To begin with, I was a bit skeptical. Two things made it so. First, the very story- a girl who can talk to spices. And second, Aishwarya Rai. So I was quite curious to see what the effect would be, and I was not much surprised.
Rai is the title character, having learned her craft of divining the most suitable spice for a particular person based on her clairvoyance and her communication with the said spices. A kind of 'doctor', if you will. Background? She was kidnapped as a child, and while she was being borne off by her captors on a boat, she escaped and was washed up on a beach where she met an old lady who was known as the First Mother. This old lady (Zohra Sehgal, no less) teaches her and a bunch of other young girls all they need to be Mistresses of Spices. They are then dispatched to all major cities of the world to spread their healing powers and our heroine lands in San Fransisco.
She is named Tilo- after 'til', or sesame. Now all grown up, Tilo runs a store and dispenses kindness and spice mixtures to her mostly American customers. All is going well- Tilo is draped in pale sarees and has a sugar-tipped accent that barely betrays her Indian origins while she goes about bettering many lives. Then, one day, she spots a handsome (and I do mean handsome- it's Dylan Mc Dermott and his damned blue eyes) man outside her store. Uh oh!
But why is this a problem? Because the First Mother had warned her about the three strict rules of her trade- one, never to leave the store; two, to never touch another human's skin, and three, never to use the spices for her own desires. See how this poses a giant hurdle to Tilo getting with dreamy-guy-across the street? Comically, the red chillies in her store try to warn her of impending disaster. Alas, the plot leads the guy, Doug, into falling off from his bike and, bleeding hand and all, he arrives at Tilo's imaginatively-named Spice Bazaar.
This is where the full human-doe effect of Rai comes even more into play. Her pale, wide eyes, dewy lips and coy diction are further enhanced by relentless close-ups. The poor man Doug doesn't stand a chance. He's smitten. And who wouldn't be? Poor Rai, too. She is so ethereally beautiful that any performance she tries to squeeze out fades into the background.
Well then, suffice it to say that these two embark on what has to be among the most tepid love affairs one has seen on screen. Doug shares with her the story of his mother, a sub-plot that comes off as a bit weird. He also breaks it off with his current girlfriend because he's becoming besotted with the translucent, untouchable Tilo. But meanwhile, things start going wrong for Tilo, she stepping dangerously close to breaking the cardinal rules. Her spices start having disastrous effects on her patrons. At the end, she chooses to go back to the spices, abandoning Doug and her own desires. But there's a twist in the tale and all ends well.
Anupam Kher puts in a nice act as a grumpy traditional grandfather. Padma Lakshmi makes one unintentionally hilarious appearance as his granddaughter in an eye-popping pink shirt. The other cast members are ok- there is one sweet taxi-driver who insists on calling Tilo "lady-jaan", a title I've never heard in my life. Is it a Pakistani thing, I wonder. Ayesha Dharker is wasted as his neighbor and eventual fiancee.
Ultimately, the movie is undone by Rai's coyness and the desperate lack of chemistry with her hero. He, on his part, tries manfully to inject some passion into the proceedings. But what could he do? He doesn't even get to kiss her in the one half-hearted love scene. Also, Rai talking breathily with the spices, saying things like "thank you, spices!" is a bit of a mood-kill. The basic premise was an interesting concept, intriguing, even, but just did not translate well into film.