Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sensual, Spicy, Sizzling & Scrumptious - Ash in her most stunning incarnation!

By Ashanti OMkar

What happens when magical mysticism and multiculturalism cross paths in an elaborate yet paradoxically simplistic concept - that of love and compassion. ‘The Mistress of Spices’ of course. A subtly sensitive tale told in a way that will appeal to most audiences in such a tug of the heartstrings, without going into a cheesy narrative. Stir fry a widely eclectic cast, pour in 4 luscious locations around the globe, blend together the talents of husband and wife team, Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chanda, a couple that epitomise ethnic diversity and stir in some immigrant woes and out comes a movie that is incessantly watchable yet feeds food for thought in the most ‘spicy’ crossover movie out there!

The addition of a splash of distinguished Bengali writer, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (who wrote the story on the conclusion of a near death experience) who came up with a tale of supernatural yet true to life situations and out comes a delightful movie that is not only perfectly cast but reflects the world as one hopes it is becoming in terms of togetherness! Also adding to the premise is the fact that Bengali’s are known for bring about the world’s curry revolution and are known as food lovers, hence her love for all things tasty also permeates in this delectable story.

Intriguing to the core, is the fact the in this mind blowing spice shop (where troubles are erased by the virtue of different healing, helping spice attributes, a similar concept to the ancient art of Ayurveda, but in a more mythical, fictitious circumstance), the spices literally come to life, music is ingeniously used to do this, thanks to the genius of the ‘favourite’ Gurinder Chanda music director, Craig Pruess, sprinkling the piece de resistance, making the spices characters with music and intriguing visuals, thus the cream is added to make the flavour of this movie king!

An evocative, but modest sensuality had to be brought out for Aiswariya Rai (Ash), in a never before seen side to her acting, she has 3 rules for a Mistress of spices, so following her ‘no kissing rule’ was not at all a problem, the love scene was masterfully created with touches of the Henna patterns on her body and her only glamorous scene. Tilo must only use the spices to help others; she must never leave her store; she must not touch another human’s skin- falling in love is out of tradition and seen as a Western concept, however, the film shows that the power of love and what a person is willing to endure to follow their true path prevails all that may hold one back from their dreams! A story which, like Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece ‘The Alchemist’ gives many the inspiration to really follow their course of life in ways that they never dreamed of! Paul fondly recollects: “Ash is a soulful actress and with a strong chemistry with the team, she has delivered my perfect Tilo. She’s also an incredibly intelligent actress who learns from movie to movie and has definitely evolved as an actress.” Her propensity to draw in the audience with a very beautiful but also a quietly confident character in lead takes nothing away from her dazzling beauty which radiates/emanates in demure saris and looking glowing and ravishing in very little make up (apart from a couple of saucy scenes all dressed up and glamourous).

Playing grand-daughter to the weary Anupam Kher, who is hilariously a misfit in American society, with her Mexican lover, Mrs Salman Rushdie, Padma Lakshmi’s acting skills make a small but pivotal appearance - here’s another perfect example of a multicultural actress, born to a strict Brahmin family in Chennai, South India, but brought up with a string of step fathers in America - a girl whose exotic and flawless looks, form and height threw her into modelling and with a degree in Psychology, mastery of many languages and even a writer of a cook book, makes her a classic ‘brains and beauty’ case - she’s under 35 years old, but looks in her mid to late 30s, her revealing clothes show off her stunning figure and her ambition is making way, with her rumoured to be looking for that perfect lead role - ‘hint hint’, Gurinder and Paul!

Also into the movie are a ‘cute’ West African, Nigerian couple (British born Hollywood star, Yoruba speaking Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, famous for his roles in Bourne Identity, Mummy Returns and TV series Lost) and Caroline Chikezie of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria (British actress known for her roles in Aeon Flux and previously in TV series Footballers Wives) who don’t see their bond till Tilo intervenes and a despondent Mother of a bullied Indian boy whose demeanour moves from polite to brash but has his own kinks worked out with a little help from ‘The mistress’.

The genius Santosh Sivan behind the camera team - Not a lot needs to be said about this king of glorious cinematography - his creative talents have been honed by working with directors such as Mani Ratnam and this is just another example of his exemplary work - I need not say more, the proof in watching this tempting pudding of a film - he makes one want to rush for a curry after watching the colour of spices; impeccable art direction (mainly in a studio in the Isle of Man, would you believe) making the audience wish that perhaps the film had the added experience of aromas pumped through the cinema theatre as the spices come to life.

Paul & Gurinder, looking healthy, happy and glowing from Yoga and long walks, their creative boundaries have merged to create a formidable writing partnership, a true winning combination - his background of being a mixed Japanese American and Gurinder’s Punjabi British background in their own words gel because: “We follow life as it takes it’s course, we watch and learn from people around us and the ever changing world that has brought forward tolerance and has united communities as we are all humans with the same range of emotions and sensibilities, just with cultural variations.”

Familiar face, but little known Hollywood actor, Dylan McDermott plays the handsome, sensitive ‘player’ type man who has experienced many women, but finds Tilo someone he can speak to and share his secrets to, especially with the help of her spices that she decided to use to help him through a tough phase, enabling their love affair to develop beautifully.

There is one vital difference between film and book for those fans out there who relished Chitra’s 1st narrative bestseller - Tilottama (Tilo), the book’s narrator is supposed to be an old woman who is rescued, yet we see her as a small child who is saved from a life of poverty and destruction by being taken to an island paradise in a mystical world (in this case Kerala, touted to be God’s own country and comes very close, from my own experiences there - the beautiful beach and backwater of Alleppey and the amazing Spice garden hills of India, Thekkady!) where the training of spice healing is taught and each of the girls is assigned to a Spice Bazaar somewhere in the world, where their life has to adapt with those of the locals and of course, the immigrants and the fact that Ash didn’t change skin after hours as does in the book - it worked beautifully in this case without showing the ‘ethereal but monster-like’ element of the character which as an executive decision worked for the film overall and as a fan of the book, I didn’t miss that facet at all.

Charlie and the Chocolate factory actor, Kenyan born Nitin Ganatra, a favourite of the Gurinder/Paul team, especially from his much loved part in ‘Bride and Prejudice’, as Sam Kholi, plays a vital part in this story and his life unfolds as a devout Muslim man in America, he reveals his insights: “Having read the book before I started on the shoot I was able to see the chapter and the journey of the story in much more depth. Any adaptation and translation of a book to screenplay by the very nature of the transfer of medium is going to lose bits and change parts of the story. However, reading Paul and Gurinder’s screenplay, I was pleasantly surprised at their loyalty that is shown to the book and felt that though you cannot fit everything in the book into 2 hours; they managed to capture the essence of the book beautifully with out losing any of its colours.”

New Dad and increasingly popular film and TV actor Nitin adds: “As for the way I approached the part, the book gave me enough details to work on the chapter and the screenplay simply added more of it into the pot, so to speak. Haroun is an interesting and joyful chapter to play, therefore, not much work was necessary. He is the image of hope in the film and represents the immigrant dream that my parents and many others have experienced. My character was given the chance to start a new life, only to be disappointed, but, to have hope win through. What is tough about playing any chapter is doing it, the writer, director and the audience justice and I hope I came close to playing that truth. Will it make an impact? I have no idea..., I hope it does.”

Star Wars actress and Bombay Dreams Star, Ayesha Dharkar tells us: “"Mistress of Spices" was like a re-union for me, where people from different films I had done over the years were suddenly all working on one project. I loved the story and the book it was based on but mainly I was part of it selfishly just to work with the wonderful crew again!”

Raving about Paul’s excellent directorial abilities, she says: “One of Paul's great strengths as a director is to pull together a talented crew and ensure that the atmosphere on set is a relaxed one. The script, like the book, moves between reality and fantasy, so the choice of Santosh Sivan as a cinematographer was perfect because he is able to translate that idea in a very delicate way.”

On the fact that the book was the predecessor in this case: “I think when a film is based on a book; the audience is treated to the director's vision and take on the book. In the best adaptations, the film will not mirror the book exactly but capture the essence of it and distill it so that it can come alive on film. I think this film will succeed in doing that and I hope people enjoy watching it as much as we enjoyed being part of it!”

All in all, accolades of rave reviews world over have poured in, teamed with excellent audience responses and no doubt Paul’s labour of love as his 1st directional venture, Mistress of Spices, one hopes is set to storm the cinema charts with it’s British Asian elements, it’s multitalented cast and crew and of course it’s vision for a new world, where nothing is as it seems, yet simple old fashioned virtues of love and kindness are the elements that humanity needs to survive.

Essential Information on the film’s cast and creative team

Director: Paul Mayeda Berges
Producer: Deepak Nayar and Gurinder Chadha
Screenplay: Gurinder Chadha & Paul Mayeda Berges
Director of Photography: Santosh Sivan
Director of Music: Craig Pruess

Starring: Aishwarya Rai, Dylan McDermott, Nitin Ganatra, Anupam Kher, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Caroline Chikezie, Padma Lakshmi and Zohra Sehgal

Based on Novel by: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni