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Naseeruddin Shah, left, & Aasif Mandvi (Photo: Reliance MediaWorks)

Directed by David Kaplan
Produced by
Nimitt Mankad & Lillian Lasalle
by Aasif Mandvi & Jonathan Bines, based on the play Sakina’s Restaurant by Mandvi
Released by
Reliance MediaWorks
USA. 99 min. Not Rated
Aasif Mandvi, Jess Weixler, Madhur Jaffrey, Naseeruddin Shah, Harish Patel, Dean Winters & Kevin Corrigan

Today’s Special starts out like a restaurant kitchen-as-hell TV competition—sous chef Samir (Aasif Mandvi) ambitiously plans to move up in the high-end culinary empire of Chef Steve (the ever intimidating Dean Winters) in Manhattan. But even with the help of old friend (Kevin Corrigan) and an attractive new one (Jess Weixler as the perky blonde romantic interest), Samir is shut down for promotion and can only save face by telling them he’s leaving for training in Paris.

He goes back home to say farewell in the bustling “Little India” neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, where his mother (Madhur Jaffrey) has set up a war room to strategize finding him an appropriate Indian bride and his father (Harish Patel) wakes him early for morning prayers. (This middle-class Indian family is Muslim, not Hindu, as in most portrayals of Indian-Americans.) Though the film opens with Samir’s nostalgic memories of samosas being beautifully prepared in the family’s restaurant, their Tandoori Palace is now rundown and empty, with mystery meat from a shady halal supplier, a gruff cook, and three elderly card-playing fixtures commenting like an amusing Indian-Greek chorus. Just before the restaurant can be sold off to a chain franchise, a family crisis forces Samir to take over.

The bad news for Samir, the gourmet, is that he has no idea how to cook an Indian meal. The good news is that a cab driver, Akbar, had bragged of cooking specialties for Indira Gandhi (among his other adventures), and the tight-knit community tracks him down. The tale-telling cabbie is played by Naseeruddin Shah, and even after decades as a leading Indian actor (attracting excited fans to the film shoot in Queens), he’s delightful here compared to his recent stolid Bollywood roles that have relegated him to a serious politician, mentor, or professor. He not only sports his first Indian-American accent in a film, but he positively twinkles like a relaxed Kris Kringle in an undershirt and fedora. He expansively introduces Samir (and the audience) to elegant Indian cuisine that saves the restaurant.

Mandvi is mostly known now for his satiric role as the token Muslim “newscaster” on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but this heartfelt film is an expansion, co-written with former Daily Show writer Jonathan Bines, of his semi-autobiographical one-man show Sakina’s Restaurant, where he drolly portrayed family vignettes. Madhur Jaffrey interviewed his mother extensively to capture her mannerisms and inflections, but, ironically, her own expertise as a leading cookbook author, parallel to her acting renown, isn’t seen on screen.

The frequent shots of the No. 7 elevated train winding its way from Manhattan as “the International Express” through Queens contrasts here with its recent symbolism as a depressing dead end for dashed immigrant dreams in movies, such as Steve Barron’s Choking Man, Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, and Paola Mendoza’s Entre Nos. Director David Kaplan’s previous film, Year of the Fish, from a couple of years ago, used a completely different look in its Chinatown setting, yet similarly blended realism with a fairy tale of striving immigrants.

Today’s Special charmingly recalls earlier enjoyable finding-family-through-food-preparation movies like Ang Lee’s Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994), as well as María Ripoll’s Tortilla Soup (2001). But even What’s Cooking (2000), Gurinder Chadha’s precursor to Bend It Like Beckham, did not include an Indian-American family. Be prepared to run out for a big Indian meal after this one, because you will be in a very good mood for marsala. Nora Lee Mandel
November 19, 2010



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