundred-Foot Journey hits theaters on Aug. 8, and it won’t be alone in claiming that a meal can be a metaphor. In Journey, cooking is culture; in the romantic comedy What If, a gigantic sandwich stands in for a relationship — a messy dish for messy love.
Elan Mastai, What If’s screenwriter, has a theory about why what movie characters eat often means so much — that is, why his blending of peanut butter and jelly and bacon and butter can be more than a heart attack waiting to happen: “These flavors kind of have a built in nostalgia, and it’s also fat and sugar and gluten,” he says. “Put them all together and your body reacts in a very visceral way — and, weirdly, in an emotional way.”
Silver-screen sustenance has a long history — Journey director Lasse Hallström was responsible for one of its high points, Chocolat — but the obsession with the kitchen is getting hotter. Both the French import Le Chef and Jon Favreau’s taco-truck passion project Chef arrived in U.S. theaters this summer, after a winter in which Labor Day linked pie and sex and the acclaimed Bollywood film The Lunchbox gave new meaning to “magic beans” by bringing its haricots of happiness (and lots of other love-provoking midday munchies) to American audiences. And as both The Hundred-Foot Journey and What If show, food movies are rarely about food. The former, despite a plot that revolves around restaurant reviews, is actually about tolerance and tradition; the latter is about young love.
The What If sandwich, a favorite of Elvis Presley’s known as the Fool’s Gold, shows up as a throwaway reference in the play on which the movie is based, but Mastai ramped up its role when he saw that it echoed the movie’s theme: something can be untidy and delicious at the same time. And the extra layer of meaning Morais gave to the food in Journey was what attracted producer Juliet Blake, who ended up shepherding the story to theaters. Blake tells TIME that the story reminded her of her German mother’s making strudel rather than cake even after she emigrated, and she quotes Adam Gopnik’s book The Table Comes First to explain why: “Food,” he writes, “is the sensual pleasure that translates most readily into a social value.”
That’s a lot to ask of cinematic comestibles. Take The Hundred-Foot Journey for example, in which a hint of cardamom can signify the entirety of Indian-ness; it would be unreasonable to expect a meal, however nuanced the taste, to capture the intricacies of something so complicated. Shilpa Davé, author of the book Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, explains that eating and enjoying food is a good step toward intercultural intimacy, but that consumers sometimes need to be reminded that eating the food doesn’t mean knowing everything about the culture. Anita Mannur, author of Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture, agrees, saying the potential problem of laying all that meaning on eating is simple: the typical post-Monsoon Wedding depiction of Indian people in films for Western audiences — “colorful and bright and with good food” — doesn’t always leave room for the complications of real life. She read the book of The Hundred-Foot Journey and enjoyed that it made the point that food can remind people of how they don’t belong, but it’s still clear that even the most delicious-looking feast can stumble as a metaphor.
“There’s this idea that if we can only just sit down together all the tensions of the world will go away,” Mannur says. “That’s an appealing solution, but it’s unrealistic.”
But in Juliet Blake’s case, at least, the unrealistic has proved attainable. The cast and crew of Hundred-Foot Journey ate well on set — the location catering included foie gras — and the film’s star, Om Puri, who plays the patriarch, will make sure the tradition of sitting down together continues. When he comes to New York for the film’s premiere, Blake plans to host him at her Brooklyn home. She says he’s going to teach her how to make Indian food.