(2005) Mistress Of Spices Reviews

Screen Daily Review

A featherweight, feelgood romance, The Mistress Of Spices is heavily reliant on the radiant beauty of Aishwarya Rai for any modest charm that it may possess. The directorial debut of Paul Mayeda Berges promises to add a taste of India to a Chocolat-style scenario but falls considerably short of the mark.

The film is attractive enough but is so contrived and insubstantial that it become the cinematic equivalent of a Mills & Boon novel. Commercial possibilities exist in any territory where Rai’s name holds marquee value but this is too bland to suggest any great theatrical potential elsewhere.

The husband of Gurinder Chadha and her regular screenwriting partner, Berges’ first feature is cute and smoothly handled but largely unpersuasive. This may be the fault of the source material (a novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni) as there is an underlying artificiality in the way situations are developed and resolved.

In Oakland, California, Tilo (Rai) runs an emporium called Spice Bazaar. Her devoted regulars look to her for spices that can cure their problems, assist their romantic hopes and improve their lives.

They do not realise that she is part of a secret clan of women who have been taught the mysteries of the spices. She has a psychic ability to see into other people’s lives and predict their futures. But she must abide by a strict set of seemingly arbitrary rules; she can never leave the shop (how she manages we never discover), she cannot touch another’s skin and she can never use the power of the spices for her own benefit.

When she meets handsome architect Doug (Dylan McDermott), she becomes distracted by her own desires and soon discovers the dark side of the spices. He infallible instincts start to fail her and she is torn between love and loyalty to her chosen calling.

Given that most of the story takes place within the Spice Bazaar shop, the film has the potential to feel quite theatrical. Berges largely avoids that with soap-opera vignettes of the lives that Tilo helps, from taxi driver Haroun (Ganatra) to troubled adolescent Jagjit (Dulay).

He also covers Tilo’s backstory in economical flashbacks depicting the death of her parents, her abduction by pirates and escape to an island where her training began.

The film has a smooth flow but never quite persuades the audience to take a leap of faith and believe in the story. The fantasy element seem at odds with the more realistic tales of Indians struggling to bridge the culture gap between the traditions of their native country and the liberating new freedoms of America. The central romance is also a little on the dull side.

A shaggy, sincere Dylan McDermott fails to make Doug seem an irresistible catch and there is no real spark of chemistry with the undeniably lovely Rai. When you are not rooting for the star-crossed lovers to find a happy ending then any love story is in trouble.

Telegraph UK Review

We learned this week that Japanese film audiences are watching Terrence Malick’s The New World with an updated version of the 1950s fad Smell-O-Vision: machines in cinemas waft scents of flowers and herbs over them at key moments. This device would have been ideal for Paul Mayeda Berges’s film The Mistress of Spices, which is largely set in an aromatic spice shop. It needs all the help it can get.

Its Indian title character, Tilo, runs the shop in the San Francisco Bay area. She is “a priestess of spices”, knows their magical healing powers, and dispenses different ones to clients according to their desires: for instance, it seems saffron “cures lonely nights”. Tilo often addresses her spices out loud.

Yes, that distinctive aroma hanging so heavily is magical realism. It’s a genre that works better in print, and this is an adaptation of a pleasant Oprah-friendly bestseller by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Some sentences are better read than spoken, and two of them are: “I love being a mistress of spices. The spices are my love.”

Bollywood superstar and ex-Miss World Aishwarya Rai is a doe-eyed, passive but picturesque Tilo, who in the book was older and plainer. In this immigrant tale, spices represent Indian traditions she fears are slipping away from her in the New World. The romantic interest of a brooding architect (Dylan McDermott) tests her resolve.

One could easily scoff, but Mistress of Spices stands valiantly against modern tastes and sensibilities. Restraint is all: even in a love scene, lips never meet. Berges, husband and creative partner of Gurinder Chadha, directs lovingly, using a rich, ravishing palette. Its charm is specialised.

IndiaGlitz Review

Gurinder Chadha and her co-writer and now director of their first joint venture, Paul Mayeda Berges, have made memorable films that have been based on the conflicts and drama in the lives of Asian subcontinent people living in foreign countries, trying to come to terms with the conflict that arises when their new found aspirations and desires clash with the pressures of tradition that follows their lives in the form of values and beliefs of the elders. And The Mistress of Spices is yet another sensitive walk on basically the same path.

Tilo (Aishwarya Rai) is an ethereally beautiful spice bazaar keeper ostensibly an owner of a Spice Shop in San Francisco, but actually a Mistress of Spices. You’ve got to accept this premise before you sink your teeth into this story. You see, Tilo isn’t just any ordinary shopkeeper, she’s got a mission in life. To help people out with the help of spices, which represent the oldest Asian tradition and therefore values. Tilo is supposed to help them as they try without realizing it, to keep their values alive.

OK, coming back to Tilo, she belongs to a group of handpicked and apparently destitute but gifted and sensitive girls whom an old and wizened First Mother (Zohra Sehgal) had taken under her care. Ever since she was born to poor parents in a remote village, Tilo was blessed with clairvoyance and the ability to see and sense things others couldn’t. Her fame spread to bandits, who killed her parents to abduct her for their own benefit, but Tilo escaped and was literally thrown by the sea at the feet of the First Mother, who included her among her wards to be trained as a mistress of spices, blessed with special powers to sense what ails people with a unique ability to peep into their past and their future. But for these startling powers to work, each Mistress of Spices must obey three rules: use the spices only for others, never touch another human’s skin, and never leave her store.

And there’s Tilo, helping people. All of whom happen to be immigrants in an alien land. A colored boxer who wants a spice that will help him find true love; a young Sikh immigrant Jagjit, who’s been bullied by the white students in his school; a Kashmiri illegal alien Haroun who moved to America chasing the American Dream but is working for an Indian nightmare as a chauffer for a boss who treats him like dirt, and dadaji (Anupam Kher) who’s hassled by his grand daughter’s ways and ultimately faces the biggest crisis of his life when she announces she’s marrying a Chicano!

Their dilemmas unfold even as Tilo’s own dilemma does, for, in spite of being warned against it, the attractive Tilo is herself drawn to a handsome young American, Doug (Dylan McDermott) who too is attracted to her from the first glance. A bike skid outside the spice bazaar has Tilo calling him inside to help him with a poultice of spices, and before long, the two are drawn close to each other. The graph of the attraction is palpable and sensitively handled, and before long, Tilo breaks the first rule when, despite the red chillies warning her to avoid Doug, and in spite of knowing that Doug’s spice is asafetida (hing), the antidote for love, she starts using the spices for her own benefit, just to ensure he returns to her. She can sense he is involved with someone else, who too, incidentally comes to her shop for help with spices that will rekindle Doug’s waning interest in her. But in everything Tilo does that’s related to Doug, she listens to her heart that now beats for Doug, and not her mind and the spices that keep warning her to refrain. Before long, they touch hands, and the second cardinal rule too is broken! And then swept away by her heart, she pleads with the spices to let her break the rules for just one night with Doug.

The spices get back at Tilo by punishing the very persons whom she has come to help, and desperate, Tilo decides to leave the spice bazaar and the city. What happens next, how and whether she is cleansed by metaphysically standing up to the vengeance of the spices, which are a personification of her own training, and whether or not she triumphs is the remainder of this fable. Only if the spices forgive her will the lives of those she’s helped will come back on track. Can Tilo help Jagjit, now a clean-shaven boy drawn into a vicious gang, or dadaji, who is shattered by the fact that his granddaughter Geeta has walked out and wants her back in the family, or Haroun, whose life is in grave danger, or Kwesi, the colored karate instructor find true love again? This is the engrossing hook of Act III in The Mistress of Spices, which, happily, unlike in most off beat movies, doesn’t allow the storyline to peter off into a weird end, as was seen in 15 Park Avenue, for instance. Act I had Tilo’s personal urges and thereby the conflict surfacing, while Act II had her break all the rules, in spite of the knowledge that a terrible retribution from the spices would follow.

The Mistress of Spices is Aishwarya Rai all the way. She begins with the advantage of looking ethereally beautiful and emotionally vulnerable and therefore the part, but Berges has drawn a sensitive and emotionally taut performance from her. Dylan Mc Dermott excels as the clean hearted American drawn to her. From the supporting cast, Anupam Kher as Geeta’s grandfather stands out in a well written and emoted role of a protective, concerned angsty elder. Nitin Ganatra as Haroun and Bansari Madhani as the young Tilo put in good performances.

Paul Mayeda Berges’ debut is studded with breathtaking cinematography by Santosh Sivan, and has an evocatively designed sound track that heightens the mood of each scene. The sparse but effective use of background music adds to the parts that make The Mistress of Spices a strong full length directorial debut film by Paul Mayeda Berges.

However, this is definitely not your commercial film, but a sensitive movie for the thinking film connoisseur who’s always drawn to different kind of movies. The Mistress of Spices isn’t likely to master the box office here. But then again, it seems obvious that this film’s been made for international audiences and should find a lot of success not just with the audiences but also film festivals all over the world, which should definitely respond to it in a rousing manner.

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