The Mistress of Spices

Director: Paul Mayeda Berges

While Aishwarya Rai was starring as the Indian version of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet in Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, Chadha’s collaborator and husband Paul Mayeda Berges cast Rai to play the lead in his film version of The Mistress of Spices. Based upon the novel by the wonderful Indian writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (who also wrote the brilliant Sister of My Heart) and co-written by Chadha, Berges’s film uses the same sort of magic realist touches and fantastical fairy-tale like whims evidenced in Like Water for Chocolate, Chocolat, Simply Irresistible, and Woman on Top with this story of Tilo (Rai), a young woman trained to become a Mistress of Spices in her native land before journeying to San Francisco where she runs a shop. In her adopted homeland, Tilo spends her days helping her fellowman by letting the spices and the visions they cause guide her in helping give her customers exactly what they need or desire whether it be peace of mind, safety or help in setting a romantic mood. As the shopkeeper, we quickly learn that the beautiful Tilo is also limited by her ability to help—in order to stay selfless and not betray the spices, she must follow demanding rules including never physically touching another human being, never leaving the shop or using the spices for her own benefit. For the first part of the film, these rules seem to only inconvenience Tilo slightly but things change when she meets the handsome architect Doug (Dylan McDermott) and finds herself caught up in the middle of a love triangle with tangible chemistry between the leads that for once makes Tilo question her devotion to the spices and try to find a balance between her own happiness and duty to others. Gorgeously photographed and exquisitely tender—while it does seem a bit far-fetched and works infinitely better on the page, this lush tale brought to audiences in part by the Weinstein Company is a delightful romance that stands out from the numerous predictable entries in the genre available on a typical video store shelf. The film would make excellent fare for a romantic evening in and would of course, benefit from complimentary cuisine, especially the red peppers that populate numerous scenes. For those interested in Indian literature, you may want to check out not only Spices but other books by the author.

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