Dir: Paul Mayeda Berges.UK. 2005. 92mins.
A featherweight, feelgoodromance, The Mistress Of Spices is heavily reliant on the radiant beautyof Aishwarya Rai for any modest charm that it may possess. The directorialdebut of Paul Mayeda Berges promises to add a taste of India to a Chocolat-stylescenario but falls considerably short of the mark.
The film is attractiveenough but is so contrived and insubstantial that it become the cinematicequivalent of a Mills & Boon novel. Commercial possibilities exist in anyterritory where Rai's name holds marquee value but this is too bland to suggestany great theatrical potential elsewhere.
The husband of GurinderChadha and her regular screenwriting partner, Berges' first feature is cute andsmoothly handled but largely unpersuasive. This may be the fault of the sourcematerial (a novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni) as there is an underlyingartificiality in the way situations are developed and resolved.
In Oakland, California, Tilo(Rai) runs an emporium called Spice Bazaar. Her devoted regulars look to herfor spices that can cure their problems, assist their romantic hopes andimprove their lives.
They do not realise that sheis part of a secret clan of women who have been taught the mysteries of thespices. She has a psychic ability to see into other people's lives and predicttheir 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 cannottouch another's skin and she can never use the power of the spices for her ownbenefit.
When she meets handsomearchitect Doug (Dylan McDermott), she becomes distracted by her own desires andsoon discovers the dark side of the spices. He infallible instincts start tofail her and she is torn between love and loyalty to her chosen calling.
Given that most of the storytakes place within the Spice Bazaar shop, the film has the potential to feelquite theatrical. Berges largely avoids that with soap-opera vignettes of thelives that Tilo helps, from taxi driver Haroun (Ganatra) to troubled adolescentJagjit (Dulay).
He also covers Tilo'sbackstory in economical flashbacks depicting the death of her parents, herabduction by pirates and escape to an island where her training began.
The film has a smooth flowbut never quite persuades the audience to take a leap of faith and believe inthe story. The fantasy element seem at odds with the more realistic tales ofIndians struggling to bridge the culture gap between the traditions of theirnative country and the liberating new freedoms of America. The central romanceis also a little on the dull side.
A shaggy, sincere DylanMcDermott fails to make Doug seem an irresistible catch and there is no realspark of chemistry with the undeniably lovely Rai. When you are not rooting forthe star-crossed lovers to find a happy ending then any love story is introuble.
Sonny Gill Dulay