Back in 2005, I presented a paper at the the British Commonwealth & Postcolonial Studies Conference in Savannah, Georgia on "Threads of Indian-ness in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices." As a graduate student, I had spent weeks, and then months working with Divakaruni's novel, not only in my seminar course that we were reading it in, but also in preparation for this conference. So, I share this why? Well, I wanted to be clear on the fact that I feel a certain closeness to Divakaruni's novel that comes through hours spent pouring over its pages and their meanings. Then to hear that the novel had been turned into a film, and that Tilo (the protagonist) was being played by famous Aishwarya Rai, really excited me. I was eager to see how it stacked up to the novel I loved and knew so well!
As a quick synopsis, the story centers around the character Tilo, which is an old woman who runs a spice shop in San Francisco. According to the story, Tilo was actually a young woman who was trained to help people through the spices she was the mistress over. Given the guise of the old woman, Tilo worked to help immigrants, working to make a place for themselves in the United States, to find ways of staying connected to their culture and sense of identity, as well as finding peace with their new world. Much of the novel introduced different characters who were struggling with the cultures they loved, for the changes they saw coming over their families as immigrants. To this mix, enters an attractive young man named Raven, also struggling with his own identity. However, in Raven's case, he is a Native American who is struggling with is lost identity, and Tilo struggles to know how to help him. In her struggles, she finds herself falling in love with the lovely man, and breaks many of the rules of a mistress of spices in order to help him and to be near him.
The central themes of feminine spirituality, a type of shamanism, and cultural identity are rich throughout the novel, and made for a breathtaking first novel by Divakaruni. I was then confused by the mixed reviews on the film version of the novel. From a "cold read" on the film, you would miss most (if not all) of the real issues with identity that are rife in the novel. The film seems to focus mostly on Tilo's power to soothe and heal others, as well as her blossoming romance with Raven. In the end, I felt that the film really relied on aesthetic beauties, such as with the beautiful spices and their colors, as well as the beauty of the characters themselves. Romance was the central figure in the film, which was fine. I thought the film was good, but maybe couldn't reach the depth of the novel.
In short, I think that from the outside, the film would seem "nice" to a casual viewer, even good. From those who have read the novel, or are familiar with Divakaruni's work, it could be downright disappointing that so much was lost. For me, I took it for what it was, and enjoyed the film. I will always heartily suggest that people read the book, especially if they like the film, but suppose I must warn them that it will lead them down many more complicated paths to consider than were presented in the film. Overall, it is not what I would call an exact companion to the novel, but a nice film to give you the general idea.
For more information on the book see The Mistress of Spices: A Novel, and for the film The Mistress of Spices.