Sunday, April 30, 2006

Of spice maidens and asafoetida attacks

"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".

48 comments:

  1. Nice review. I was already planning not to see it, now I'm going to warn other people not to see it as well. :) Stand in line for half an hour, spend 150/- on a ticket, sit through a dozen cellphone rings and conversations for this? No thanks.

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  2. I wonder why everything about India is so mystical in the western eyes and why our actors and writers cater to such procilivities.

    Nice review, by the way :-).

    Amrit
    http://www.writingcave.com

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  3. Hated it so much, you almost made it sound good?! I have a feeling I'm definitely gonna watch it now :)

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  4. Punky PJs: go if you must, but do carry some cumin, cardomom and fennel seeds along - I hear they're good for digestion :)

    Sunil, Amrit: not really a review, more a lazy Sunday rant, but thanks.

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  5. Hey jabberwock,
    Do you ever do meet-ups with your readers/fans in Delhi? Or do you only meet bloggers/writers/literateurs?

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  6. Why must you watch these things? Are they really inescapable or is it morbid curiousity?

    Hilarious though - I almost want to watch it.

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  7. What on earth moved you to see a movie with that bimbo in it? Serves you right. On the other hand, it prompted a nice rant (after a long spell of Serious Stuff)

    There's an anonymous comment on your last post (the commenter calls you "Raj") which places Kishore Kumar with the Marx Brothers. Brilliant observation. Think "Half Ticket".

    J.A.P.

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  8. hola there!
    that was a riot @ ur review! keep em coming:)
    cheers!

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  9. abslut Cgiri!!!

    wasted time,money and a good drinks!!

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  10. Aishwarya Rai’s just-spent-six-months-in-elocution-class voice...If only that had been six-months-in-acting-class..:)

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  11. Jab - I passed by Eros and Regal yesterday, and unlike you, something saved me from a similar fate! Instead of watching this trash, I picked up a flute for 100/- that I'm never going to learn how to play.

    "Well spent...is money", sez Yoda.

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  12. Nice. But what happened to the "as I get older I find myself less and less inclined to write scathing reviews" bit? or did Ms. Rai's entirely wooden charms make you suddenly feel 18 again?

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  13. If this is how you rant, you should rant more! This movie makes me feel very embarassed, as did the book (an unfortunate two hours of my life spent there).

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  14. you know I went to a reading by Chitra Banarjee (sp?) once a long time, she was such a charming, likeable woman that I ended up buying her spicy book. With disappointing results. I did have high hopes for the movie though...I don't know why...

    nice review, even though it's not really a review apparently:)

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  15. I have seen universally bad reviews of this movie which makes me wonder how much Chadha’s production company must have paid The Times of India to have this positive blurb appear on their site today:
    http://www.arthshastra.com/pdf/Mistress%20of%20Spices-%20TOI.pdf

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  16. I'm curious, even more so after reading your review. The film seems really bad!

    I think I'll take a dekko, afterall.

    Hah!

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  17. Homicidal Haldi...

    geat...I fell like wearing exotic spice garlands the next time I face US immigration

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  18. Thanks for the warning, whatever little chance was there to see this movie, you have demolished it completely.

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  19. JAP: the commenter didn't call me Raj, he signed his name as Raj. Waitaminute, does this mean you've been calling me "J.A.P." all these months?

    Falstaff: I also said inconsistency and hypocrisy are vital to the human condition, didn't I? :) Ha, everywhere an escape route...

    Aishwarya: we were hoping there would be enough (unintentional) humour to make it worth watching. There wasn't, but at least this post came out of it.

    Fadereu: just one flute over the cuckoo's nest? Now you can play it while singing Groucho's "These are the Laws of My Administration".

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  20. The book wasn't much better, you know, although I got the idea it had bits set in Sri Lanka. But of course, magic realism is useful that way, you can call it whichever place you want to without ever giving it a name.

    But the movie is scarily bad. And that woman is a director's actress. Left to herself, she sucks.

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  21. Do you think there's a market for "Mistress of Taties", a story about this wicca of Irish-American descent who hailed from the Idaho uplands, ran a McDonald's franchise and dispensed free advice with the Freedom Fries ?
    One could try and sell, I mean market it, as a novel that drew on the folklore of the Exotic Occident and maybe get some sexy Irish actress (insert-name-here) to play the lead?
    Whadya think?
    DD

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  22. A basic fallacy: isn't migration precisely what makes people go overboard with that tradition thing? Anyway, it would be interesting to know if Divakaruni was involved with the scriptwriting and, sadly, i think she may have been. When the hardcover version of "Mistress of Spices" was released in the US in 1995 or so, I heard it was being marketed with a little sachet of spices taped to the inside cover... I wonder if the turmeric lobby was behind this whole affair. (And thanks for the Killer Haldi plot, a movie I'd rather see, and for making all this more digestible.)

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  23. you know what? The book is the first (and as yet only) book I have abandoned purely on a really-not-worth-the-time-and-the-stress (of having to concentrate really hard and avoid the drift off that invariably comes) note. So, the movie was really not up-there on my list of must-sees. I see your logic though - the low expectattions premise usually works extraordinarily well.

    Glad you saw it before me though!

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  24. Hey,

    When you're nice you're good, but when you're nasty you're awesome. Do stay there, just for a bit?

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  25. Haha. Can you imagine the anguish of a woman who has just come out liberated from the pain of giving final exams and finds herself watching (quite bemusedly at that too) some stone faced woman talking to spices, oh yea, SPICES the whole time round? And Doug the dude disappoints all the more. Pray, Jai, if you knew it was pathetic, why did you even try going in? For doing up an excellent review?(Reviews are only excellent when they are laced with satire. ah. you knew you'd get a story. ahah.) :p Me, the poor soul, I didnt know. It was first day FIRST show kind of a situation. Im never talking to chillies again.

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  26. Something tells me I'd have enjoyed the movie:

    Watched Banaras a few weeks ago (I thought we were going to see Crash, but idjid former friend who'd been delegated the task of buying tickets wanted to see Urmila) The theater was almost empty (12 people, including five of us), and we sat in the middle, making fun of just about every scene; every scene demanded that we make fun of it anyway.

    The Mistress of Spices seems to be another one of those, and if you go in a large group in an empty theater, it should be fun.

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  27. The problem with reading hilarious reviews of terrible movies is that one is tempted to watch the movie, just so one can identify parts of the movie that were lampooned in the review. Great review... But did you really fall asleep?

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  28. Bagchi: thanks. I'm tempted, but dunno. Think this is the effect of watching too much Marx Bros.

    witnwisdumb: Nope, didn't really fall asleep.

    And on a warning note: some commenters seem to have got the impression that the film is so bad it's fun. Actually it's quite tedious most of the way through, and if this post has made it sound entertaining that's entirely the blogmeister's fault. (Nikhil, even with your famous knack for being able to humour yourself in any situation, I doubt you'd have much fun watching it.)

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  29. Hello Jai,

    What an absolutely brilliant review! You had me in splits, this movie was introduced with much fanfare in Toronto, at the annual film festival here(along with Deepa Mehta's depressing 'Water'), where it thankfully died without a whimper. And Aish was splashed across the the papers, simpering sweetly for the media. I hated the book by Divakaruni...and the not suprised the movie sucked as well. I really enjoy your movie and book reviews. On an added note: I'm a huge fan of Ray, where can I get Ray DVD's in Delhi? (I do not live in Delhi but visit occasionally) You seem the perfect source for movies..please help.

    Priya

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  30. Some novels should never be made into movies. It's as simple as that. BTW, you must read this (on a slightly different note).

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  31. Priya: you'll get quite a few in Palika Bazaar. And I saw the Apu Trilogy, Shatranj ke Khiladi and a couple of others in a legit shop once, but can't remember where.

    Decent prints and prices at Palika though.

    Nitika: I think a possible argument in this case is that the novel should never have been written :) And yes, that film critic piece is hilarious - can relate to a lot of it.

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  32. I've seen the trailers and gotten the same impression as you. I wonder why foreigners have to be dished up this image of India as a mystical land of fairy tales and exoticism. Its just what these directors of Indian origin use as a lever to put themselves in the limelight. With hopelessly lacklustre talent, they can only try and exploit their Indian roots to make things like Mistress of Spices, a waste of good quality film reel.

    Aishwarya Rai too cant really act. She's been surviving so long simply because she can smile and do the Indian namaste to the entire world as the face of India. Did you see her on Oprah? American-ish accent and everything in place.

    I solemnly swear I shall never again watch a movie made by such hypocritical foreign-based 'Indians'.

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  33. I saw it this sunday. And I went there solely because of the brand image of Gurinder Chaddha. I had actually heard some good reviews of this movie on the radio (which now I think were given for sadistic pleasure).

    The movie unfortunately gives a very very wrong impression of India. Are we all a bunch of bimbos talking with spices? I kept trying to make believe that it's a fantasy film and would get exciting...when they show the red indian thingy with doug, I got a little hopeful abt the story gaining some momentum, but eventually I dont know what that was all about.

    My male company at least got to see Ash in the va-va-voom avatar..but there was nothing in it for me :(..
    PS. was planning to write a nasty review..but I guess it's not required.. and as everyone says, a review is best when it's nasty :p

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  34. Fantastic review...couldnt stop laughing:)

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  35. Incidentally, the last couple of paras remind me of my checkov in my life review. I'd lost patience too, and started imagining accidents happening to protagonists. Hmm...Well, I'd choose the movie over that party I'd told you about. There I had given thought to going over to random people and pretending to recognise them, and of course they couldn't possibly not pretend to recognise me. :D Didn't, eventually.

    Smits: try The Everest Hotel by Seally. If you're very patient, you'll probably get to 20 pages.

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  36. Argh that last shot. I hate the tv ads so much I doubt I'll be seeing the movie even for a laugh.
    Aishwarya Rai lying on a bed chilies - why can't she poke herself accidentally in the eyes with a couple?

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  37. Anon's comment about an Irish flick... haha, very good, except there's quite a lot of sentimental writing already with just that, wild Hibernian lasses with their poteens and their praties.

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  38. Oh, Groucho and the brilliance. On to read the rest of the review. :)

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  39. Oh, Groucho and the brilliance. On to read the rest of the review. :)

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  40. Hahahaha... you made my day, Jabberwock. Can't wait to read your review of "Water"?

    P.S. I would like to sponsor you to watch all bad movies and write their reviews...

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  41. LOL!! Thank God i didnt drag my fianc'e to watch that one with me...he would have called off our wedding!.....(i'm feeling bad enough for forcing a friend to watch BANARAS with me!!....i don't think Yogi will ever get over that !!)....i've read other books by Chitra b....'sister of my heart' n part II of that...cant recall the name...Book 1 wasn't bad at all.....

    ..however, when we start talking about ms Rai....i'm soo glad there are other ppl who notice it too!! i was begining to feel that i was nuts!...she has no talent!!...very pretty, but only until she opens her mouth.....and out comes that shrill, high pitched terrrrrible voice!!

    ok...enough of bad mouthing bad karma!!

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  42. By the way..Mr Jabberwock........

    "This man may look like an idiot and act like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really IS an idiot!”...LOL!! u my friend,have a good sense of humor , may i say!!

    out of boredom...n a little bit of interest....is this from Seinfield??!! i've been watching Seinfeild non-stop for the last 7 week since i got back from India..(occassionally interrupted by bollywood flicks such as..!!!!pyare mohan etc etc etc painful painful experiences)........the whole series is punctuated with quotes as such!!.....i love it!!

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  43. Nikki: that quote is from Groucho Marx, as I've mentioned in the first sentence of the post. That said, it's not surprising that you thought there was a Seinfeld connection - the Marx Brothers have had a huge influence on most modern humorists. And Seinfeld is an absurdist show, which is what Groucho & co specialised in too.

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  44. Expected the movie to be as bad as the book.

    Cool review!

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  45. remind me again - what the hell is asafoetida? =)

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  46. I thought I was the only one who felt that way about Aishwariya Rai and acting

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  47. Have you read the book - Mistress of spices by Chitra Bannerjee? She is a very good writer, Palace of illusions is my favorite.

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  48. Rasika: no, haven't read the book. Have written about Palace of Illusions though - the post should be somewhere on the blog.

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