By Nathan Duke
The opening of a new Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights may not raise eyebrows — that is, unless it does not actually serve food and its owner is “Daily Show” correspondent and actor Aasif Mandvi.
For several weeks, the Tandoori Palace has been open (and closed) for business along a busy strip of 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights as Mandvi and director David Kaplan (who shot the 2007 Sundance Film Festival entry “Year of the Fish”) filmed “7 to the Palace,” an independent Tandoori comedy in which the diverse neighborhood acts as a character.
The film, co-written by Mandvi and former “Daily Show” writer Jonathan Bines, follows the story of Samir (Mandvi), a Manhattan cook whose dreams of becoming a great French chef are thwarted when he is called upon to take over his father's Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights. In the process, Samir learns about Indian cuisine from a mystical cab driver, falls in love and manages to transform his family's run-down eatery into an acclaimed restaurant.
Mandvi, who grew up in a South Asian community in England, said he wrote the film's script with the Queens neighborhood in mind.
“Jackson Heights is a melting pot of New York immigrants,” he said. “It works beautifully as a metaphor for different things in the film.”
Producer Lillian LaSalle said the film's crew set up shop at neighborhood eatery Ashoka, at 74-14 37th Ave., one month ago, designing a sign for the film's fictional restaurant and using local businesses as office space.
“If you'd drive by, you would see our awning,” she said. “The locals kept wanting to go into the restaurant and check it out, so we had to put a sign on the door that said, 'This is not a restaurant, it's a [movie] set.' But we've been honored to shoot here. The business owners have been very enthusiastic and incredibly accommodating. On one day, I used a hair salon as my office and, in days prior, we set up in an Afghan kebab house.”
LaSalle, also Mandvi's manager, said the film completed shooting the Jackson Heights scenes last weekend and would next film sequences at Bayside's Fort Totten before wrapping in early August.
She said she hopes “Palace” will be accepted to screen at Sundance in 2009 and released later in the year. The film currently does not have a distributor, she said.
Mandvi said he combined his childhood culinary experiences with co-writer Bines' previous stint as a food critic to craft the script's food-based story.
“Other than cooking for myself, I've never done much cooking,” Mandvi said. “But I experienced Indian food and culture as I was growing up.”
LaSalle said the production had an on-set chef, who planned all the meals seen in the film, and a food stylist. The film also features a performance by Madhur Jaffrey, who has written numerous bestselling books on Eastern cuisine and hosts a BBC cooking show.
Mandvi, born in Bombay, India, first appeared on “The Daily Show” in 1996 and later became a correspondent. His one-man show, “Sakina's Restaurant,” became the first play written by a South Asian-American to be produced off-Broadway. He has appeared in numerous films, including the leading role in Ismail Merchant's “The Mystic Masseur,” as well as smaller roles in “Spider-Man 2,” “The Sopranos” and the upcoming Greg Kinnear comedy “Ghost Town.”
The film “7 to the Palace” also stars Ajay Naidu (of “Office Space” and “Bad Santa” fame), Kevin Corrigan (“Superbad” and the upcoming “Pineapple Express”) and Jess Weixler, star of the comedy-horror film “Teeth.”