Dir. by David Kaplan - 1 hr. 39 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I spent yesterday driving around in my car, running errands, and listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast. The guest was Aasif Mandvi, whom I mainly know from his appearances on "The Daily Show." At some point, Aasif mentioned "Today's Special" in passing, which I have had sitting in my Netflix queue for quite a while now. So, last night seemed as good of a time as any to finally sit down and watch the movie. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting, other than it's clearly a movie about Indian food (which is kind of enough to pique my interest anyways), but it ended up being more than that.
Samir (Aasif Mandvi) works as a sous chef at a fancy restaurant, and sees himself as being in line for a head chef job at a new restaurant that his chef is opening up. When he gets passed over for being too rigid, he abruptly quits, and lies about having something lined up in Paris, but then decides that he must make it a reality. When he returns home to tell his parents, Samir is forced to change his plans. He ends up running his father's restaurant, Tandoori Palace, despite being fairly clueless about making Indian cuisine.
There's both a lot to unpack, and some fairly common indie film ideas in "Today's Special." The grind between parent and child regarding a child's choice of work is not uncommon, but it's fertile ground. It's also not an issue specific to immigrant families. I think that this notion pops up fairly frequently in indie films because the idea of pursuing a creative career is a life-long, sometimes thankless battle, and it's a struggle that filmmakers on the fringe of their industry can fully understand, and find their own wrinkles to explore. But the very notion of having the option to choose what line of work to pursue would be considered an extreme luxury by the vast majority of people in the world. When one's parents come from a situation where that is the case, whether by nationality or by virtue of their financial status, watching someone choose something and failing at it can seem foolhardy.
One of the bigger issues in "Today's Special" is watching Samir reject his heritage and tradition, to be met with failure. It's not incongruous to see anyone working in a French kitchen, but when Samir asserts to a cabbie (who goes on to play a much bigger role in the story) that he never cooks Indian, it becomes a retroactive personal rejection of his parents and his culture when we later learn that Samir's family runs an Indian restaurant. It's a deliberate choice to cut himself off from his roots, and while he has managed to cultivate a degree of competency in his career, he's also stymied by his lack of passion and willingness to experiment. It suggests the character is looking in the wrong direction; while Samir dreams of heading to Paris to learn from the best, he ends up learning more from the people around him, and by reconnecting with his family.
One of the principal joys of "Today's Special" is getting lost in a film that's not populated with many familiar faces. Sure, Aasif Mandvi is familiar, and there are a couple of small roles for Kevin Corrigan and Dean Winters (you'll know their faces when you see them), but I haven't watched a ton of Indian cinema. This was the first time that I've seen Naseeruddin Shah in anything, who plays the cabbie/chef Akbar, in anything at all, and his presence and charisma and warmth are so staggering that it seems like a huge oversight, both on my part, and on the part of Hollywood in general. The idea that I couldn't have accidentally run across him in something over the years is bizarre, especially because a little web-sleuthing reveals that he's kind of a big deal in Indian cinema. Also, Samir's parents, played by Madhur Jaffrey and Harish Patel, are fun and lively. And on top of that, the food looks so delicious that I was kind of mad that I watched the movie in the middle of the night, with no outlet for my sudden cravings for Indian food.
While the idea of a child trying to define himself separately from his parents' identities is not an unexplored concept, there's enough going on here that's different and unique to make this worth checking out. If you haven't seen Aasif Mandvi anywhere but on "The Daily Show," you might be surprised that he's not only a good actor, but is also capable of delivering lines at a volume below an annoyed bellow! And usually, you'd know that I was being held at gunpoint if I ever described anything being "warm-hearted" as a positive trait, but that's very much the case here, and it's an important part of this film's appeal. Just be sure to watch "Today's Special" before your local take-out place closes for the night. You're going to get frustrated if you finish watching and can't tear into some vindaloo and biryani right away.
3.5 / 5 - Streaming