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April 26-May 2, 2006

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'The Mistress of Spices'

Aishwarya Forever: How can America not fall for the charms of 'The Mistress of Spices' star Aishwarya Rai? Then again, considering this is the same country that thinks Larry the Cable Guy is a comic genius, it's not surprising.

Open, Sesame

Film version of local author Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni's novel 'The Mistress of Spices' gives food erotica a good name

By Richard von Busack

WITH EYES like smoky topazes, and lips that make Angelina Jolie look pursed-mouthed, Aishwarya Rai has one of the most celebrated faces on the planet. Unfortunately, the film that introduced her to the west, Bride & Prejudice, failed to make her as popular in America as she is in India. That's how it works; Jane Austen heroines aren't meant to drive men wild with desire. This time, the team of Paul Mayeda Berges (former local writer/director) and his spouse and co-writer, Gurinder Chadha (director of Bride and Bend It Like Beckham) really succeed in putting Rai over.

The adaptation of Sunnyvale writer Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni's 1997 book gains in glossiness what it loses in grit. On the one hand, Chadha and Berges change romantic bodice-ripping pirates to dangerous ones; on the other, they have deleted the subplot about the battered woman Lalita and transformed the romantic lead from an exotic man named Raven to a more conventional "Doug." Otherwise, they preserve most of the tale of a spice grocer with mystical powers and a superheroish origin story.

On a remote tropical island, a girl renamed Tilottama ("Sesame"), Tilo for short, learned the use of spices for cuisine, healing and talismans from a wise crone (the venerable Zohra Sehgal). In contemporary Oakland, Tilo (Rai) runs a shop that dispenses healing and advice to the locals, including a Muslim cabby, a seemingly star-crossed pair of African-American lovers and a turban-baited Sikh child who is drifting into juvenile crime.

And now she's tempted; a scruffy motorcycle-riding man named Doug (Dylan McDermott) is beginning to haunt her dreams. McDermott is smoothness itself in the role—when he reveals he's an architect, he adds suavely, "Yeah, but it's just my job."

Rai's Tilo endures the old-movie dilemma of being torn between staying a goddess and becoming a woman. Tilo is consecrated to her task. She cannot leave the store, and she is ritually forbidden to touch another person's skin, according to the traditions of her craft.

Red Flame

The lustrous images of piles of polychrome spices are intercut with forbidden peppers so crimson that they eventually burst into red flame. The Mistress of Spices is a look backward into a visually richer area.

I am dancing around the word "silly," because Berges' film has such a powerful presence to hold it together, just as the big-screen fantasies did decades ago did. One reason Rai hasn't broken into American movies is because of her cultural reluctance to do kissing scenes; this leaves Berges with the challenge of filming a clinch without a proper kiss.

I guarantee the love scene will have an audience's full attention: Doug paying court to the nape of his lady's neck, unbraiding her luxurious hair, unclasping of the gold chain around Rai's lovely and un-Pilated midriff—the effect of watching this is rather like being hit with a clown mallet.

This is the most succulent food-erotica movie since Like Water for Chocolate, and it seems to be an exclusive engagement at the Naz, the Fremont representative of a three-theater California chain proudly described as "North America's First Multi-Cultural Megaplex."

Euro-Americans often forget that the phrase "multicultural" includes them, too. The Naz is cleaner and quieter than two-thirds of the movie houses in the South Bay, and the chaat, samosas and mango ice cream behind the counter just add to the treat.

Movie TimesThe Mistress of Spices (Unrated; 96 min.), directed by Paul Mayeda Berges, written by Gurinder Chadha and Berges, based on the book by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, photographed by Santosh Sivan and starring Aishwarya Rai and Dylan McDermott, plays at the Naz Cinema in Fremont.

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