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Paul Mayeda speaks on Mistress of Spices

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Courtesy: IndiaFM
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Bride and Prejudice had a mega release in India. However Mistress of Spices coming from the same team releases this week in India minus the extra fanfare. Writer-turned-director Paul Mayeda Berges explains the reasons behind the low-key release of the film and also expresses his conviction in the content of the film. Apart from that he also talks of co-writer and wife Gurinder Chadha (director of Bend it like Beckhem and Bride and Prejudice) in high regard.

IndiaFM presents and exclusive conversation with the foreign filmmaker who thinks Indian

After writing 3 films, was direction the obvious step?
I had directed documentaries and short films in the past so I was always excited to direct a feature. Because I'd been writing and directing the 2nd Unit on all of the previous projects with Gurinder, I felt fortunate to have learned so much from Gurinder. It's true that we are married, but aside from that she is a great director who I truly admire and respect artistically.

Mistress of Spices is based on the novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. How did you zero in on the subject?
I lived in San Francisco for many years so when I first read Chitra's book I thought she captured the immigrant experience in the Bay Area beautifully and with a touch of magic that was completely fresh. San Francisco is a vibrant city where cultures are always intersecting and I thought the world of the spices and the characters were very rich. I loved the notion of the spices representing tradition and all the things that we pass on culturally through generations. Gurinder and I stayed with Chitra in her home when we were first adapting the novel so I'm thrilled that Chitra is so happy with the finished film.

Which of these reasons made you choose Aishwarya Rai for the film
a.) the working rapport formed due to Bride and Prejudice
b.) because she was a perfect fit for the character
c.) to attract in the global audience, or
d.) because Aishwarya is a fabulous actress

All of the above! I spent a lot of time with Ash when we were making Bride&Prejudice and when she read the script of Mistress of Spices I was thrilled with her response. She got the character of TILO right away and really connected with her. I'm also pleased that Ash really loves the film because I think it's one of her finest performances - she shows off layers to herself as an actress that people haven't seen before. In terms of the global audience, Gurinder and I always make films for international audiences because that's who we are. With Mistress I think people from all over the world can relate to the film because we all have traditions and values that we hold dear and yet as individuals we also want to be open to the new worlds around us.

Did wife Gurinder Chadha, who also is the co-writer of the film, had some tips and guidance to give to you considering she has directed so many films earlier?
Gurinder was a great support in that. She co-wrote and produced the film. She made sure I had a great team around me and then let me go off and direct the film - she didn't want me to feel like she was looking over my shoulder all the time. Mistress has similar cultural themes to our earlier films but it has a unique storytelling style which she wanted me to put my own signature on. Also Gurinder and my Saas (mother-in-law)made all the pickles in the spice store - so every time I watch the film and see a bottle of achar (pickle) it makes me smile!

Does Mistress of Spices also have the east-meets-west exchange of cultures?
It absolutely does because those cultural exchanges are what really interest me. I love that the customers in the spice shop are so diverse - Punjabi, Bengali, Kashmiri, Indian American, African American, Native American, etc. It's what makes the small world we're living in right now so interesting. I hope that audiences come away from the film remembering how similar we all are, we all have the same desires and we all have traditions that we value. If we remember that then we can no longer look at someone else as 'different'.

Tell us something about Dylan MacDermott
Women love Dylan!!! He's an incredible actor but the first thing women always say when they come out of the film is that he's such a hottie! The first time that Dylan and Ash met and started rehearsing I could see that they had great chemistry and their romance would sizzle on screen. I remember on the first day of shooting Dylan came on set and watched Ash filming a Close-Up. He looked at me and said, wow she's really electric on camera, I'm gonna have to raise my game to share the screen with her.

Apart from Aishwarya, who do you think has an interesting character in the film?
I like that the cast is so international and multi-generational. Nitin Ganatra, Mr. Kohli from Bride&Prejudice, plays a Kashmiri cab driver. The great Anupam Kher plays a Bengali grandfather who fears he's losing his very Indian American grand-daughter, Padma Lakshmi, to America. Zohra Seghal, who is 94-years-old now, plays the First Mother who teaches TILO about the power of spices. Ayesha Dharker plays a newcomer to America who finds unexpected love. And for fans of the TV series LOST, Adewale Agbaje plays a martial arts instructor who's learning to cook Indian food. Adewale is a brilliant Black British actor who will be in the 2nd series of LOST with our old friend Naveen Andrews.

Tell us something about the music of the film
The composer Craig Pruess has done some amazing music for the film because the challenge for us was using the music to make the spices come alive as real characters. Each spice has its own instrument and that is one of the ways they communicate with TILO. Craig's done a beautiful job and there is also one great song by Bally Sagoo, because Gurinder can't be involved in any films without using some music by Bally!

Why the Indian release is kept so low-key?
I wouldn't call it low-key; we just deliberately wanted this to be a film that audiences discover. Since it's a unique film with a different style it's nice to let it build for audiences through word-of-mouth. That's what happened with Bend it like Beckham. Otherwise the danger in over-hyping something too early is that everyone has different expectations. This is a romantic, sensual fable that offers viewers something new. In the UK I'm thrilled with the responses we've been receiving from audiences - we've done lots of Q&A discussions after screenings where people have said they've never seen anything like it, they've appreciated the magical world the film takes you into.

Bend it Like Beckhem was Indianized as 'Football Shootball Hai Rabba', Bride and Prejudice was called 'Balle Balle, Amritsar To LA '... if the Hindi dubbed version of Mistress of Spices has to come out what will it be named as?
We didn't want to make a Hindi dubbed version for the theatrical release because sometimes a dubbed film loses too much in translation - the nuances disappear. This is a film that should be enjoyed in its original language.

How satisfying do you thing your debut as a director has been?
I've had a dream debut because I've worked with such a talented cast&crew on a project that I've been passionate about for years. Santosh Sivan is a national treasure - he's one of the best cinematographers in the world and we had a brilliant time creating the look, tone and color of the film. Also it's incredibly satisfying that Gurinder, Chitra and Ash are so pleased with the film - it feels great.

Does Indian cinema interest you? What in different about Bollywood?
I love all kinds of Indian cinema and think that India is lucky to have such a vibrant film culture with such a long history. Classic Hindi cinema still inspires me but so does parallel cinema and regional cinema (when I get the chance to see it!). India is lucky to have such a wide range of filmmakers working in varied styles on different canvases - from Mani Ratnam and Santosh Sivan to Karan Johar and Adi Chopra. There's so much talent behind and in front of the camera - it should be appreciated.

Which was the last Hindi film that you liked?
I've missed a lot lately because I've been writing and shooting. I really want to see Rang De Basanti because I heard great things about it. The last Hindi film that really popped out for me was Dil Chata Hai - but like I said I've unfortunately missed a lot of films lately that I'm dying to see - I've got lots of catching up to do!

Tell us a little about your next film The Closet
Gurinder and I have written an English language version of the French comedy The Closet, but I'm not sure which film I'll be making next. Gurinder and I have been writing a lot lately and have several projects we're both excited about - they're a mix of films set in the UK, India, and the States. They're all films that we'll both be involved in but you never know the order in which you're going to make them!

Any other films in pipeline either by you or Gurinder Chadha?
We just wrote a script for Paramount Studios adapted from the English novel, 'Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging'. It's a very funny account of 14-year-old girls in England. And of course Gurinder is excited to make DALLAS later this year - she's heading over soon to become a Punjabi cow-girl.

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