Near the end of “India Sweets and Spices,” the film’s protagonist, Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) commits a shocking act of rebellion in front of the guests at her parents’ anniversary party. It’s the kind of scene you fantasize about making on the drive home from a regrettable social interaction – or, in Geeta Malik’s case, several years after one.
“There’s a little bit of wish fulfillment,” the writer-director admitted, with a laugh, in an interview with TheWrap. “Confrontation, talking back to the aunties – I never did that stuff. So a lot of it is my voice coming out through [Alia’s] mouth.”
The story kicks off when Alia returns home from her freshman year of college, fancying herself a little older and wiser than she actually is. She’s reluctant to trade her independence for the gossiping aunties and status-obsessed uncles of the wealthy suburb where she grew up now that she’s gotten a taste of the world beyond it.
Malik’s second feature film (her first, “Troublemaker,” came out in 2011) hits close to home in more ways than one. Like her heroine, Malik is a first-generation Indian American who was raised in a tight-knit immigrant community. Ruby Hill, the fictional New Jersey enclave where the film takes place, stands in for her hometown of Aurora, Colorado.
In 2011, she began working on the screenplay, which was originally titled “Dinner With Friends.” It would go on to win Malik an Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting and Austin Film Festival’s award for Best Comedy Feature in 2016. Bleecker Street then landed the film after it played this year at Tribeca Film Festival, San Diego Asian Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival.
Malik’s first draft drew primarily from the dinner parties and dynamic community that colored her childhood. “I just wanted to poke a little bit of fun and do a satirical comedy about that whole [experience],” she recalled.
But the project began to take a different shape after Malik gave birth to her two children, changing the way she viewed the characters she had created.
“When I initially wrote it, I came at it from the perspective of the teen, of Alia, because that felt more familiar to me,” she said. “Once I became a mom, I was a lot more interested in [the parents’] generation, in Sheila, and what she may have left behind.”
In her daughter’s eyes, Sheila (Manisha Koirala) is the “queen of Ruby Hill,” a socialite and stay-at-home mom who serves her place in a patriarchal society without question or complaint. But behind her well-manicured appearance, Sheila struggles with her marriage to Alia’s father, Ranjit (Adil Hussain) and her secret past as a feminist activist in India.
For much of the film, Alia fails to realize that her journey “could have been very similar to her mom’s,” Malik explained. “[Sheila] was also a young, angry, vital woman and things changed for her. I wanted to really explore that in more depth.”
Refocusing the film through an intergenerational lens elevated it from a comedy to a coming-of-age tale that weaves in elements of drama, romance and Bollywood. Tying it all together is a string of lavish parties animated by bright-hued saris and sizzling platters of food.
While a loving portrait of the culture Malik was immersed in growing up, “India Sweets and Spices” doesn’t shy away from exploring prejudices within Indian society. Alia learns about this firsthand when she invites the middle-class family who runs the local grocery store to one of her family’s social functions. With their tupperwares and well-worn clothes, the Duttas stick out like sore thumbs among the partygoers accessorized with Rolexes and crystal tumblers of brandy.
Malik said class stratification was something she was aware of in her own community, but didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate until she was older.
“There are so many stereotypes that exist about South Asian people,” Malik told TheWrap. “I wanted to show that we’re not all wealthy cardiologists, we’re not all 7-Eleven workers. There’s interplay between these groups of people.”
When it comes to subverting stereotypes, Malik’s weapon of choice is humor. Some of the film’s brightest moments owe to her crackling dialogue, as well as her caricatures of the Indian American upper class. There’s plenty of laughs to be had when the uncles slam the doors of their identical Mercedes in slow-motion or clusters of women shoot judgmental looks at each others’ outfits.
“When I was poking fun at the community, it was very much authentic to what I experienced,” Malik said. “Exaggerated, a little cartoony, but that one-upmanship was certainly there.”
“We start with these caricatures and these clichés, and I hope that by the end, we understand that these [characters] are more grounded, that they’re human,” she continued. “[I hope] that when people do watch it, they understand that I was trying to subvert those [stereotypes] and not just play into them for laughs only.”
While “India Sweets and Spices” follows in the footsteps of filmmakers like Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding” was a big inspiration), Malik said she’s ready to move beyond the double consciousness narratives that cinema has popularized over the last 20 years.
“Films like ‘American Desi’ and ‘ABCD: American-Born Confused Desi’ and ‘American Chai’ were awesome [because] they finally spoke to the Indian American experience,” she said. “But they were very much [about] ‘How do I be Indian and how do I be American? And how do those two worlds meet?’”
Through Alia, Malik seeks to carry the baton for a new generation of South Asian viewers who are more comfortable navigating hybrid identities.
“It’s not this [question of] ‘How do I be myself, but also be Indian?’ She’s very much both,” Malik said. “I wanted it to feel more like a girl leaving home and then coming back home to that small town.”
Given the weighty expectations that often come with representing one’s culture, Malik said she understands her film may not resonate with everyone.
“If certain Indians get really angry, and say, ‘That’s not my reality,’ I’ll say, ‘I totally get it, I’m not trying to tell your reality. I’m telling the reality of how I grew up and my authentic representation.’”
Whether they like it or not, Malik said she hopes “India Sweets and Spices” inspires people to add their voices to the mix. “The more of us that are making films about our experiences, the more of these stories will get told, and it won’t all be the same story,” she said.
“India Sweets and Spices” is now playing exclusively in theaters.