Exposed meets the cast of The Hundred-Foot Journey

 

Based on the bestselling novel by Richard C. Morais; The Hundred-Foot Journey sees Om Puri and family open an Indian restaurant in a remote French village, encountering resistance from both the community and the snobbish restaurant across the road. With Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallström at the helm, it’s a clash of both cuisine and culture. Van Connor met up with stars Dame Helen Mirren, Om Puri and Manish Dayal to learn more.

 

What was it about The Hundred-Foot Journey that particularly caught your interest?

Helen Mirren: It was a charming story. I loved the fact that it was going to be shot in France. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a French actress. It also gives me an opportunity to pretend to be a French actress as well as a French woman. There were many, many elements, not least of which was that I got that classic phone call: “It’s Steven Spielberg on the line’. And whenever an actor is lucky enough to receive that phone call you never believe it. You think who’s having me on? But I did get that phone call. When you get it obviously you listen. So it’s a combination of the incredible talent involved in making the film from Steven to Oprah Winfrey to Lasse Hallstrom. And then when you start learning about the cast, that’s always a wonderful thing to learn that I would be working with Om in particular, whose work I was aware of. Manish, who’s new to me but proved to be such an incredible pleasure. All of those elements come together.

 

It’s a remarkably multi-national production; with that in mind, did you have any special tricks for bonding behind the scenes?

Om Puri: I must say it comes to me naturally. It had been tried earlier in East is East. You all know that I had a big family in East is East. I got one idea: before we started filming, I was staying in an apartment in Holland Park. So I said my exercise is that tomorrow we all meet at my place and we go out shopping to cook. So somebody went to buy vegetables and somebody went to buy fruit, somebody went to buy wine. Everybody went shopping separately and we all got together and we cooked the meal. We spent the entire day, until 12 o’clock at night when Damian O’Donnell, who was the director of the film, landed there and he saw us gelling together and bonding. It was wonderful. Similarly I did it on this film. Every Saturday and Sunday my family used to land up in my apartment and I had to cook for them.

HM: And then he cooked for the rest of us as well. He’d bring incredible little bowls full of fantastic food that he’d prepared the night before for all of us, so Om really was the glue that held us all together.

Manish Dayal: Oh, absolutely.

HM: He was the head of our family, our film family in all ways.

 

Manish, was it intimidating embarking on this journey so early in your career?

MD: I’d say definitely. I got the chance to observe and work with these two hugely prolific and talented actors here. At first it was intimidating and I was overwhelmed in the very beginning, even before I got to France. I quickly got to know Helen over a three-hour-long dinner the day we got there. Om-ji and I clicked very fast and I got to know them off set quickly, which helped us work together I think on set and I became less intimidated after a while.

HM: I forced Manish to eat escargot – snails – for the first time in his life.

MD: Yes. It was a bizarre experience but when she forces me to eat something I have to eat it. And then the experience with Steven was a very long and exciting audition process which was over the course of almost five months and so, yeah, it all sort of worked out.

 

How fond are you of cooking and how much time do you spend in the kitchen?

OP: I think I’m the senior.

HM: You are, absolutely no question!

OP: I have been cooking from the age of 14. At school I was a boy scout and one of the activities of boy scouts is cooking. There used to be competitions and plus I had a flair for that. I used to watch my mother and then if we went to anybody’s house if there was a particular dish I hadn’t had I would be curious to ask them how did you prepare it, what did you put in it, etc, etc. So I enjoy,  I find it relaxing. It’s like doing yoga for me.

HM: I do an incredible baked beans on toast. Really amazing. Marmite on toast. Marmalade on toast. Cheese on toast. My cheese on toast is excellent. No, I’m not much of a cook. I love food. I love to eat. But I’ve never been a great cook. I was very grateful for Manish in France and, of course, our incredible French catering, too.

MD: You know, I was listening to both of their answers and I'm right in the middle of them; so I can do a little more than beans on toast but I cannot prepare the things that Om-ji can prepare. I can cook a few things well, but just a few things! I would say my omelette's pretty good. 

 

There’s a line in the film that "food is memories”. What’s your take on that?

MD: It's an interesting line actually because I had read that line so many times during the course of shooting, but it wasn't until the end of production that I really understood it; and it really makes sense to me at the end and it is the part of the film where my character loses himself and how he finds himself again – he finds the people that he loves – and I think that's what the line means. That there's something about taste and flavour that will bring you back to a memory and I think there is nothing more visceral or palpable than that. And for me it was my mums rice and daal that she made growing up, it was very simple but she put a little too much sugar in it, too few peanuts, and that flavour is something that makes me think of her.

OP: It's true, it makes sense. I mean, for example, when you think of your mother and you talk about a certain dish, then you go back into a kind of flashback and it becomes a very warm kind of remembrance. Almost like giving tribute to her. 

HM: It is extraordinary. They do say the sense of smell and the sense of taste are by far the strongest markers for memory, much more powerful than anything else. And for me it’s actually the smell of chocolate, and a certain kind of chocolate. I actually hadn’t tasted chocolate at all because I was a post second world war young child and it was rationing and there was no sugar. I didn’t taste chocolate until I was about four or five. So the first time I tasted chocolate was an incredible experience. I’m not a chocoholic at all but just occasionally I get the smell of chocolate that takes me right back to being four years old and experiencing chocolate for the first time. It is extraordinary. And of course the smells of every single one of us sitting in this room I’m sure has the particular smell that will bring them back to a particular time in their  youth whether it’s something their mother cooked or the first time they had fish and chips or whatever it is. It is a very, very powerful thing and of course it’s such a strong indicator of home, isn’t it? And the really interesting thing is now when I go abroad I crave Indian food when I’m away because Indian food is – I’ve never been to India so I’ve never had Indian food in India – but it’s very difficult to find good Indian food in any other country except for Britain. Not anywhere in America. Certainly not in France – maybe in Paris, maybe there is now but there wasn’t when I was there. So Indian food for me has become British food. It’s become the marker of my home, my country, my culture. I think that’s true of a lot of British people now.

 

The film deals briefly with an undercurrent of xenophobia in a small town. What was the local reaction to the arrival of the production for filming?

HM: Well, first of all they were French. So you know, the French are very cool about everything. They were very easy about the whole thing. They weren’t over excited, they weren’t standoffish. They were just very cool about the whole thing. They were great. Not anti at all. And even knowing the story and that element of xenophobia in small country towns, maybe anywhere in the world, they were absolutely easy with that. They were great.

 

With so many actors from different backgrounds, how was the experience of bringing together different styles of acting?

HM: Very interesting. Working with Om, we have theatre in common. We’ve both done a lot of theatre. I felt although Om comes from a very, very different culture than mine we do have that element in common. I found it surprisingly symbiotic to work with Om. I certainly felt that. It is true, we come from very different cultures but there are areas where we overlap and it was in that little overlappy area that we found a really great way to work together. On the set Lasse encouraged a lot of improvisation and Om is the most brilliant improviser and a lot of the great lines in the film are actually from Om’s personal improvisations. He’s a poet. We’re all inspired by him in that direction and I think once you’re in improvisation world that breaks barriers down of styles of acting.

OP: We have two kinds of films in India: one is a very stylised form of acting, which is in commercial films and which are usually referred to as singing and dancing films – which are incredible, but they're not believable. Whereas the other cinema, which is art cinema… Like Helen said we both come from theatre, and we are trained theatre actors so we've done Ipsen (?), we’ve done Chekhov, we've done Arthur Miller – we've done realistic plays, plus a very intensive training – my drama school was three years – so the Indian cinema you refer to is commercial cinema which is stylised. In India – when I saw the film – and also here and in Washington and New York, the big laugh you get when she's tasting the omelette, there's a shot of her back and she tastes it and she straightens her back and there is a huge laughter from the audience.

 

Dame Helen, you mentioned you’ve never been to India, do you now have plans to make the trip?

OP: Her ancestors have been to India! We are colonial cousins!

HM: Ever since I was 16, I’ve wanted to go to India. It’s just been a long time coming. My husband and I very much want to go. I don’t know why I’ve never managed to. Taylor [Dame Helen’s husband] was going to India, went to the airport, presented his ticket and they said ‘Where’s your visa?’ He said ‘I didn’t know I had to have one’ and he was expected to be speaking at this very important thing and he couldn’t go. Sounds perfect. Sorry, guys! Got a bit personal there.

 

Quite alright! Finally, what was it like to work with Lasse Hallström?

MD: I would say that working with Lasse Hallström really keeps you on your toes. His vision – no matter what – is always evolving and always changing. He could blurt out something to you in the middle of a take which you might disagree with but its genius and it always seems to work. His vision just always seems to be changing and evolving and he's never fixed to anything and that's what I thought was so fun about working with him because there was never planning anything and as an actor that's really fun to sort of be alive in the moment like that

HM: It’s very true. He warned me right before we started shooting and he said ‘I’ll probably change things around. I’ll ask you to improvise. I like to keep things loose’ and that’s very true. He would change or have an idea suddenly and go for it so you didn’t feel you were in a prepared kind of rut that you have to follow. Sometimes that was frightening because you felt wrong footed by it but it was always exciting. It was great.

OP: I spoke to him about his background and how did he start, etc; he's a self trained man, he didn't go to any kind of training at a school to learn direction. I think – perhaps considering his behaviour on the set – I think one of the reasons is that he discovered things himself, so therefore he expects the actors to discover things for themselves and the most important line which stuck in my head was – I've worked with hundreds of directors to be honest out of 250 films I've done in the last 40 years – one line, he said “Om, the take was nice but I want you to mess it up.” I got confused, I said “Mess it up? Why would I mess up a scene?” But what he meant was like in real life you are awkward, you are hesitant, not always perfect – he meant that.

MD: The takes where we just used our instincts in it’s purist form were what made it into the film, I feel.

OP: Sometimes he said “Throw the script away, don’t steal lines from that! Think of the situation and make your own lines…”, which is quite difficult as we are not writers.

 

 

The Hundred-Foot Journey is in cinemas now, rated PG; check out the Exposed review in our movies section.




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