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    Interview: With director of the Mistress Of Spices, Paul Mayeda Berges

    [Interview by Aanjo P C]
    Wednesday, April 26, 2006
    THE MISTRESS OF SPICES is Paul''s feature directorial debut. It is the fourth film he has co-written with his partner Gurinder Chadha. Paul is the former Director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. He has made documentaries on the Japanese American community and taught film production to high school students. He was born in Los Angeles and studied film at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

    Excerpts from the interview:

    In your own words, pls give us a very brief synopsis of The Mistress of Spices, so it can put the film in perspective and help our users appreciate the remainder of the interview better.

    The film is about TILO (played by Aishwarya Rai), a woman who runs a spice store in San Francisco. It's a magical, romantic film about how TILO lives her life for the Spices, which represent tradition. TILO gives her customers Spices to help them with their problems and everything is fine until she starts falling in love with DOUG (played by Dylan McDermott). It's an immigrant's tale about how we all try to keep the magic of our homeland alive as we move to another country.

    Mistress of Spices is based on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's novel, which you and Gurinder read way back in 1997 and decided to translate into a film. What took the film so long?

    Every film we've ever made has taken a long time because it's important to get all the elements right for a film - the script, casting, finance, etc. Chitra's book stayed with us over those years and we've always been passionate about making the film because it's such a unique way of telling a story about roots, traditions and the way that cultures influence each other.

    You also involved Chitra in the process of turning it into a screenplay. What was that process like?

    Chitra is a wonderful writer and a truly lovely person. We stayed with her and her family in the Bay Area and had long discussions about how to bring her book to the screen. I lived in San Francisco for many years and I loved the way Chitra captured the rich diversity of the Bay Area and used magic realism in a completely fresh way. Because Gurinder and I loved the characters in the novel it was a nice adaptation to write and Chitra was always very supportive. Chitra and her family saw the film when we premiered it at the Toronto Film Festival and she said some touching things afterwards on stage about how much she enjoyed the film.

    What is it that draws you to themes centred around Indian or oriental ideas? You've also been active with Japanese themes...

    My own background is Japanese American and what inspires me are stories about the way we all live together now. As the world gets smaller people increasingly live in multicultural societies where we are exposed to many other cultural influences around us. I see this as a very exctitng time full of possibilities, not as a negative. One of the things that drew me to The Mistress of Spices is that it shows we all have traditions that we value and hold dear, we all have similar desires. If you can help show people how connected we all are then it makes it difficult to see anyone else as 'different' - cinema is a great opportunity to humanize people.

    Why Ash for the central role, apart from the fact that she's such a beautiful actor?

    When we made 'bride & prejudice' Ash read the script and loved the role of TILO - she just connected with her right away. We talked about the kind of film we wanted to make - a kind of fable with subtle, understated performances. I knew that Ash would show a very different side of herself in this role, a new layer to herself as an actress.

    What was your first and basic brief to Ash about the role?

    Ash had her own strong opinions about who TILO was and they were perfectly in line with my vision of the role. As soon as Ash and Dylan started rehearsing together I could see their chemistry was very strong. My main brief to Ash was to keep it simple, TILO changes subtly over the film as she opens herself up to her new world.

    Has she done justice to the role? What has her performance been like?

    Ash has done an amazing job and people in the UK have been saying it's one of her finest performances. It's a beautiful performance that shines from the inside. I'm pleased that when Ash saw the film she was struck by its beauty and magic - it's something different that audiences haven't seen before.

    Why did you pick Dylan McDermott to play Doug in the lead role opposite Ash?

    I needed a strong American actor who could hold the screen with Ash. Dylan is a fantastic actor and audiences all over the world love him from his award-winning TV series 'The Practice'. He's very masculine and extremely handsome and yet he has this history that he carries on his shoulders. He and Ash really sizzle as their romance builds because they're both vulnerable in their roles - she feels a little suffocated by her roots and he feels completely cut off from his roots.

    I haven't read the original novel, but going by the storyline of your film, a key cathartic role is played by the spices, or the ire of the spices, which are enraged when Tilo breaks the rules she was ordained to live by. How challenging was it depic

    We wanted to turn the Spices into characters because the film is like a love triangle between TILO, DOUG and the Spices. The Spices had to come alive as characters so we wanted to do that both visually and with the music. Santosh Sivan is one of the best cinematographers in the world, his work is absolutely breathtaking, and we spent a lot of time talking about the tone and look for the film. He's shot the Spices in a way where you always feel their presence in the film - they're watching TILO's every move to make sure she doesn't break any of the rules.

    What role does music play in the film? Tell us about the music, and the way it's been used.

    Music is a key to showing how TILO's relationship with the Spices changes as she opens herself up to America. I worked with the composer Craig Pruess, who has done all of Gurinder's films, to give each Spice its own unique instrument. The Spices call out to TILO musically when they want to her to give a particular spice to a customer. As the film moves on the music changes subtly from traditional to more modern, so when TILO gets closer to DOUG and starts to break the rules we've used a song by Bally Sagoo which mixes the old with the new.

    Your third film with Gurinder Chadha, Bride And Prejudice, was the first film ever to open at Number One in the UK and India on the same day. How successful do you believe (and not hope!) The Mistress Of Spices will be with the audiences.

    I'm very happy that our previous films have been so warmly received by audiences around the world and in India. I hope that audiences get to discover The Mistress of Spices and see it as a film which has many of the cultural themes Gurinder and I have explored in the past, but it has a style of storytelling which is totally different. In the UK audiences appreciate that it's a romantic, magical fable - a new way of looking at cultural complexities.

    The Mistress of Spices seems likely to connect with viewers Internationally and in the metro multiplexes in India, and is obviously targeted to such an audience. Do you plan to release it like any big commercial movie with 300-350 prints in India to

    The Mistress of Spices is being released by PVR in India. We wanted the release to be more like 'Bend it like Beckham' - let it be a film that people discover and encourage their friends and family to see because it's something fresh. It's not a commercial formula film - it's an intimate, sensual, film that takes you into a magical world.


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