Food, Family And Culture Served In 'Today's Special'

Thanksgiving is a holiday that centers around family and food. A new movie "Today's Special" playing in theaters this week shares those themes. It's a heart-warming comedy about a sous chef whose dreams of working in a fancy Manhattan restaurant are dashed when his father's heart attack puts him in charge of the family's Indian eatery. Host Allison Keyes chats to the the film's star Aasif Manvi about his new flick.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

And finally, in a week so dedicated to preparation and consumption of food, we turn to a new film about cooking, Indian cooking actually, and a budding star whom you may recognize.

He's Aasif Manvi. The name may not be familiar but it is if you watch Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." He's the photojournalist who plays the program's Middle East correspondent, the so-called brown correspondent or even its Islamic correspondent, as he did in a segment about the global reaction to the threat of Quran burning by Florida Pastor Terry Jones.

(Soundbite of Comedy Central's, "The Daily Show")

Mr. AASIF MANVI (Actor, comedian): This is us freaking out at the thought of someone thousands of miles or at least 12 Terry Jones mustached lengths away...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANVI: ...maybe burning a Quran. We're not rational. Look at my what would Mohammed do bracelet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANVI: All right.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Wait.

Mr. MANVI: W, WMD is right there in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANVI: We are dangerous.

KEYES: For this holiday season, Aasif Manvi goes beyond "The Daily Show" as co-writer and co-star of the foodie film "Today's Special." It the story of a sous chef named Samir who hopes to become head chef at a fancy Manhattan restaurant. Instead, his father's heart attack puts him in charge of his family's restaurant.

To tell us what happens next without giving too much away, we are joined now by Aasif from New York.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. MANVI: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

KEYES: The movie was so cute. And your character is cheated out of this fancy job in an upscale Manhattan eatery and ends up in Queens, I think.

Mr. MANVI: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah.

KEYES: But hates Indian cooking. Tell us a little bit about what happens.

Mr. MANVI: Well, you know, he's a guy who basically has disassociated from his past and his Indian heritage and then through the circumstance of his father getting - a heart, having a heart attack and being hospitalized, he is thrown back into this world and has to basically run this restaurant and doesn't know how to cook Indian food. But luckily, he meets a magical character named Akbar who is a cab driver who basically tells him I can cook the greatest Indian food in the world and tells him he used to cook for and Indira Gandhi. And so he hires Akbar because he has no other recourse and then the cooking and the food is quite fabulous and magical.

KEYES: We actually have a clip from there.

Mr. MARNVI: Oh, you do? Great.

KEYES: Yeah, with Samir he's starting to learn cooking from the magical Akbar and the customers who sample the food are well, a little emotional. So here it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of movie, "Today's Special")

Mr. MANVI: (as Samir) I'm sorry. Is everything okay?

Unidentified Actor #1 (as character) It's delicious. It reminds me of my grandmother cooking back home. How happy I was then, you know.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) It's so spicy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: What you see and don't hear is that they are tears rolling down these men's faces, which is just so cute.

Mr. MANVI: Right. Right. Yeah.

KEYES: You co-wrote film. Did you intend it to be so many things? I mean it's a romance. It's a family drama. It's got identity issues.

Mr. MANVI: You know, when we wrote it, it was, we just - John Bines, who co-wrote it with me, who's a former writer for "The Daily Show," and also a big foodie and used to be a food critic for the New York Press. And we just wanted to write a foodie film, but like make it funny and... And then the family element really came because I had written a one man show going almost a decade earlier, about an Indian family that has an Indian restaurant. And so we kind of took a little bit of the themes in that and applied them to this film, which is also about an Indian family in an Indian restaurant. But we flushed it out with, you know romance and magical cab drivers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: You know, there was a scene that struck me where your character's father was trying to teach your character Muslim prayers, which Samir first rejects.

Mr. MANVI: Mm-hmm. Right.

KEYES: And then he goes to see his dad one morning. I want to play a little bit of that.

Mr. MANVI: Mmm.

(Soundbite of movie, "Today's Special")

Mr. HARISH PATEL (Actor): (as Hakim) What happened?

Mr. MANVI: (as Samir) It time for morning prayers.

(Soundbite of prayers)

KEYES: I think that's a scene where a lot of the general public might not have seen that happening. What were you hoping to show people with that?

Mr. MANVI: You know, for me it was very, one of the things that I love about this film, and it sort of, we started writing this film before September 11th and then, you know, the whole world became politicized in this. And as of late, of course, there's a tremendous sort of Islamophobia in America, I guess. And so the movie coming out now with this idea of this Indian family that just happens to be Muslim and what I wanted to portray was a family where Islam was not something - I didn't want to portray Islam with some kind of an agenda or some kind of projection on it. I just wanted to portray it, you know, the way it is when you grew up in a Muslim family, it's just this part of your existence. It's like if you're Jewish, or youre Hindu, or youre Christian or whatever.

And there was this prayer scene that I wanted to have in the film and it's just a father and a son bonding over praying in the mosque. And you go to a point in the story by then where you're really invested in these characters and you care that these two people are bonding in this way.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MANVI: And so I thought to myself, if I can have an American audience sit and just watched two Muslim men pray in the way that I experienced it, in way that Islam was for me as a kid, which was just about family and it was just about coming together and praying. And it wasn't anything threatening or anything like that. So if I could share that, you know, maybe we're doing a little, you know, just a little tiny bit of sort of bridging some kind of understanding.

KEYES: I've got to ask you about "The Daily Show" because...

Mr. MANVI: Yeah.

KEYES: ...you do a lot of satire about being a Muslim. Is that challenging in this climate?

Mr. MANVI: You know, I consider it really kind of an honor to be able to be on a show like "The Daily Show," where we didn't get to talk about these things and often get to address certain issues, the issues that have to do with, you know, being a Muslim, Islam and stuff in America today. And it really, you know, look, it's just a weird time in the being Muslim and being brown has given me a lot of face time on "The Daily Show" as of late. But I love doing those pieces because I feel like we get to say something and we get to sort of address the issue and I don't feel like anybody really is talking about it from the perspective of like where I get to be, which is sort of on the fence between cultures and between religions, and get to comment on both sides of it at the same time, you know?

KEYES: I've got to make this the last question. We were talking earlier in the show about the new TSA pat-downs and you yourself have talked about having to go through this for often being a Muslim man.

Mr. MANVI: Mm-hmm.

KEYES: Do feel well, vindicated that other folk are having to do deal with this now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANVI: You know, yeah, I don't feel vindicated. I mean I dont know what the story here. You know, I don't quite know like why people are so up in arms about it. I think - I like the pat-downs, I have to say. I enjoy them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANVI: I think if we just took an attitude of enjoying them, you know, we might just feel differently then.

KEYES: Are you kidding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANVI: Let's just enjoy it. Let's just - it's going to happen. We've got to do it, so I don't know what the answer is, but I think brown people have been dealing with this for a while so, you know, and we've learned to enjoy it.

KEYES: All right. We've got to leave it there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Aasif Manvi is the star and co-writer of the film "Today's Special." It's out in select theaters now. He was good enough to make his way to our New York bureau.

Thanks so much for joining us and watch out for the chickens out there.

Mr. MANVI: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: It's a scene from the movie people.

Mr. MANVI: Yeah. Yeah. Once you see the movie that line will be very funny.

KEYES: Totally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: I'm Allison Keyes. Youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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