Sunday, February 10, 2013

Today's Special

Blockbuster films belong to everyone, which is another way of saying that they belong to no one. This isn't to say that it's impossible to ascribe personal meaning to films that are designed to be superhits, but it can be difficult. With big-budget films, you can choose to participate in the mass-cultural phenomenon (or not), but there can be little sense of personal discovery; the saturation promotional campaigns usually insure that you know exactly how you'll respond to a movie before you see it. In Umberto Eco's formulation, blockbuster movies tend to be closed works: that is, works that attempt to fix their own meanings and the terms of your engagement with them in advance.

That's why smaller-budget films can be so enjoyable. Not only can they offer a real sense of discovery, but there's more space for responses that haven't been completely predetermined. Aasif Mandvi's Today's Special (2009) offers the pleasures of openness in this sense, but also the rewards of a really well-written script (by Mandvi and Jonathan Bines) brought to life by the excellent performances of the cast.

One of those excellent performances is by Mandvi himself. He plays Samir, whom we see in action as a sous-chef in a fancy New York restaurant in the very authentic-looking opening scenes. (I'd guess that either Mandvi or director David Kaplan has spent some time in restaurant kitchens—either that, or they're good friends with people who have.) After an adrenaline-filled night in the kitchen, Samir learns from the owner-chef Steve (Dean Winters, who bears a striking resemblance to restaurateur Thomas Keller) that he's been passed over for a promotion to head chef at a new restaurant Steve's opening. When Steve tells Samir that he wasn't chosen because his cooking isn't surprising or unconventional enough (although Steve puts it more crudely), Samir quits on the spot.

Joblessness leaves Samir at loose ends. He has a vague idea about going to France to apprentice with a famous chef, but before he can make any concrete plans his father Hakim (veteran actor Harish Patel) suffers a heart attack. Samir promises his mother Farrida (the renowned actress and—nice metafictional touch!—famous writer on the gastronomy of India, Madhur Jaffrey) that he'll take over the family's failing Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights. There's only one catch: he has never cooked Indian food before and has no idea how to go about it. After a series of kitchen catastrophes, he's reduced to ordering take-out from other Indian restaurants to have something to serve to his customers.

In desperation Samir enlists the aid of Akbar Khambati (Naseeruddin Shah), a loquacious cab driver who "used to cook a little." Akbar introduces him not only to the spices and techniques of South Asian cooking, but also to its improvisational and personal character. Along with cooking lessons, Akbar also imparts a few life lessons as well: the importance of trusting yourself, embracing the unknown, expressing your passions, and acknowledging the legacies bequeathed to you (consciously or not) by your family.

The film is based on Mandvi's Obie Award winning one-man show, Sakina’s Restaurant, but the role of Akbar fits the brilliant Naseeruddin Shah so well it seems as though could have been written expressly for him. As an added bonus, the movie's soundtrack is filled with vintage Bollywood songs (including one of my six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films).

Today's Special shows that it's not the budget of a movie that counts, but the imagination of its creators.


  1. Thanks for this review! Will definitely check this out, when I have the chance.