‘A part of me feels Punjabi’

Paul Mayeda Berges, husband of director Gurinder Chadha, admits in a chat with Subhash K. Jha that he was initially sceptical about Aishwarya Rai playing the main lead—Tilo— in his directorial debut Mistress Of Spices.

A still from Mistress Of Spices
A still from Mistress Of Spices

Mistress Of Spices is a very Indian story. How Indian are you?

I very much feel like a citizen of the world. I am very close to Gurinder and her family, so a part of me feels Punjabi. The world is such a small place. I feel as Japanese as I feel Indian. That multi-culturalism comes across in all our films.

Mistress Of Spices is set almost entirely in San Francisco. That’s a city where I have spent a lot of my years. For Gurinder and me, embracing a multiplicity of cultures is very natural. I don’t get alarmed by it, only excited.

You must have butterflies in your stomach?

I really am excited. We are premiering Mistress... at the Toronto Film Festival in September. I had loads of fun making it. Even though it was a difficult subject, I never felt the burden because I worked with people like my wife. You must remember Gurinder and I wrote many of her films together.

Did your writing collaboration with Gurinder train you for direction?

Oh absolutely! I learnt a lot during all the films that we wrote. I always used to supervise the second unit of Gurinder’s films. That was such an education.

I don’t feel I made Mistress... separately from her. We wrote the script together. We both read the book nine years ago and fell in love with it. It is a very sensuous tale.

Have you made the film in close collaboration with the author Chitra Divakaruni?

She is a wonderful writer. We wrote the first part of the script in her house in San Francisco bay. Our film is very faithful to the novel.

Obviously, you have to condense things. But since we liked the novel so much, we tried to stick very close to it.

I’m dying to see Black, says Paul Berges (left)
I’m dying to see Black, says Paul Berges (left)

Was Aishwarya your first choice?

I am not just saying this, but she has done a tremendous job. When we were making Bride & Prejudice with her, we enjoyed working with her so much that we began wondering how she’d look playing Tilo. At first I was sceptical. But when she read the part, I was amazed at how she responded.

To her credit, from day one she had a strong sense of who Tilo was. She jumped right into the character and embraced it. I think she shows a very different side to her talent and beauty in Mistress Of Spices. I am very proud of her.

Do you think your film and Jagmohan Mundra’s Provoked will get her recognition abroad beyond Bride & Prejudice?

I think she is growing all the time. She has lots of sides to her. With every character, she is showing new colours. With Bride & Prejudice she got recognised in countries where Hindi cinema isn’t seen so much. But because the language of Bride... tried to combine the Bollywood musical with international style, it was partially a Bollywood experience.

What Mistress... should do is to introduce Aishwarya to an even wider audience. This is a very universal, magical story.

How have you put the novel’s enigma on screen?

We have tried to retain the magic surrealism. Our cinematographer Santosh Sivan is an absolute magician. We had a lot of fun planning the look and feel for the film. We wanted the flavours of the spices to leap off the screen.

I desisted from putting in lots of special effects. That would only distract from the film. Santosh helped me to make the film magical without resorting to gimmicks. To bring Tilo’s world of spices alive, we had to work on the magic without losing out on realism.

What next?

I’m too taken up with Mistress... to think about anything. I just want to bring this one out and then decide. But yes, Gurinder and I may work separately, too. She is working on some projects in Los Angeles on her own.

I think that is great. We do have a strong connection when we write together. And we’ll always do that as well.

Some cynics would say she ghost-directed Mistress Of Spices?

I am not worried about that. We always work so closely together. We wrote Mistress... together and she is the film’s producer. Her energy level is always a big help on the sets. She is warm and alive.

I’d never try to underplay the fact that I have learnt a great deal from Gurinder and that I respect her tremendously as a director. You never know where the contribution of one crewmember ends and the other’s begins. I love working with Santosh, Ash and Gurinder. The last film we made had a big impact.

How do you think diehard Bollywood addicts would react to Mistress Of Spices?

They’d love it, though it doesn’t have songs. These days a lot of song-less films are being made in India. I am dying to see Black. The more genres there are, the healthier it is for the entire industry. —  IANS