Coming home from college can be a bumpy experience even for the best of students. And in “India Sweets and Spices,” straight-A scholar Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali, “Grey’s Anatomy”), gets no summer break from her family’s party circuit, a weekly fancy soiree hosted by different wealthy members of Ruby Hill’s Indian and Indian American community. It is a form of socializing with proverbial knives out as friends, family and aunties pass judgment on other attendees.
However, this summer is not going to be like previous party seasons for Alia. First, she invites the new working-class family who runs the local Indian grocery store to the formal events, with the intent of chatting up their handsome son, Varun (Rish Shah, “To All the Boys: Always and Forever”). It’s a class clash that shows how rarified the wealthiest circles of their community have become, but it also leads Alia to find out something shocking about her mother, Sheila (Manisha Koirala): The seemingly perfect housewife who lunches with other judgmental matriarchs and chides her daughter for her appearance was once a staunch feminist in India, who fought for what Alia believes in now.
The movie’s headstrong heroine must also confront another uncomfortable secret she learns about her dad Ranjit (Adil Hussain, “Life of Pi”) at a party, plus deal with mean-girl rumors about her and a former flame, Rahul (Ved Sapru), a fellow rich kid she’s not that into anymore.
Written and directed by Geeta Malik, “India Sweets and Spices” is a heartfelt family dramedy about no longer tolerating hurtful pasts and calling out hypocrisy. Malik’s second feature is somewhat of a spiritual successor to her debut, “Troublemaker,” in which a young woman who does not behave according to traditional expectations — much like Alia — tries to find her absentee father on a road trip with her best friend. In “India Sweets and Spices,” Alia’s first order of business is to confront her father about his extramarital affair, challenging the norm of her traditionally patriarchal household. Yet, she’s also frustrated by her mother, who is more concerned about quieting dissent in her home than dealing with the pain and shame her husband’s actions have caused her.
Malik’s script carries some Jane Austen–like elements of issues around class and social order. Alia and Varun’s relationship is a reverse set-up of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, with Alia being a member of the privileged class who can go to college without worrying about money while Varun had to start at a community college and work his way up.
Costume designer Whitney Anne Adams (“Freaky”) provides visual cues that Varun’s family is looked down upon, from his father wearing traditional clothes instead of the tailored western suits of the other men at the parties to his mother’s saris, which do not ostentatiously glitter and gleam like the bedazzled ensembles of her moneyed counterparts. And as with any good rom-com, there’s more than class differences at work here; competing romantic interests, jealousy and rumors also threaten to tear Varun and Alia apart.
However, “India Sweets and Spices” — and thankfully, Alia’s interests — extend far beyond romance. It’s also about the generational and ideological turmoil bubbling up in the Kapur household. Through Alia and Sheila’s arguments, Malik questions conformity, societal expectations, and how those pressures have been used to silence women for generations. The threat of causing a scandal and setting off a flood of gossip is treated like a fate worse than death.
In revealing more painful truths about the family’s past, Malik acknowledges the struggles of previous generations of Indian feminists and what it cost many of them. But in Alia’s story, there is hope; in Sheila’s, there is the idea that it’s never too late to reject conformity and the patriarchy.
As Alia, Ali brings a spirited performance to her passionate yet imperfect character. The college student is not above making mistakes, big and small. Yet she defends her mother, even when they’re at odds. Alia is exasperated by the fake pleasantries of her hometown’s mixers but knows how to survive the hostile pointed questions and comments.
“India Sweets and Spices” works so well in part because Ali gives her character the authenticity of someone trying to do the right thing while still figuring out how to handle her privilege and tradition. Her internal tug-of-war may be familiar to many first- and second-generation children of immigrants, and Malik’s film makes that uneasy struggle into a poignant yet delightful journey of self-discovery.
“India Sweets and Spices” opens in US theaters Nov. 19.