Beautiful but lifeless, poetic but unelevated, “The Mistress of Spices” reps a brave but flawed attempt at that most unforgiving of contemporary genres, magical realism. Tale of an exquisite young Indian woman, who oversteps the boundaries of her powers as a spice dispenser in San Francisco’s Bay area, trades too much on the porcelain beauty of lead thesp Aishwarya Rai and too little on the story’s social and emotional undercurrents to bring off the whole fabrication. Released largely in U.K. Indian catchment areas April 21, pic looks unlikely to click with wider Western auds, except as an exotic curio.
Rai plays Tilo, orphaned by some unexplained regional strife in India, kidnapped by bandits and, after escaping and being washed up on a beach, finally educated, along with other girls, in the magical properties of spices by an old woman (vet Zohra Segal). Next thing we see, Tilo has moved Stateside as an adult and is running a small spice shop-cum-dispensary in Oakland.
However, her powers will only last if (a) she never uses them for her own gain, (b) she never leaves the shop, and (c) never touches the skin of another person. All seems to be going well with her regular, ethnically mixed clientele, until hunky architect Doug (Dylan McDermott) crashes his Harley outside her shop.
Taken inside and treated by Tilo, Doug comes on hot and heavy, eventually breaking down Tilo’s resistance. Progressively breaking all three rules, Tilo finds the spices “rebel” and no longer work their magic.
Script, by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham,” “Bride & Prejudice”) and writing partner-husband Paul Mayeda Berges, is adapted from a 1997 novel by Indian-born, U.S.-based scribe Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni which mixes poetry and prose. It’s a tricky combo to bring off on the bigscreen, and Tilo’s v.o. “conversations” with the spices in her shop — meant to evoke a living bond with the hot and fragrant herbs — don’t really work, despite ace d.p. Santosh Sivan’s eye watering lensing.
There’s beauty here but no real sensuality — and on a human level, not much screen chemistry between Rai and McDermott, each of whom parade their physical wares but fail to connect.
As well as its fairytale element, pic is equally about immigrants clinging to their culture in a foreign land — here, one which requires full acceptance of its own way of life and philosophy rather than tolerating genuine diversity. But this strand never really gets off the starting block, despite several small subplots involving Tilo’s clients, like Kashmiri cab driver Haroun (Nitin Chandra Ganatra), the Westernized granddaughter (Padma Lakshmi) of a traditional Indian (Bollywood vet Anupam Kher), and a black couple (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Caroline Chikezie).
Berges, making his helming debut, directs in an ultra-smooth manner and exploits to the max Rai’s iconic, model-like beauty and McDermott’s beefcake looks. But there’s no verve to either’s perf — a shame particularly in the case of Rai who has a real gift as a light comedienne.
Aside from a few exteriors in the U.S. and India, bulk of the film was shot in U.K. studios (in Ealing and the Isle of Man). Both production design (for the shop) and costumes are suitably rich.