Gurinder Chadha and her co-writer and now director of their first joint venture, Paul Mayeda Berges, have made memorable films that have been based on the conflicts and drama in the lives of Asian subcontinent people living in foreign countries, trying to come to terms with the conflict that arises when their new found aspirations and desires clash with the pressures of tradition that follows their lives in the form of values and beliefs of the elders. And The Mistress of Spices is yet another sensitive walk on basically the same path.
Tilo (Aishwarya Rai) is an ethereally beautiful spice bazaar keeper ostensibly an owner of a Spice Shop in San Francisco, but actually a Mistress of Spices. You've got to accept this premise before you sink your teeth into this story. You see, Tilo isn't just any ordinary shopkeeper, she's got a mission in life. To help people out with the help of spices, which represent the oldest Asian tradition and therefore values. Tilo is supposed to help them as they try without realizing it, to keep their values alive.
OK, coming back to Tilo, she belongs to a group of handpicked and apparently destitute but gifted and sensitive girls whom an old and wizened First Mother (Zohra Sehgal) had taken under her care. Ever since she was born to poor parents in a remote village, Tilo was blessed with clairvoyance and the ability to see and sense things others couldn't. Her fame spread to bandits, who killed her parents to abduct her for their own benefit, but Tilo escaped and was literally thrown by the sea at the feet of the First Mother, who included her among her wards to be trained as a mistress of spices, blessed with special powers to sense what ails people with a unique ability to peep into their past and their future. But for these startling powers to work, each Mistress of Spices must obey three rules: use the spices only for others, never touch another human's skin, and never leave her store.
And there's Tilo, helping people. All of whom happen to be immigrants in an alien land. A colored boxer who wants a spice that will help him find true love; a young Sikh immigrant Jagjit, who's been bullied by the white students in his school; a Kashmiri illegal alien Haroun who moved to America chasing the American Dream but is working for an Indian nightmare as a chauffer for a boss who treats him like dirt, and dadaji (Anupam Kher) who's hassled by his grand daughter's ways and ultimately faces the biggest crisis of his life when she announces she's marrying a Chicano!
Their dilemmas unfold even as Tilo's own dilemma does, for, in spite of being warned against it, the attractive Tilo is herself drawn to a handsome young American, Doug (Dylan McDermott) who too is attracted to her from the first glance. A bike skid outside the spice bazaar has Tilo calling him inside to help him with a poultice of spices, and before long, the two are drawn close to each other. The graph of the attraction is palpable and sensitively handled, and before long, Tilo breaks the first rule when, despite the red chillies warning her to avoid Doug, and in spite of knowing that Doug's spice is asafetida (hing), the antidote for love, she starts using the spices for her own benefit, just to ensure he returns to her. She can sense he is involved with someone else, who too, incidentally comes to her shop for help with spices that will rekindle Doug's waning interest in her. But in everything Tilo does that's related to Doug, she listens to her heart that now beats for Doug, and not her mind and the spices that keep warning her to refrain. Before long, they touch hands, and the second cardinal rule too is broken! And then swept away by her heart, she pleads with the spices to let her break the rules for just one night with Doug.
The spices get back at Tilo by punishing th