London, Sept. 3: For many people in Britain, Indian food has become British food, according to one of the world’s great actresses, Helen Mirren.
She was speaking in London yesterday ahead of Friday’s general release of the film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, in which she plays Madame Mallory, a haughty French woman who runs a Michelin-star restaurant at a small village in France.
Trouble breaks out when an Indian immigrant, played by Om Puri, fetches up in the same village and opens a kitsch curry house, Maison Mumbai, complete with a Taj Mahal cut-out and flashing lights.
The problem is that the Indian establishment is only 100ft across the road from Madame Mallory’s exclusive and ever so slightly stiff Le Saule Pleureur Restaurant.
The clash of the two rival cuisines and cultures is the subject of the film that has a real international flavour, with American producers (Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey), a Swedish director (Lasse Hallstrom), a British scriptwriter (Steven Knight) and cast from India, the UK, France and the United States. The music is by A.R. Rahman.
The movie, shot in France, is adapted from the novel, The 100-Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais, an American who was born in Portugal, raised in Switzerland and has lived most of his life outside the US, with a 17-year-stint in London.
Yesterday, however, speaking at the Cordon Bleu cookery school in London, Mirren, flanked by Om Puri and Manish Dayal (a young Indian American actor), was very much the centre of attention.
She has always been a great actress but has had a special position in British society since she won an Oscar in 2007 for her portrayal of the British monarch in The Queen, which examined the crisis in the royal family after the death of Diana, princess of Wales, in 1997.
The satirical magazine Private Eye recently ran a photograph of Mirren meeting the real life Queen at Buckingham Palace. The caption has Mirren asking Her Majesty: “Do you come here often?”
Mirren, now 69, was born in London of a Russian father and an English mother. Apart from the Oscar, she has won four BAFTAs, three Golden Globes, four Emmy awards, and two Cannes Film Festival best actress awards.
Since most people consider national cuisine to be the carrier of a country’s culture, her comments on Indian food deserve more than passing attention.
“The smell of food — it is such a strong indicator of home and the really interesting thing is now when I am abroad I crave Indian food,” admitted Mirren.
“I have never been to India — so I have never had Indian food in India,” she went on. “But good Indian food is very difficult to find in any other country in my experience except for Britain.”
When Dayal, who grew up in South Carolina to immigrant parents from Gujarat, suggested that New York and Los Angeles were exceptions, Mirren disagreed.
“No, not anywhere that I found — certainly not in France,” she insisted. “Maybe in Paris there is now but there wasn’t when I was there (as a young actress just starting out). So Indian food for me has become British food. It has become the marker of my home, my country, my culture — it’s Indian food. And I think that is true of a lot of British people.”
Her comments are borne out by anecdotal evidence. When British tourists go to India, they demand “chicken tikka masala”, a dish created in Britain by Bangladeshi chefs but which does not actually exist in Indian cuisine.
As for making up the gap in her travel experience, Mirren said: “Ever since I was 16 I have wanted to go to India and it has been a long time coming. My husband (US director Taylor Hackford) and I both very, very much want to go. I don’t know why I have not managed to. Taylor was going to India, went to the airport, presented his ticket and they said, ‘Where’s your visa?’ and he said, ‘I didn’t know I had to have a visa.’ He was expected to speak at this every important thing — and he couldn’t go.”
And as for her own cooking skills, she joked: “I do an incredible baked beans on toast, really amazing.”