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Lisa Ray, right, and Don McKellar walk the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.
© Mike Cassese / Reuters
Lisa Ray, right, and Don McKellar walk the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

Cast inspired by film actress's cancer fight

As the comedy Cooking With Stella is shown at the capital's film festival, one member of the cast, Lisa Ray, is fighting for her health.

ABU DHABI // When the actors and crew of Cooking With Stella take their bows at the film's Abu Dhabi premiere on Sunday, one leading member of the cast will be absent, but will be present in their thoughts. Lisa Ray, 36, a Canadian model turned actress, is fighting multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells.

"It crushes me," said Dilip Mehta, the director of the film, which is being screened as part of the Middle East International Film Festival. Ray is in partial remission, and Mehta remains optimistic about her recovery. "She is such a trouper, such a wonderful, positive person, not just as an actor but as a being," the director said. "It had not been diagnosed at that time, but, during filming, we had an inkling that she was not well. "It is simply not fair, at this juncture of her life. She is such a versatile actor. "She made a conscious decision to blog about it because she is promoting the awareness of the disease. She is my hero." Mehta also co-wrote the film with his sister, the director Deepa Mehta, whose movies have won worldwide acclaim. Cooking with Stella, which features an Indian and Canadian cast, is set in New Delhi and details the complicated relationship between diplomats and their staff. The director described the film as a "satire, a sweet comedy" which deals with "the upstairs-downstairs disparity that exists in south Asia". When Maya Chopra (Ray) arrives in India to work as a Canadian diplomat and her husband, Michael Laffont (Don McKellar), becomes a "diplomatic housewife", the domestic staff become confused by the change of traditional roles. At the centre of the plot is Stella (Seema Biswas), a charming cook and a wily thief, who supplements her salary by pilfering supplies from the kitchen. She also becomes Laffont's cooking guru. While there are many comic moments, the film also highlights the economic disparity between the classes. Mehta believes audiences will identify with Stella. "There is a Stella in every household, in everybody," he said. "How much you accept or deny it, is up to us." Some of the film's characters are based on real people, including the diplomat and her husband, both of whom are modelled on the daughter and son-in-law of one of Mehta's closest friends in Canada. "I wanted to make it an international story," he said. "Take a look around, there has been a huge economic recession. From lots of high-end jobs, people were laid off. "You are used to it in North America, but they are not used to it in India.

"I didn't want to come across as being pontificating. You get sidetracked with that. I didn't want to get on a soapbox. As a comedy, we can accept it far more easily. At the end of the day, as delightful as she is, Stella is a thief and there is no end in sight." Cooking With Stella is one of several Indian movies being served up at the festival, which begins tomorrow and runs until October 17. It is the first feature film that Mehta has directed, although he shared production duties on his sister's film Earth and has directed a documentary, Forgotten Woman. He was inspired to write the script as a result of variety of personal experiences. The idea came five years ago. Around that time, sitting in a cafe in Toronto, Mehta read out one line to Biswas, who immediately agreed to do the film. "Just when I got this idea, I read out this to her," he said. "The only difference is that she promised to put on weight for the role, but she didn't." Writing the script took a long time, however. "You spend time listening, you hang around, you tell those stories to your friends. You listen in marketplaces, you just listen," Mehta said. The film had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month to positive reviews. Now it moves on to Abu Dhabi. "I am really looking forward to showing the film to the audiences in the UAE," Mehta said. ? Cooking With Stella shows at 9.30pm on Sunday at the Emirates Palace hotel. There will be a repeat screening at 9.45pm on October 15 at Cinestar 2 in Marina Mall. It will be subtitled in Arabic. sbhattacharya@thenational.a

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