Writer and Director: Geeta Malik
Geeta Malik’s screenplay for India Sweets and Spices, which she also directs, draws from her experience growing up in a wealthy, tight-knit Indian American community. Central character Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) is at UCLA, Malik’s Alma Mater. The film opens with an end-of-year party: the Social Justice Social where Alia thanks her friends for their support. It’s a good-natured affair, and the group members are suitably diverse, but what they have been doing to promote social justice, other than fund-raising money at bake sales, is left vague. A blonde friend confides in Alia that she dreads going home to her Texan relatives. You might think, perhaps, that she’s started to question her family’s Republican values, for instance. It’s just the pressure she feels to look right: have big hair and nails. Alia says it’s even worse in Ruby Hill, New Jersey, where her mother and gossiping Aunties only care about looks and who Alia might marry. Impulsively Alia cuts her Texan friend’s hair and then her own. It’s a hardly a defiant political statement – more an attempt to annoy their mothers.
The rest of the film takes place in the identically spiffy mansions of Ruby Hill amongst interchangeably glossy Indian American families. It’s an oddly sterile place. There appears to be no one from another social or ethnic background: there’s not even a maid or gardener to be seen. The weight of the film rests on the only family of a lower social class: the likeable Duttas, Bhairavi and Kamlesh (sympathetically played by Deepti Gupta and Kamran Shaikh) and their dishy son, Varun (Rish Shah). The Duttas have taken over the local store, the eponymous India Sweets and Spices. It’s meet cute time, as Alia and Varun lock eyes. Varun reveals he is transferring to UCLA, so he’s hardly wrong side of the tracks. Alia impulsively invites the Duttas to a party at her parents: the snobbish Sheila and Ranjut Kapur (Manisha Koirala and Adil Hussain). Predictably, it’s a disaster.
Handsome and socially approved Rahul (Ved Sapru ) is constantly around, but he’s a flirt and looks set to become a philanderer like so many of the husbands. Meanwhile Alia’s relationship with Varun develops fast after some truly dreadful dialogue in the vegetable aisle about juicy tomatoes and big cucumbers. Later there’s a tiny tug of tension when someone tries to split them up by showing Varun a photo of Alia embracing Ranjut, but the film makes clear that all will be well. Meanwhile dinner party follows dinner party with little variation.
The only real dramas are firstly Alia spotting her father in the arms of another woman, and then Bhairavi Dutta recognising Sheila Kapur as her old university friend. Sheila tries to blank her but eventually a big secret is revealed: Sheila was once an ardent political activist too! Whether she also ran bake sales is not discussed, but she once cut her hair off as an anti-patriarchal gesture! Then follows quite a lot of exposition so that we can see how Sheila went from politically woke to dutiful housewife. “It was too hard to keep on fighting,” is her explanation to her daughter.
“I’m not superficial!” Alia later insists to Varun. ” I watch documentaries.” With this level of irony-free dialogue there is really very little to engage us with these two-dimensional characters, united by their sense of entitlement. Malik’s deliberate avoidance of any political angle, any real sense of the characters’ complex cultural backgrounds leaves India Sweets and Spices no more than a shallow, superficial concoction.
India Sweets and Spices is released in UK Cinemas on 2 December.