Before she begins her sophomore year at UCLA, Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) returns home for the summer break. Home is Ruby Hill, the affluent burbs of New Jersey where the Indian-American community converges every weekend for some party or function. Playing host are a revolving door of golfing uncles and gossiping aunties.
Beneath their paper-thin veneer of propriety lies secrets and scandals waiting to be uncovered. When Alia learns a long-buried truth about her own mother (Manisha Koirala) and father (Adil Hussain), it upends the Kapur household before it does the whole neighbourhood.
Geeta Malik’s India Sweets and Spices is a flavourful, if not nutritious, take on a familiar story about generational dynamics. The colour, the costumes, and the cast led by a delightful Sophia Ali make for savoury ingredients. There are in-jokes too. Call it meta-masala.
At one point, Koirala’s entrance at a party is soundtracked to Sheila Ki Jawani. Perhaps it’s less a coincidence of her character being named Sheila, more the song dictating the name choice.
No summer movie is complete without romance of course. For Alia, it comes in the personable form of Varun Dutta (Rish Shah), the son of the titular grocery store’s new owner. Malik deliberately frames the first encounter in the most Bollywood fashion: Alia’s hair blows in the wind even though she’s indoors. To befriend Varun and introduce his family to the neighbourhood, Alia invites them to her parents’ upcoming party.
Only, being shopkeepers, the Duttas are given the cold shoulder. You can’t venture into the thicket of Indian-American high society and not be witness to bigotry. Even Sheila, who turns out to be an old college friend of Varun’s mom Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta), sneers at them.
Telling the story through the Duttas’ perspective could have allowed for a more layered study of the Indian-American experience, akin to the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.
But employing Karan Johar grammar doesn’t give Malik the room to critically engage with the class prejudices rampant in the diaspora. Though she doesn’t gloss over the truth to these issues of prejudice and misogyny which follow the Indian community to every country they migrate to, the critique isn’t as sharp or pointed.
While the parents grapple with the identity of having lived in two spheres by holding onto prescribed roles and status, the children of the first-generation struggle to reconcile the two cultures.
For the so-called American-Born Confused Desis (ABCD), the teens become a difficult phase of transition between yielding to traditional expectations and adjusting to a new value system. If their parents chose to resist the influence of American culture, the children are caught between accepting tradition and deviating from it.
Alia is at a critical juncture where she must decide the parts of her Indian identity she must prize and those she must reject. She refuses to give in to tradition — like her mom was forced to do — if it means compromising her own individual happiness.
Nearly every film about the Indian diaspora experience delimits itself with certain stereotypes to make it palatable for global audiences. Everyone has attended the 101 on arranged marriages and meddlesome aunties. Surely, it’s time to move on to the intermediate class. Which is what India Sweets and Spices tries to do when it isn’t distracted by KJo-isms.
Of which, there are plenty. Beware of the twin Poos. Adding to the old recipe of young love is a Rahul to complete the love triangle. The story told is of KJo staple: upper-class Indians. Alia’s posh life speaks not to the coming-of-age experiences of a wide cross-section of young Indians/Indian-Americans but only to those who grew up with manicured gardens, outdoor pools and personal credit cards.
There’s an in-built conflict between the film’s sugar-coated depiction of the Indian-American experience, and its cultural specificities. If the first two courses of the film go down easily thanks mostly to Ali’s peppery zest, you start to feel overstuffed by the time the dessert arrives.
Even if a lot of the characters are broadly drawn, they still retain some element of truth. Uncles are adarshvaadi and only come into their element when a few drinks in, Beedi Jalaile begins booming from the speakers. Aunties, or “sari-wearing zombies” as a character describes them, are Potemkin characters who exist to conform to certain conventions to the point of self-parody.
Their diasporic counterparts too are portrayed as gossip-mongers, and when a particularly obnoxious one pries into Alia’s wedding prospects once too many, she gives the fitting finger. Ali carries us along with Alia’s moods and thoughts, locating the emotional truth to modern-day Indians manoeuvring through the cultural divide. She boasts a natural screen presence that bodes well for a hopefully long career.
Another KJo trope — tunnel vision for the sake of drama — comes into play when Alia confronts her father about his infidelity, where (her mother) the one person she doesn’t want hearing about it is actually hidden in the frame but standing within earshot. Only, it’s no secret. Sheila already knows about Ranjit’s numerous affairs, but has simply grown not to care.
She is trapped with a chronically unfaithful husband in a marriage she can’t get out of because divorce is frowned upon in Indian society. It’s why so many women continue to stay in unhappy marriages: to avoid invasive questions from relatives and not bring ‘disrepute’ to the family.
Sheila was once a part of the 'Society for Women’s Equality' with Bhairavi at Miranda House, where they protested the increasing cases of sexual violence against women in Delhi. But when a protest-gone-wrong ends with possible jail time, Sheila’s uncle intervened on her sickly mother’s behalf, marrying her to Ranjit before shipping her off to the US.
These circumstances shine a light on how the patriarchy forces even the most fiercely intelligent women to compromise their ideals. Koirala serves a measured performance of a woman who has had to repress and internalise her pain throughout her married life.
Pulsing underneath the film is a mother-daughter conflict which drives the film’s tension. Its heart ultimately emerges in their reconciliation. Ali and Koirala’s changing relationship dynamics make for the most memorable aspect of the film.
Shaving the head becomes a way to reject the patriarchy, a feminist fist-pump to take ownership in a dramatic way. Like her mom did as a college student, Alia goes bald in the film’s climactic moment to remind her mom of the badass she once was. It’s an easy exit which feels unearned however.
There is an authenticity to Ali’s portrayal of a young woman still trying to come to terms with what feminism means beyond T-shirts, performative gestures and an 'equal opportunity to get shit-faced'. Her naivety is on display when she defends herself against allegations of superficiality with the plea that she “watches documentaries, goes to spoken word, and uses organic chapstick."
Stumbling along the way and learning from her mistakes is how Alia actually starts to grow — and grow bolder — as a person. The biggest battle she wins comes at the end, as she takes a stand against the hypocritical judgments and regressive mindsets of a community which has made a habit of poking its nose where it doesn’t belong. That is its sweetest and spiciest moment.
India Sweets and Spices was part of the Spotlight Narrative section at Tribeca Festival, which runs from 9-19 June this year.