Since works of famous writers reflecting the irresistible


            Since the inception of cinema,
literature has always held sway over the creative filmmakers who are passionate
about depicting serious life issues in audio-visual cinematic lens. In India
too, Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali
which brought Indian cinema international acclaim for the first time was also based
on the great work of literature, by famed writer Bhibuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay.
Eminent directors world over are still making films on the classics and works of
famous writers reflecting the irresistible charm literature holds for
filmmakers across the barriers of countries, time, space, cultures etc. Though
the medium of literature and cinema are different, both the art forms deal with
the same fabric of human emotions and relationships and express them to strike
a chord in the hearts of their target audience. It is in this light that this
paper intends to look at the cinematic presentation of Chitra Banerjee
Divakaruni’s novel The Mistress of Spices
in the film of the same name produced and directed by Paul Mayeda Berges
in 2006. An analysis of the varied themes that the novel offers in its print


            Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni a wellknown
diasporic writer has narrativized the immigrant Indian experience in America in
her second novel The Mistress of Spices
(1977) encapsulating  the themes of
cultural conflict, alienation and assimilation difficulties and racism faced by
the Indian immigrants living in America. With the techniques of magic realism,
she builds on a story of a young Indian girl Nayantara who has prophetic
powers, which although initially serve her to scale an elevated status among
her people who worship her, but later bring mishap on her when she is kidnapped
by the sea-pirates attracted by her powers. It is only four years later that
she travels to a forbidden island inhabited by a mysterious woman with esoteric
powers and charms greater than her own. Washed ashore on the island, she begins
her tutorship in learning the magical properties of various spices and understanding
their powers and charms. However, after her completion of training, as with
other trainees under the Old One, she is given a new name Tilottamma inspired
by ‘Til'(sesame seeds) a spice that stands for nourishment. Tilo, a young Indian
woman is now confined in the body of an old woman and trained in the mysterious
powers of spices is allowed to follow her destiny of serving the immigrant
Indian community in San Francisco where she finds herself barricaded in a spice
shop. Imbued in a hoard of restrictions of do’s and don’ts, Tilo now
understands the nuances of the trauma and turmoil experienced by the Indian
Diaspora in a multi layered context. She takes on the job of a healer rather
seriously and tries to bring respite to the many facing crises in their lives. Her
special 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 only
when she keeps herself at a distance, “not too far nor too near, in calm
kindness poised.(Divakaruni, 55) However, Tilo who has been ordained not to
touch or be touched by anybody is unable to maintain physical or emotional
distance with her customers, as they strive to fulfill the demands of their
families, the age old clash of the East and the West, the heartless atrocities
of racism, abusive husbands – all of the complexities of living in the modern
world. Further, Tilo was ordered to cater only to the needs of the Indian
community, but, in a turn of events that would eventually topsy-turvy her life
and incur her the wrath of spices, she finds herself losing her heart to an
American man named Raven.  From then on
she loses her control over her unfulfilled desires and new found unbridled
passions overpower her. Her complex and passionate relationships with her
customers and attraction towards Raven lead her to transgress the boundaries
laid down by her spice mistress vows, and Tilo finds herself trapped in a
tumultuous struggle between her duty and bindings as the mistress of spices and
her natural desires as a human. The negotiation between duty and love shows
Tilo in variegated light of being a courageous and lively person.  It is through such a vibrant protagonist Tilo
that Divakaruni unravels the complexity of existence of the South Asian
diasporic population which has moved away geographically, politically, socially
and culturally from its homeland India, and is trying to come to terms with a
new existence in an alien land. It is with the help of the mysteriously magical
spices that a unique link is created between Tilo and her diasporic customers
that make them reminisce about their common past with nostalgia. Tilo tries to
heal the injured and agonizing customers and helps them re-establish their ties
with India with the help of an ancient heritage which they share in common. Be
it the bougainvillea girls, Mohan, Haroun, Geetha’s grandfather, Kwesi, Lalita,
Jagjit and so on  all of them are helped
by Tilo to recuperate and make proper adjustments with their alien

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            However, the cinematic adaptation of
this novel in 2005 by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha fails to portray
the complexity of the cultural conflict so effortlessly conveyed in the novel.
The film is a visual beauty displaying the colours and flavours of an exoticized
India catering to the palates of a western audience but is lifeless failing to
reflect on social and emotional undercurrents of the immigrant ethos. While the
novel is replete with magical realist elements which give the novelist the
scope and canvas of presenting the multi-layered experiences of a diasporic
identity, the film ignores most of them. The film has highlighted the love
story merging the East West cultural dichotomy, minimising the harsh reality of
complex contours of immigrant life that was the novel pulsated with.

            Divakaruni’s portrayal of the spice
shop as antique and dilapidated with the purpose of juxtaposing it as a stark
contrast to the glitter of the “new land America” which “prides itself on being
no older than a heartbeat” (Divakaruni, 4) is completely changed in its
cinematic representation. The spice shop in the film is the centre of all
action and is projected as a cultural boutique, with shiny interiors and
fashionable ethnic wares. All the film critics comment on the richness of the
visuals which belies the purpose of Divakaruni’s objective of making it mundane
and neglected spot in San Francisco. According to The New York Times review the
film is “a one-dimensional, sometimes illogical film, but it is certainly
good-looking. The Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World, is
exquisitely beautiful…And the photography often looks like an enticing
food-magazine layout” (Gates, 15).

            The profoundity of the novel lies in
the way Divakaruni has delineated the character of the protagonist Tilo and the
myriads of shades that have been woven into her representation. The dichotomy
between the inner and outer self of Tilo makes her character not only thought
provoking but offers a glimpse into the metaphysical conflict within her. At
the behest of ‘The Old One’, her mystical teacher, Tilo along with the other
girls had given up their “young bodies to take on age and ugliness and unending
service” (Divakaruni, 40) after the completion of their training on the magical
island. This transformation was imperative for the complete metamorphosis from
Nayantara to Tilottama, as Divakaruni’s novel reinforces. So in the novel we
have a young woman with unextinguished desires imprisoned in the ragged
wrinkled body of an old woman. But after her meeting with Raven, Tilo is shown
to become conscious of her “ridged and freckled skin” and gradually her passion
for him gives wings to her desire to be transformed into a seductive and
beautiful woman with the help of the magical spices. Her consummation of her
own desires seems so poignant and realistic in the novel. But in cinematic
adaptation Tilo is presented as a naturally attractive and beautiful young
woman, her role played by the most beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachan and thus robs
the character of the different layers of the conflicts and turmoil that she
undergoes in her metamorphoses, and the power of her gradual discord with the
spices is undermined

            Other than Tilo, the only other
character with some importance is the character of Raven who later on reveals
that he is not a true American, but belongs to the marginalised groups and can
therefore be considered the spiritual counterpart of Tilo in America. The
identity crisis that the immigrants suffer is convincingly portrayed by
Divakaruni through the character of Raven. Through his narration of the story
of his boyhood days to Tilo, we learn how Raven’s mother had tried to obliterate
her identity by running away from her own folks and had tried to rebuild her
life on fresh and modern ways. Her best efforts to completely transform herself
as an American and gradually believing to be one is reflected in the lines: “Maybe
when she’d left them, run away … when she’d cut and styled her hair, when she’d
changed 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 to
have, it had been the same as dying” (Divakaruni, 158). Her transformation into
Celestina is comparable to the multiple willing and unwilling transformations
of many diasporic people in the novel. It is only after Raven realizes the true
identity of his mother during their visit to her dying grandfather that he finally
accepts his true Native American identity and rechristens himself as Raven,
after the bird that he had seen on the deathbed of his great grandfather. This
symbolic existence of the bird is greatly undermined in the film and erasing
the identity crisis of Raven. In the novel, Divakaruni has projected Tilo and
Raven as the representatives of the different marginalised communities who
resist the hegemony of the West in their own ways. Both have a past that they
do not spontaneously share with anybody but they derive a strange power from
their past lives. This causes the inter-racial union of their souls champions
the cause of the subalterns who have a shared consciousness of subjugation and form
an alliance to combat the cultural and racial hegemony of the West. Together
they set out to find “the earthly paradise” (Divakaruni, 315) which is symbolic
of the triumph of Orientalism and a vehement assertion of the identity of the
marginalised 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 the
novel is reduced to a mere love relationship between two good looking young people,
who after resolving the basic East-West differences decide to consummate their
passion for each other in a vivid erotic scene of making love on a bed of red
chillies. The scene is definitely rich in cinematography and exquisitely
colourful but fails to capture the intense psychological depth that Divakaruni has
infused into the relationship of Tilo and Raven. By turning the deep
relationship between Raven and Tilo into a simple love story of a man and
woman, Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges have lost the powerful
undercurrents of the problems of immigration and the soul eroding identity
crisis that ensues.

            Thus at many levels the film appears
to have been made for the western eyes and allure them with the oriental glitz
and glamour. The film makes no efforts to subvert the stereotypes of the East
as perceived by the West while Divakaruni has ample episodes devoted to debunk
the stereotypes and boldly presents the problems of the immigrants in an alien
land. Even the problems of racial discrimination depicted in the novel are
comfortably avoided in the film as it might be a jolt to the Western viewers
that the film tries to placate. For instance Veena’s husband gets beaten up by
two American teenagers just because he is an Indian and inhabiting their
country. Even the lawyers prove that the entire brawl was started by the ‘filthy’
Indian and the Americans were only being defensive. Again Haroun another Indian
immigrant is robbed of his meager income of the day, are examples of racial
discrimination perpetrated on the immigrants that are delineated by Divakaruni
in the novel.  Similarly the newspaper
reports of the racial discrimination disturb Tilo who has several visions too
on this issue: “The man who finds his grocery windows smashed by rocks with hate-note
tied around them, Children sobbing outside their safe suburban home over their
poisoned dog, Woman with her dupatta torn from her shoulders as she walks a
city pavement, the teenagers speeding away in their car hooting laughter. The
man who watches his charred motel, life’s earnings gone, the smoke curling in a
hieroglyph that reads arson…I know there are other stories, numerous beyond
counting, unreported, unwritten, hanging bitter and brown as smog in America’s
air” (Divakaruni, 172-173). But the film is devoid of any such issues and thus
fails to do justice to the various problems of the immigrants that are so
deftly racked up in the novel. It is as though the film remains insensitive to
the racial problems and deliberate in being mute about the issues.

Tilo’s spice shop is
depicted as a microcosm of India and the spices can be the spiritual
ingredients that can heal the ills of the Western world. the magic realism which
is so central to the novel is absent in the cinema and spices are presented as
exotic and mystical but stand devoid of all the connotations and the subversive
power given to them by the author. The film thus emerges as a superficial
inter-racial love story and all other significant elements that enrich the
novel are eliminated from its celluloid presentation leaving the audience with
a taste of glitz and glamour of the heroine and the passion of her love for

            Finally the novel too ends differently
from the way the film ends. In the novel Tilo decides chastisement for disobeying
the dictates of the Old One. The earthquake then follows, destroying everything
and Tilo, now bereft of the power of spices takes on a new name “Maya”:
“Illusion, spell, enchantment, the power that keeps this imperfect world going
day after day. I need a name like that, I who now have only myself to hold me
up” (Divakaruni, 317). Thus the ending of the novel is optimistic, upholds multiculturalism
and envisions a world where the marginalised communities co-exist with the
powerful people with their shared knowledge of ancient wisdom. Compared to the
metaphorical significance of the novel, the film ends in an insignificant way
where after the earthquake; Tilo is shown to continue as the mistress of spices
in her shop and also pursue her personal life with Doug giving a feel of a
typical Bollywood entertainer where all is well that ends well. The East-West
amalgamation and the celebration of Indian ways of life make it a special
cinema about the diasporic community contributing to world cinema yet another
cultural feast.




Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. The Mistress of
Spices. London: Black Swan, 1997. Print.

Rajyashree and Shweta Rao. India on a Platter: A Study of Gurinder Chadha and
Paul Mayeda Berges? Cinematic Adaptation of The Mistress of Spices. Web. 5 Jan

 Cinematic Text: The Mistress of Spices.
Directed by Paul Mayeda Berges. Screenplay: Gurinder Chadha. Cast: Aishwarya
Rai, Dylan McDermott and Anupam Kher. Entertainment Films, 2005.


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