The Mistress of Spices (2005) Poster

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Review from 2005 TIFF
Richard18 September 2005
I saw this film at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

Mistress of Spices is based on the novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and is the directorial debut for Paul Mayeda Berges. Berges has worked previously with his wife, Gurinder Chadha, on a number of films including Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice. Chadha co-wrote the screenplay here with her husband.

The movie follows Tilo, played by Aishwarya Rai, who is a member of an old, mystical cult that worships spice in all its forms. She is sent to Oakland to open a shop and help people using the mysterious powers of the spices. Tilo, who also has the power to see visions of the future, soon ends up helping a whole coterie of characters: a man (Anupam Kher) who is distressed over his granddaughter (Padma Lakshmi), a woman who has grown up in America and adopted western ways, much to his dismay; Jagjit (Sonny Gill Dulay), a teenager who is having trouble with the kids at school; Haroun (Nitin Chandra Ganatra), a cab driver that has a cloudy future; Kwesi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man trying to win the heart of a woman.

But to be successful, Tilo must follow three rules: one, she must never leave the store; two, she must never touch the skin of another person; three, she can never use the spices for her own gain. One day a man (Dylan McDermott) falls off his motorcycle outside her store and they are both instantly drawn to one another, challenging Tilo's devotion to her cause and threatening her control over the spices.

This is a nice, light film, reminiscent in many ways of Chocolat, with Aishwarya Rai in the Juliette Binoche role. Rai is luminous on screen, and the chemistry between her and Dylan McDermott is good. I didn't think the voice-over narration of Rai's character's inner thoughts was entirely successful, although I can't see how else you could really do it; funny enough, the voice-overs reminded me of another spice-related movie, David Lynch's Dune. The movie explores a bit of the mixing between east and west and the conflict between old and new, but not quite as successfully as some of Berges' and Chadha's other films, but that is probably due more to the limitations of creating an adaptation.
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Aishwarya Rai Makes This Little Film Worth
Claudio Carvalho11 November 2007
In India, Tilo (Aishwarya Rai) has the ability of foreseeing the future. When their parents are killed by bandits, she is kidnapped but escapes and is raised by the First Mother (Zohra Segal) in a sort of traditional cult of spices. She becomes the Mistress of Spices and is sent to the Spice Bazaar in San Francisco, with the mission of following three basic rules: help her clients to accomplish their desires with the spices, but never hers; never leave the store; and never be touched in the skin. When she meets the handsome American architect Doug (Dylan McDermott), she feels a great attraction and desire for him, breaking the first rule and being punished by the spices.

"The Mistress of Spices" is a predictable but pleasant film that uses the idea of movies like "Chocolate", "Woman on Top", "Como Agua Para Chocolate" blending romance with food or spice or chocolate or cookies. Therefore, the flawed story has no originality and is quite boring and messy in many moments. However, the cinematography is wonderful, with magnificent colors highlighted on DVD. Further, the gorgeous Miss World 1994 and Queen of Bollywood Aishwarya Rai makes this little film worth with her beauty and participating in most of the scenes. My vote is six.

Title (Brazil): "O Sabor da Magia" ("The Flavor of Magic")
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A good fairy tale...
legofrod2 May 2006
I had almost decided not to watch this movie, what with all the people word-bashing its senselessness. But go I did... fortunately.

Yes, it's not great cinema... of great courage, making you cry... making you angry. But it is good cinema... and a faithful representation of the book. The book is a fairy-tale, simple to the core, and so is the movie.

And who says Aish cannot act? Just look at the finer nuances of her eyes and eyebrows when she is required to emote, and you will realize that this girl knows what it takes to enact a character which has already been "written about" in a book. Yes, she underplays the role... but that is what her character is, right? A woman who is poised, but sometimes the deepest feelings find their vent. I am surely impressed by Aish's restrained expression of feelings... and people who mistake this for an incapacity to act, God give them the subtleties of discernment.

Go watch this movie... not to come out exhilarated or flustered... but to enjoy a good fairy tale, for that's what it is.
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Interesting concept, fresh fare
AishFan21 May 2006
A die-hard fan of Aishwarya, I must start out by saying that Aishwarya looks absolutely drop-dead gorgeous in the red sari. This is one of her most beautiful looks on screen ever. Mistress of Spices dishes up an interesting fare that deals with Aishwarya, a woman with an extraordinary gift that allows her to envision the problems others are going through and the ability to mix the right spices that will solve their problems. She does this by means of a Spice Bazaar store in San Francisco where customers seek her for help. It is quite interesting to see how she helps her diverse clientèle and loyal customers through the use of spices (which by the way seems very possible, as Indian herbal medicine argues that different spices have different chemicals that control our mind and body). However, being a "mistress of spices," Aishwarya is bound by certain rules, which she begins to find suppressing and enslaving once she begins to fall in love. What is interesting about this movie is that there is not much of a plot and mainly just a small store for sets. This film looks at the art of using spices to improve lives and delves into Aishwarya's internal conflict between love and duty, making this a very interesting and reinvigorating movie.
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Light but tantalizing.
twistednerves26 August 2006
All the prickly hate surrounding this film is perplexing. Aishwarya Rai fills the chapals of Tilo perfectly and Dylan McDermott is ravishing as Doug. The chemistry between Rai and McDermott is palpable.

The source material for the film is pretty thin itself. So given that Berges was able to fashion this tasty, meaty film -- that lets you feel the sizzle of the chilies or the lapping of the almond milk while providing a cute folktale in the U.S. -- is commendable.

The movie's failing attribute is how slow it is to start -- but a quirky cast and hypnotic cinematography make this a movie that's easily along the lines of The Lake House or Chocolat in the realm of accessible magical realism.
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Is there a spice that encourages subtlety?
sarahjane-h-j17 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
So I randomly flipped open a newspaper one Friday night to look at the movie listings, and on a whim decided to check this one out. I was expecting something simple, dumb, yet enchanting - something in the realm of Chocolat or Bewitched. This, however, was WAY below my expectations, and I think that could have been prevented by simply adding one ingredient - a different director.

Aishwarya is absolutely beautiful, and I'm sure that she can act - when she's given something to work with. Unfortunately her only given function in the movie is to stare wide-eyed out the window of her shop at the world around her. How disappointing. Then there's Dylan McDermott, the beautiful stranger who captures the mistress' attention. He's cute enough to pull off his part well, and seems to be the master of sultry stares. Then comes the myriad of regular customers, bright and interesting personalities that could have been the highlight of this movie if it weren't for the director's insistence on putting random Tilo voice-overs in whenever the customers were about to say something interesting. Was it really necessary for them to be constantly interrupted?

The problem isn't in the story - it's quite enchanting. Banal, yes, but what movie isn't nowadays? The problem was the lack of subtlety. OH NOES! DANGER! THE CAMERA'S SUDDENLY FOCUSSING ON A PILE OF RED CHILI PEPPERS! The problem got so serious that 20 minutes into the movie, the audience (including myself) would laugh at every chili pepper that came onto the screen. Constant flashes forward to events that may or may not happen? Unnecessary. Doug's extremely random back-story that doesn't greatly affect the plot? Unnecessary. The store suddenly collapsing thanks to mysterious unexplained powers? Weird, and again unnecessary. If only Gurinder Chadra, the screenwriter, had directed this. I really enjoyed her Bend it Like Beckham, which nicely mixed cheesy Bollywood cinema with modern "dromedy". I think something much nicer (and much more tasteful) would have been produced.
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another review from the TIFF
mamlukman20 September 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I also saw this at the Toronto Inter. Film Festival last week. There were three screenings of the movie, each sold out as far as I know. Although Toronto has a very large Indian population, Indians were a small percentage of the audience at my screening.

A few additional comments to the earlier review: The director, producer, author, and Dylan McDermott were at my screening to answer questions. Apparently Gurinder has wanted to make a movie of the book ever since it was published. Chitra Divakaruni, the author, said she was very happy with the movie even though in some ways it is different from the book. The movie tried to retain the spirit of the book even though some details have changed. For example, the young Tilo is captured by pirates in the movie, but escapes very quickly and swims to the island; when she goes to Oakland she keeps her own body (thank God!)and doesn't turn into an old woman, etc.--in other words,the movie tries to keep to the main story and avoids complications as much as possible.

The main problem I had with the movie is that it is very important to accept the magical atmosphere. But the movie starts with Tilo already in the spice shop in Oakland, then shows how she got there in a series of flashbacks. If you don't already know the story, I think that makes it harder to accept. Presenting the story in chronological order, as the book does, might have been better since you could understand the magic from the beginning instead of starting off in Oakland (which is not a very magical place to most people).

Another issue was the stories of the various customers--these stories are necessary to show the various magical effects of the spices, but too much of that would distract you from the main story. I think the balance was just about right, but there were some loose ends--I would like to have seen just a bit more of the Padma Lakshmi character, for example. It was these side stories that added the humor to the movie.

I am a huge Aishwarya fan, and I was happy. She did a very good job, and for once the director allowed the camera to spend some time focusing on her face instead of cutting away immediately, and there were a lot of close-ups. Naturally Aishwarya was in almost every scene.

The story itself is fairly simple. Since Aishwarya can't leave the store, there's not a lot of action--how many times can you pick up a handful of spices and make it interesting? But you got involved in the characters and wanted them to get together. When they finally have their night of passion, they kiss almost everywhere but the lips...I assume to keep the taboo of Indian films. The director made the wise choice of going for close-ups as Dylan undresses her--very erotic.
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A fairytale, particularly pleasant to the eyes
Harry T. Yung2 July 2006
It's difficult for any one who has a good appreciation for culinary art not to be attracted to this spicy shop, spacious, tastefully appointed, with thousands of colourful spices displayed in so many different interesting fashions. A sheer joy for the eyes.

So is Aishwaryi Rai, Miss World of 1994, who graces the screen with wide-eyed innocence through most of the movie and appears in the last scene radiating with alluring glamour in a bright red evening gown, with her hair finally let down, falling like graceful ripples to her shoulder.

Even accepting the premise of a fairy tale, it's hard to believe how Tilo (Rai) can run her spice shop all by herself without EVER leaving it, the first of three conditions for having her power bestowed by "the spices". The second is easier to abide by if one is careful, not to touch the skin of any human being. The third is not to use the power to benefit herself. This "power" is a vague ability to see other people's past and sometimes future and to use spices to help them.

The romance with dashing architect Doug (Dylan McDermott) is appropriately low-key, and hence believable. Subplots include Tilo's various customers, with their assortment of problems, many caused by cultural clashes in southern California.

All told, this is a delightful little fairy tale which is particularly pleasant visually. I can't help but think that it should also come with these new gimmicks, as a movie with smells. This is the perfect movie for it.
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High-Carb Spice!
Sherazade16 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
My summary is from my favourite line in the film, when Doug pesters Tilo for the name of his spice and she refuses to tell him because it contradicts with her feelings for him. So, Doug asks her again when she remains quiet "...Is something bad? Like High Carb Spice or something?" ROTFLMFAO! Hilariously priceless!

Sitting, through The Mistress of Spices might not inspire "High Carb Spice" moments in most viewers but if you're one of those people who appreciate an Independent flick every now and then (a sort of escape from your predictably humongous Blockbusters like the ones from your YashRaj banners, Karan Johar Et. Al.) you'll appreciate The Mistress of Spices.

From the novel (of the same name) by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and coming to from the duo behind sleeper hits like 'Bend it like Beckham', 'What's Cooking?' and 'Bride & Prejudice' Paul Mayeda Berges & Gurinder Chadha. TMOS reunites Aishwarya Rai with a few of her co-stars (Anupam Kher from Bride and Prejudice, Mohabbatein, Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke, Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai & ...Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya & Nitin Chandra Ganatra in Bride & Prejudice) and has her starring as the main character, a young woman named Tilo, whose penchant for clairvoyance (since childhood) helped determine the life she now lives. She is a child who became a woman too quickly, in order to further impact the lives of others. She is an elemental of sorts, an angel scarred by a tragic past.

Transported via supernatural medium from India to America, Tilo (now a woman) owns and manages a spice bazaar in downtown San Francisco, where she works her magic on everyone and anyone who dares to cross her path. Her magic formulas are so good that nobody even bothers to ask her where she came from, how she mastered the spices, where she lives or what she does in her off time. That is until a chanced motorcycle accident leads her meet Doug (Played by Dylan McDermott) a man with a dark secret of his own, who becomes smitten with Tilo the moment he sets his eyes on her. Before that very moment in the movie, we had been introduced to Tilo favourite and most loyal customers; Geeta's grandfather played by Anupam Kher(Geeta is played by Padma Lakshmi) Kwesi played by Adewale Akinnouye Agbaje, Myisha played by Caroline Chikezie, Haroun played by Nitin Chandra Ganatra, & Jagjit (his mum is actually the customer but he is the one with the problem) played by Sonny Gill Dulay. The reason why these people are all key characters, is because once Tilo breaks the law of the spices by fraternising with Doug, they will all be ultimately impacted by the repercussions of her actions.

One of the strictest rules elementals like Tilo have to adhere to is that they must not allow another to touch their body and vice versa, and another is the fact that they must not give their heart to another. Initially, Tilo tries her best to rebuff Doug's advances, but despite the harsh warnings of the chillies in the bazaar as well as her better judgment, she allows herself to fall in love with him. This opens up a can of worms literally and otherwise, forcing Tilo to choose between her two lovers -- the spices and her spice(Doug).

Aishwarya Rai plays Tilo to the pulp, as an innocent, as a young woman wanting to break free and live, as an understated beauty who knows nothing but spices, and most importantly as an enigma. It was too bad that McDermott couldn't make Doug meet her halfway. In my humble opinion he was miscast in the role. Kher's underwritten character gives room for Rai to use her Tilo to outshine his normally spectacular acting chops. Ganatra turns in another up to par performance and his charming chemistry with Rai is still intact in the scenes they share together. The worst offender here is Padma Lakhsmi who a young rebellious teenager named Geeta (Ms. Lakshmi was 35, playing a teenager by the way) who is about to marry a Chicano (Mexican-American) against the wishes of her Hindu parents (the 'Chicano' scene is another funny one in the movie but Lakhsmi ruins it with her bad acting & emoting). My advice to her is to join Lisa Ray (Water, Bollywood/Hollywood) at Drama school in London, or simply not quit her day job as a high fashion model.

I strongly suspect that half of the critics who panned this movie didn't bother to watch it or were just echoing word-of-mouth from others. Aishwarya Rai did the best she could with this role and she truly shines in it. She handled even the love-scene very well and looked divine in the one scene where she spiced things up in a red sari. There will always be problems with 'Book-to-Screen' adaptations, that's a given but the solution is not to blame the actors.

What's your Spice? :-D
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Don't go in with high expectations
mikham21 April 2006
I don't know what to say about this film. I went into it with zero expectations, apart from Aishwarya Rai to look stunning. So I was sort of pleasantly surprised. Make no mistake though, it is a poor film.

Ill keep it short because there isn't really much to say.

Story: Tilo (Aishwarya) is part of some ancient mystical cult which uses the power of spices to heal people, around the world. So she sets up shop in Oakland. She also has to relinquish any sort of personal desires, and can never leave the shop. Then she meets Doug (Dylan McDermott) and so the normal culture clash thing which pops up in every single one of Gurinder Chadha's films ensues. Blah blah blah...the end There are numerous flaws, but Ill start with the positives The Good - Aishwarya looked great. And she had a consistent accent. Performance was relatively good, given the other flaws inherent in this film - Santosh Sivan did a great job with cinematography. San Francisco looked fantastic Errm I think thats about it The Bad - The script was weak. there was no character development and it was padded out too much with contrived and unnecessary subplots. Anupam Kher was so badly wasted. I mean I think that some subplot was needed to show the way the spices work (or however you want to word it), but they really detracted form the main story, which itself wasn't up to much in the first place.

  • I think the very basic concept of the film was handled poorly. the makers never seemed to know themselves whether they were making a realistic film or some sort of magical/mystical fantasy. And resultantly there was no sort of ambiance, build-up or anything to keep someone interested to the end of it.

  • Absolutely no chemistry at all between Aishwarya and Dylan McDermott - On the same point, the performances were average at best. I think the fault does lie in the script and the direction as no one had any real scope for performance and they were all just basically required to look good for the camera.

  • Unnecessary voice-overs, really got to me As I said, if you go in with no expectations at all, you could well enjoy it, but its still a poorly made film.

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