-By Doris Toumarkine
Writer/star Aasif Mandvi , a sometime playwright but best known to TV audiences as a “Daily Show” personality, now conquers indie film (he already did studio time co-starring in Paramount’s The Last Airbender) with this vehicle inspired by his Obie-winning play. WhileToday’s Special hews closely to formula with its predictability, the film is an expertly crafted and delicious masala blend of comedy, romance and drama, worthy of being on a cinematic culinary menu along with Big Night, Babette’s Feast or Mostly Martha.
Simmering nicely in both the familiar New York and outer borough immigrant Indian cultures, the film should satisfy the more refined appetites of art-house customers. But like the modest restaurant at the film’s core, lines will form only after reviews and word of mouth kick in.
Mandvi plays the ambitious sous-chef Samir, who toils under Chef Steve (Dean Winters) while having a light flirtation with co-worker Carrie (Jess Weixler) at a fancy Manhattan restaurant. But when Samir, faulted for losing his “magic,” is overlooked for a promotion to his boss’ new hot spot, he leaves in a huff, telling Carrie he’s off to Paris to apprentice to a master.
With no such plans, Samir finds himself back at his parents’ modest home in Queens’ “Little India,” where he must do battle with high-strung father Hakim (Harish Patel), still forever disapproving of anything Samir does and mourning the untimely death of Samir’s favored older brother. Nor does fussbudget mother Farrida (legendary cookbook author and actor Madhur Jaffrey), insistent upon finding a proper Indian wife for Samir, provide comfort.
When Hakim suffers a heart attack and can no longer care for Tandoori Palace, the family business he has neglected and is eager to sell, Samir has no choice but to step in. The Tandoori isn’t quite Iraq, but, sad, forlorn and struggling, it looks it. There’s the indifferent robotic host, the clueless kitchen staff comprising a hostile, red-bearded weirdo as inept chef and his wimpy assistant whose only command of English is the word “yes,” and three Indian old-timers (Ranjit Chowdhry, Kumar Pallana, Ostaro) who settle in every day to schmooze at their favorite table but fail to order food.
Samir must bring the place back to life, except that he can’t cook Indian food. On the way to what most filmgoers will rightly guess is victory, he has the good luck of not having lost the calling card of colorful, eccentric, charismatic Indian cab driver Akbar (Indian cinema star Naseeruddin Shah), who gave Samir his fateful ride from abandoned Manhattan to the daunting new challenges in Queens.
An inspirational bohemian survivor and a low-rent bon vivant, Akbar bragged about preparing meals for Indira Gandhi. But his calling card provides nothing more than a name.
No problem. Samir wisely puts the Tandoori’s three squatter/slackers on the case of finding Akbar. They prove that the city’s huge Indian community, as with many an ethnic group, can actually be small in terms of who knows whom.
Akbar is persuaded to take charge of the restaurant’s kitchen and the “Today’s Special” sign in the window reflects his justified arrogance with the words “Trust me!” he has written right below. Akbar also becomes Samir’s mentor, teaching him the ways of Indian cuisine. He urges his protégé to cook not so much from the brain but from the heart and below. (“The recipe is the template; what counts is the interpretation.”)
It’s not that we know what will happen but, thanks to director David Kaplan and his cast, we want it to happen. We also want and expect cameos from some wonderful Indian dishes and these too we get.
All performers are a pleasure to watch. And Shah, as the film’s answer to a male Indian Auntie Mame, is that proverbial revelation.
Appropriately, the message of Today’s Special is that life is a banquet and no poor sucker who makes an effort should starve to death. Seeing the film is like discovering that delicious and reasonable Indian restaurant you never knew about. Trust us!
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