The ingredients are piquant but the final dish less than savory in “Cooking With Stella,” director Dilip Mehta’s unfocused fiction-feature debut. While this contempo upstairs/downstairs story provides an interesting, often lively glimpse into the household of a Canadian diplomatic family living in India and the various class and culture clashes that result, the supposed charms of the unscrupulous title character conspicuously fail to materialize. Fall fest bows and the involvement of Mehta’s better-known sister Deepa (the “Elements” trilogy) as co-writer and exec producer could stir the commercial pot for this otherwise homevid-skewing item.
The longtime cook for the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi, Stella (Seema Biswas, of Deepa Mehta’s “Water”) sees her prayers answered when Canuck ambassador Maya (Lisa Ray) moves into the diplomatic compound with her husband, Michael (an appealing Don McKellar), and their infant daughter, Zara (Alexiane Perreault). But for all her invocations of the Virgin Mary, Stella turns out to be one smooth operator, having struck upon numerous tried-and-true methods of scamming her unsuspecting employers.
Michael, a chef looking to expand his Indian repertoire, asks Stella to be his cooking guru; after some resistance, she agrees, occasioning some luscious food-prep montages. By rights, the growing bond between pupil and teacher should have complicated Stella’s feelings about her thievery, but no trace of internal conflict ever appears in the script or Biswas’ performance. What’s called for isn’t redemption, necessarily, but simply a compelling reason to watch this wily old woman and the saucy, self-satisfied glee with which she dupes the Westerners who, in their liberal-minded naivete, make every effort to treat her as family rather than as a servant.
The deceptions and tonal inconsistencies multiply when Maya and Michael hire lovely young Tannu (Shriya Saran) as a nanny for Zara, threatening Stella’s domain. Helmer Mehta (who helmed the 2008 docu “The Forgotten Woman”) takes an attitude toward his characters and their situations that seems less ambiguous than confused; Tannu’s impoverished former life in Delhi and intense Hindu devotion are treated seriously at first, then promptly disposed of in a way that, like the pic’s convoluted wrap-up, leaves a sour aftertaste.
Pic is most enjoyable for its snapshot of a diverse cross-section of Indian life, particularly in scenes of Michael and Stella shopping in the open markets of New Delhi; on-location lensing benefits from Dilip Mehta’s experience as a photographer. Other tech credits are smoothly pro.