"This man may look like an idiot and act like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really IS an idiot!”
Groucho Marx’s forceful words resounded in my head as I watched The Mistress of Spices yesterday. I had expected this film to be so bad (based on the trailers, the news snippets, my knowledge of the storyline, and of course the casting) that I went to see it almost convinced that it would turn out to be enjoyable after all. You know, low expectations beget pleasant surprises and so forth. No such luck. Don’t be fooled by the triteness suggested by the trailers of this film. It really is that trite.
Now it’s understood that the spices in this story are meant to be a – what’s the word, yes, metaphor; a metaphor for Indian traditions/roots/the general mysticism of the East, all of which must be preserved and used with care when you’re living abroad. The problem is, this is a very slight metaphor and it plays out in very foolish ways when it’s taken too seriously. The Mistress of Spices is a film that could have benefited from lightness of tone; instead, it invests considerable dramatic tension in slo-mo pan sequences of cumin seeds and turmeric powder. Lines like “What are you warning me about, chilies?” and “Have I betrayed you, cinnamon?” abound – all delivered in Aishwarya Rai’s just-spent-six-months-in-elocution-class voice.
“She plays the gamut of emotions from A to B,” said Dorothy Parker once of an actress, and Ms Rai brings a whole new dimension to that remark. Her great function is to be the picture-perfect face of Indian Beauty for the West, so naturally she’s afraid to let any trace of expression flit across that face. There are a couple of scenes where she smiles slightly, looks left coyly, looks right coyly, and if you pay attention, around the 40-minute mark her lower lip sort of quivers (unless that was a technical fault). But for the rest she’s so wooden I kept worrying she’d be late for her defumigation appointment.
Like I said, The Mistress of Spices takes its premise very seriously. It opens with a solemn title (presumably for the edification of the Western viewer) that states: “India is a land of myths, magic and tradition. When immigrants from India come to the West they often lose these traditions. This is a story about what happens when such traditions are lost.” A little girl in a village somewhere in India has mysterious magical powers which she uses to warn the elders of impending floods, help locate a lost ring and so on. Bandits come looking for her so she can lead them to treasure. They kill her parents, transport her away in a boat, but she gets free and casts herself into the raging river.
The film could so easily have ended right here, he said wistfully, but the girl survives and comes under the protection of the aphoristically endowed “First Mother”, played by Zohra Sehgal (who I thought of alternately as Mrs Yoda and Old Spice). She names the girl Tilo, trains her and a few others in the magical properties of spices and then transports them to cities around the world, where they must use their knowledge to help people. So now here’s Tilo (Aish) running a large shop called the Spice Bazaar in San Jose, solving customers’ problems by choosing “the right spice” for them. (Did you know turmeric induces tumescence? Okay, I made that up but you get the general idea.) When a soulful young architect named Doug has a motorbike accident outside the shop (“I have to help him, spices! He’s hurt!”), she begins to feel womanly stirrings. But the ghostly spectre of Mrs Yoda appears and warns her that “Chaos will come” if she indulges her own feelings (instead of being selfless like a good Indian).
Doug takes Tilo around San Francisco on his bike, shows her the sights; Aish expresses the ecstasy her character feels by opening her mouth ever so slightly so her lips form a very small oval. But the spice shop has been left unguarded and the spices escape in swirling, powdery hordes! In vengeful wrath they swoop down on the residents of San Francisco, entering their eyes and causing thousands of them to fling themselves screaming from the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a classic disaster-movie scene. Move over Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, this is Revenge of the Homicidal Haldi!
At this point I wake up in the movie-hall just in time for the last shot; Aish and Doug are lying languidly on a bed of red chillies. With this heartening message of hope and tolerance – Indians can have sex with foreigners as long as they remember to return to the spice shop afterwards – The Mistress of Spices ends.
P.S. Hollywood Reporter describes it as "a universal immigrant story".