SLOW FOOD WORLD – Samosas and Scorsese

29 Apr 2003

Nilesh Patel is a young architect who has an intense love of the cinema. One Christmas some years back he happened to see Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Jim Jarmush’s Stranger Than Paradise in close succession. He was literally thunderstruck. The two films were like nothing he had ever seen before and they left him with a huge desire to try his own hand at filmmaking. He started attending cinema evening classes and, after a few months, he and his fellow class members shot their first film, a 16 millimeter short. Then he came up with an original idea. After a few years it had taken shape and Nilesh felt he was ready to go ahead with his first production. He finally managed to get the project underway in 2001 and the result was the short film A Love Supreme.

Nilesh Patel was born in Leicester, England, 36 years ago, and studied in Birmingham, but both his name and his attractive dark face give away his Indian origins. A Love Supreme, one of the most acclaimed shorts of the first Slow Food on Film, pays affectionate homage to this heritage. It is in essence a beautifully elegant tribute to his mother’s culinary skills: her hands are the film’s only character and we watch as they prepare traditional Indian samosas with great dexterity. It is a gem of gastronomic cinematography which takes its inspiration from Scorsese’s Raging Bull and is elegantly shot in black and white.
After Slow Food on Film 2002, A Love Supreme circled film festivals everywhere and was consistently highly praised. I was therefore curious to talk to Nilesh and find out what he had been doing.

Where did the idea of A Love Supreme come from? The film is a homage to your mother’s culinary skills, right? What is the background and the philosophy of this, your first work?

The unforgettable boxing sequences of Raging Bull were my main source of inspiration, apart from, naturally, the wonderfully skilful hands of my mother, whom I have watched in action since I was a very young child. Unfortunately, she now has rheumatic arthritis in her knees and shoulders and hasn’t been able to work for ten years. I thought that if at some stage her hands were to be affected too she wouldn’t be able to prepare foods with the mastery she shows in the film. Also – and I know this sounds selfish – I wouldn’t have her fabulous food to eat any longer. It was this that gave me the idea for the film. I didn’t want to make any old documentary, even less the sort of cookery program that you see on TV, and more than anything I didn’t want my film to look, and sound, homemade, as if it was made with a home video camera. Neither did I want it to seem like it was just a presentation of one of my mother’s great recipes. So that’s why I decided to film only her hands. My idea was that whoever saw the film would think of their own mother, or grandmother, aunt, sister, wife, girlfriend, or even their daughter, and of the food they make using their hands, be it pasta, apple pie, dim sum or a good bread roll. The film is in black and white to highlight the structure of each element in play, the skin of her hands, the vegetables, the oil, the flour and the kitchen utensils.. We used different speeds, just like in Raging Bull, and a variety of music and sound effects to overemphasize certain stages of the preparation. Since the film is dedicated to a woman I used an almost entirely female crew. We shot the whole thing in my bedroom in two days flat, but we needed another 18 for the editing and so on. I decided not to show my mother anything while we were working on the film but I organized a premiere in grand style in the West End of London in 2001 with 80 people invited and fantastic catering. In the meantime, my younger sister had had her first child, so in one year my mother became both a grandmother and a cinema star. My nine-month-old nephew was at the premiere, so when he grows up he’ll be able to say that the very first film he ever saw was made by his uncle and was about his grandmother. Last year my mother made samosas for his first birthday.

I know that after the showing in Bra your film has had success practically everywhere. What course did A Love Supreme take after Slow Food on Film?

After that fabulous experience in Bra, the film was shown at numerous festivals: the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival in England; the 11th Ethnographic Film Festival in Sardinia, where the subject of the film competition was food, just as at Bra; the Uppsala Short Film Festival in Sweden; the ŒInter-Film Festival in Berlin and the Australian International Documentary Conference. Then there was the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival; the Tampere Film Festival in Finland; Cinema du Reel in Paris; the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco International Film Festival. And next week it will be shown at the first Indian Film Festival in Hollywood. The British Council took it around India for a month – which is like making a film on pasta in America and seeing it shown in Italy. It has been on in Britain with Monsoon Wedding, The Warrior and Parla Con Lei in almost 30 cinemas for over a year. Mira Nair, the director of Monsoon Wedding came to see the film in London and my mother was thrilled to meet her.
A Love Supreme was put forward for an Oscar in the short documentaries category but in the end we didn’t get nominated. Shame, I’d have liked my mother to win an Oscar! In the end the prize went to a film on September 11…

What sort of foods did you grow up with? What is your relationship with food?

I was brought up eating Indian food at home and English school canteen food at lunchtime. My family comes from Gujurat, the part of India that has arguably the most sophisticated vegetarian cooking in the world. As you can well understand there are very, very few restaurants that can compete with that sort of home cooking. My parents taught me and my sister to cook when we were young, nine years old or thereabouts, and we grew up all eating together, as a family, which I fear is not very common in England these days. Recently I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot and I can say that after Indian cooking I like Italian the best. The taste of fried garlic, onion and tomato is absolutely irresistible. But in essence the two cuisines are not all that different: many Indian dishes use tomato sauce, even if we add a bit of cream.

Future projects? A full-length feature?

I have in mind something on Hindu goddesses, a short documentary with a dance sequence in the middle, and a weightier documentary on a string quartet and a stringed instrument maker, filmed in New York. And then I’d like to do a Love Supreme for each country in the European Union, but always with home cooks, not professionals. I think it would be a lovely way to show the different cultures that there are in Europe – and not just in food. If they were all put together, it could make an interesting feature.
I am still hoping that Martin Scorsese will see my film sooner or later. After all, he made Italianamerican in 1974, which was a documentary about his parents who had emigrated from Sicily to New York. In the film his mother prepares the sauce for the spaghetti. And she’s also appeared in many other of her son’s films. She’s even written a cookery book!

Stefano Sardo, a novelist and screenwriter, is the director of the Slow Food on Film festival

Translation by Maureen Ashley

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