Since the inception of cinema,literature has always held sway over the creative filmmakers who are passionateabout depicting serious life issues in audio-visual cinematic lens. In Indiatoo, Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchaliwhich brought Indian cinema international acclaim for the first time was also basedon the great work of literature, by famed writer Bhibuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay.Eminent directors world over are still making films on the classics and works offamous writers reflecting the irresistible charm literature holds forfilmmakers across the barriers of countries, time, space, cultures etc. Thoughthe medium of literature and cinema are different, both the art forms deal withthe same fabric of human emotions and relationships and express them to strikea chord in the hearts of their target audience. It is in this light that thispaper intends to look at the cinematic presentation of Chitra BanerjeeDivakaruni’s novel The Mistress of Spicesin the film of the same name produced and directed by Paul Mayeda Bergesin 2006.
An analysis of the varied themes that the novel offers in its printversion Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni a wellknowndiasporic writer has narrativized the immigrant Indian experience in America inher second novel The Mistress of Spices(1977) encapsulating the themes ofcultural conflict, alienation and assimilation difficulties and racism faced bythe Indian immigrants living in America. With the techniques of magic realism,she builds on a story of a young Indian girl Nayantara who has propheticpowers, which although initially serve her to scale an elevated status amongher people who worship her, but later bring mishap on her when she is kidnappedby the sea-pirates attracted by her powers. It is only four years later thatshe travels to a forbidden island inhabited by a mysterious woman with esotericpowers and charms greater than her own. Washed ashore on the island, she beginsher tutorship in learning the magical properties of various spices and understandingtheir powers and charms. However, after her completion of training, as withother trainees under the Old One, she is given a new name Tilottamma inspiredby ‘Til'(sesame seeds) a spice that stands for nourishment. Tilo, a young Indianwoman is now confined in the body of an old woman and trained in the mysteriouspowers of spices is allowed to follow her destiny of serving the immigrantIndian community in San Francisco where she finds herself barricaded in a spiceshop.
Imbued in a hoard of restrictions of do’s and don’ts, Tilo nowunderstands the nuances of the trauma and turmoil experienced by the IndianDiaspora in a multi layered context. She takes on the job of a healer ratherseriously and tries to bring respite to the many facing crises in their lives. Herspecial skills and deep-rooted knowledge of the healing powers help her read people’s hearts and minds but it is a power that holds true onlywhen she keeps herself at a distance, “not too far nor too near, in calmkindness poised.
(Divakaruni, 55) However, Tilo who has been ordained not totouch or be touched by anybody is unable to maintain physical or emotionaldistance with her customers, as they strive to fulfill the demands of theirfamilies, the age old clash of the East and the West, the heartless atrocitiesof racism, abusive husbands – all of the complexities of living in the modernworld. Further, Tilo was ordered to cater only to the needs of the Indiancommunity, but, in a turn of events that would eventually topsy-turvy her lifeand incur her the wrath of spices, she finds herself losing her heart to anAmerican man named Raven. From then onshe loses her control over her unfulfilled desires and new found unbridledpassions overpower her. Her complex and passionate relationships with hercustomers and attraction towards Raven lead her to transgress the boundarieslaid down by her spice mistress vows, and Tilo finds herself trapped in atumultuous struggle between her duty and bindings as the mistress of spices andher natural desires as a human. The negotiation between duty and love showsTilo in variegated light of being a courageous and lively person. It is through such a vibrant protagonist Tilothat Divakaruni unravels the complexity of existence of the South Asiandiasporic population which has moved away geographically, politically, sociallyand culturally from its homeland India, and is trying to come to terms with anew existence in an alien land. It is with the help of the mysteriously magicalspices that a unique link is created between Tilo and her diasporic customersthat make them reminisce about their common past with nostalgia.
Tilo tries toheal the injured and agonizing customers and helps them re-establish their tieswith India with the help of an ancient heritage which they share in common. Beit the bougainvillea girls, Mohan, Haroun, Geetha’s grandfather, Kwesi, Lalita,Jagjit and so on all of them are helpedby Tilo to recuperate and make proper adjustments with their aliensurroundings. However, the cinematic adaptation ofthis novel in 2005 by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha fails to portraythe complexity of the cultural conflict so effortlessly conveyed in the novel.
The film is a visual beauty displaying the colours and flavours of an exoticizedIndia catering to the palates of a western audience but is lifeless failing toreflect on social and emotional undercurrents of the immigrant ethos. While thenovel is replete with magical realist elements which give the novelist thescope and canvas of presenting the multi-layered experiences of a diasporicidentity, the film ignores most of them. The film has highlighted the lovestory merging the East West cultural dichotomy, minimising the harsh reality ofcomplex contours of immigrant life that was the novel pulsated with. Divakaruni’s portrayal of the spiceshop as antique and dilapidated with the purpose of juxtaposing it as a starkcontrast to the glitter of the “new land America” which “prides itself on beingno older than a heartbeat” (Divakaruni, 4) is completely changed in itscinematic representation. The spice shop in the film is the centre of allaction and is projected as a cultural boutique, with shiny interiors andfashionable ethnic wares. All the film critics comment on the richness of thevisuals which belies the purpose of Divakaruni’s objective of making it mundaneand neglected spot in San Francisco. According to The New York Times review thefilm is “a one-dimensional, sometimes illogical film, but it is certainlygood-looking.
The Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World, isexquisitely beautiful…And the photography often looks like an enticingfood-magazine layout” (Gates, 15). The profoundity of the novel lies inthe way Divakaruni has delineated the character of the protagonist Tilo and themyriads of shades that have been woven into her representation.
The dichotomybetween the inner and outer self of Tilo makes her character not only thoughtprovoking but offers a glimpse into the metaphysical conflict within her. Atthe behest of ‘The Old One’, her mystical teacher, Tilo along with the othergirls had given up their “young bodies to take on age and ugliness and unendingservice” (Divakaruni, 40) after the completion of their training on the magicalisland. This transformation was imperative for the complete metamorphosis fromNayantara to Tilottama, as Divakaruni’s novel reinforces. So in the novel wehave a young woman with unextinguished desires imprisoned in the raggedwrinkled body of an old woman.
But after her meeting with Raven, Tilo is shownto become conscious of her “ridged and freckled skin” and gradually her passionfor him gives wings to her desire to be transformed into a seductive andbeautiful woman with the help of the magical spices. Her consummation of herown desires seems so poignant and realistic in the novel. But in cinematicadaptation Tilo is presented as a naturally attractive and beautiful youngwoman, her role played by the most beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachan and thus robsthe character of the different layers of the conflicts and turmoil that sheundergoes in her metamorphoses, and the power of her gradual discord with thespices is undermined Other than Tilo, the only othercharacter with some importance is the character of Raven who later on revealsthat he is not a true American, but belongs to the marginalised groups and cantherefore be considered the spiritual counterpart of Tilo in America. Theidentity crisis that the immigrants suffer is convincingly portrayed byDivakaruni through the character of Raven. Through his narration of the storyof his boyhood days to Tilo, we learn how Raven’s mother had tried to obliterateher identity by running away from her own folks and had tried to rebuild herlife on fresh and modern ways.
Her best efforts to completely transform herselfas an American and gradually believing to be one is reflected in the lines: “Maybewhen she’d left them, run away … when she’d cut and styled her hair, when she’dchanged the shape of her eyebrows with tweezers and painted on a new mouth,when she’d given herself a name pretty and proper like she’d always wanted tohave, it had been the same as dying” (Divakaruni, 158). Her transformation intoCelestina is comparable to the multiple willing and unwilling transformationsof many diasporic people in the novel.
It is only after Raven realizes the trueidentity of his mother during their visit to her dying grandfather that he finallyaccepts his true Native American identity and rechristens himself as Raven,after the bird that he had seen on the deathbed of his great grandfather. Thissymbolic existence of the bird is greatly undermined in the film and erasingthe identity crisis of Raven. In the novel, Divakaruni has projected Tilo andRaven as the representatives of the different marginalised communities whoresist the hegemony of the West in their own ways. Both have a past that theydo not spontaneously share with anybody but they derive a strange power fromtheir past lives. This causes the inter-racial union of their souls championsthe cause of the subalterns who have a shared consciousness of subjugation and forman alliance to combat the cultural and racial hegemony of the West.
Togetherthey set out to find “the earthly paradise” (Divakaruni, 315) which is symbolicof the triumph of Orientalism and a vehement assertion of the identity of themarginalised communities in America. But in the cinematic version,Raven’s character played by the handsome Dylan McDermott is presented as a ‘white’American who is drawn to Tilo merely because of her Indian beauty and charms.The intensity of the relationship between Tilo and Raven as depicted in thenovel is reduced to a mere love relationship between two good looking young people,who after resolving the basic East-West differences decide to consummate theirpassion for each other in a vivid erotic scene of making love on a bed of redchillies. The scene is definitely rich in cinematography and exquisitelycolourful but fails to capture the intense psychological depth that Divakaruni hasinfused into the relationship of Tilo and Raven. By turning the deeprelationship between Raven and Tilo into a simple love story of a man andwoman, Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges have lost the powerfulundercurrents of the problems of immigration and the soul eroding identitycrisis that ensues. Thus at many levels the film appearsto have been made for the western eyes and allure them with the oriental glitzand glamour. The film makes no efforts to subvert the stereotypes of the Eastas perceived by the West while Divakaruni has ample episodes devoted to debunkthe stereotypes and boldly presents the problems of the immigrants in an alienland.
Even the problems of racial discrimination depicted in the novel arecomfortably avoided in the film as it might be a jolt to the Western viewersthat the film tries to placate. For instance Veena’s husband gets beaten up bytwo American teenagers just because he is an Indian and inhabiting theircountry. Even the lawyers prove that the entire brawl was started by the ‘filthy’Indian and the Americans were only being defensive. Again Haroun another Indianimmigrant is robbed of his meager income of the day, are examples of racialdiscrimination perpetrated on the immigrants that are delineated by Divakaruniin the novel. Similarly the newspaperreports of the racial discrimination disturb Tilo who has several visions tooon this issue: “The man who finds his grocery windows smashed by rocks with hate-notetied around them, Children sobbing outside their safe suburban home over theirpoisoned dog, Woman with her dupatta torn from her shoulders as she walks acity pavement, the teenagers speeding away in their car hooting laughter.
Theman who watches his charred motel, life’s earnings gone, the smoke curling in ahieroglyph that reads arson…
I know there are other stories, numerous beyondcounting, unreported, unwritten, hanging bitter and brown as smog in America’sair” (Divakaruni, 172-173). But the film is devoid of any such issues and thusfails to do justice to the various problems of the immigrants that are sodeftly racked up in the novel. It is as though the film remains insensitive tothe racial problems and deliberate in being mute about the issues.Tilo’s spice shop isdepicted as a microcosm of India and the spices can be the spiritualingredients that can heal the ills of the Western world. the magic realism whichis so central to the novel is absent in the cinema and spices are presented asexotic and mystical but stand devoid of all the connotations and the subversivepower given to them by the author. The film thus emerges as a superficialinter-racial love story and all other significant elements that enrich thenovel are eliminated from its celluloid presentation leaving the audience witha taste of glitz and glamour of the heroine and the passion of her love forRaven. Finally the novel too ends differentlyfrom the way the film ends. In the novel Tilo decides chastisement for disobeyingthe dictates of the Old One.
The earthquake then follows, destroying everythingand Tilo, now bereft of the power of spices takes on a new name “Maya”:”Illusion, spell, enchantment, the power that keeps this imperfect world goingday after day. I need a name like that, I who now have only myself to hold meup” (Divakaruni, 317). Thus the ending of the novel is optimistic, upholds multiculturalismand envisions a world where the marginalised communities co-exist with thepowerful people with their shared knowledge of ancient wisdom.
Compared to themetaphorical significance of the novel, the film ends in an insignificant waywhere after the earthquake; Tilo is shown to continue as the mistress of spicesin her shop and also pursue her personal life with Doug giving a feel of atypical Bollywood entertainer where all is well that ends well. The East-Westamalgamation and the celebration of Indian ways of life make it a specialcinema about the diasporic community contributing to world cinema yet anothercultural feast. REFERENCES · Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. The Mistress ofSpices. London: Black Swan, 1997.
Print.· Khushu-Lahiri,Rajyashree and Shweta Rao. India on a Platter: A Study of Gurinder Chadha andPaul Mayeda Berges? Cinematic Adaptation of The Mistress of Spices. Web. 5 Jan2018.
· Cinematic Text: The Mistress of Spices.Directed by Paul Mayeda Berges. Screenplay: Gurinder Chadha. Cast: AishwaryaRai, Dylan McDermott and Anupam Kher. Entertainment Films, 2005.