- Coinciding with the film’s Nov. 19 theatrical release of the coming-of-age film, the director discusses its genesis and her experiences making the critically acclaimed film.
Coming-of-age stories have always appealed to Geeta Malik, mainly because of the transformation that happens. And it’s no surprise that her latest film, “India Sweets and Spices” explores the theme. Written and directed by Malik, the film, starring Sophia Ali, Manisha Koirala, Adil Hussain, Rish Shah, Deepti Gupta, and Ved Sapru, is opening in theaters today, Nov. 19.
It revolves around Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali), who returns to her family’s posh suburban New Jersey home after a year away at college and upends their well-ordered life with her brash independence. After befriending Varun (Rish Shah), the handsome son of the new owners of the local Indian grocery, she invites his family to a dinner party where family secrets are revealed. Alia’s surprise turns to rebellion when she uncovers secrets about both her parents that push her toward a daring and ultimately hilarious confrontation.
Malik, a Film Independent Project Involve Fellow, is an alumna of UCLA’s graduate film program. She wrote and directed the viral narrative short, “Aunty Gs,” which earned a College Television Award in comedy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Her other short films include “Shameless,” “Beast,” and “Apu’s Revenge.” Her first feature, “Troublemaker,” premiered at the 2011 Cinequest Film Festival.
She spoke to American Kahani via Zoom, about the film, its genesis, its journey and her expectations from its theatrical release.
“India Sweets and Spices” began as a coming-of-age story of just Alia — “the teenager who goes to school and comes back — and sees her community and her parents in a different light,” Malik notes. But then it also became a story of Sheela’s (Manisha Koirala) coming-of-age. “And I got really interested in telling that story,” Malik says. “We have seen the young person come of age, what about a young person whose journey was stopped in the middle? Can she come back to that person she was?”
What developed were two simultaneous plots — one which explores the mother-daughter relationship, between Alia and her mother Sheela; and the other which delves into Sheela’s past as a young, rebellious woman growing up in India and her friendship with Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta).
However, it didn’t start out that way. It began as “just as a comedy poking fun of the community a little bit,” Malik says, and was based on her own experiences growing up “in what felt like a very judgmental community, going to these dinner parties and having these aunties talk to me and having these uncles boasting to each other.” So initially, she just wanted to set the movie in those parties and to showcase that side of it. “In the beginning, it was just a comedy, it was more about the triangle with the kids, it was more about class differences and these parties.”
Malik’s perspective about the film changed after she herself became a mother. “After I had kids, I became far more interested in the mother’s story, being a mother myself. I was like — what I am to these children? What was I before these children? And can I maintain that identity as they get older and as I get older? That’s where that came from?”
Class plays a significant role in “India Sweets and Spices” and that has also been drawn from Malik’s experiences growing up and noticing the differences between the standard of living of the families whose house she went for parties with her parents. “I think I noticed that subconsciously as a kid and very much more consciously as a teen,” she recalls, “especially when I would go with my mom to the local grocery store and shop with her.” Although her mom was really good friends with the shop owner and she knew their kids, “they never came to these parties, they were not just invited, there was no communication that way.”
Malik has bought out these class divides in the film — sometimes subtly and other times blatantly — especially at the several party scenes that form the crux of the story. It is through these parties the audience is introduced to most characters, their lives, their secrets.
The casting of the film was bang on and the camaraderie between characters was evident in every frame. Malik was keen on casting actors from Bollywood for the role of Alia’s parents and was thrilled when she could cast Koirala and Hussain. “Working with Adil and Manisha was a dream come true,” she says. “They were amazing.”
But before the shoot began, Malik admits to being a little nervous and wasn’t sure what to expect on the set. But she was immediately revealed as they were “such chill people, very genuinely warm, kind human beings, and it made everything so easy… They immediately mixed with the other cast; and Hussain cooked for us half the time, he would bring food to the set. Manisha and Sophia had a nice rapport and that really comes out on screen and it does come across in the way we speak about the film. Because it felt like a genuinely warm set and that’s what you can ask for.”
Explaining her rationale behind casting Bollywood actors, Malik says because she knew the level of talent that’s there and she wanted someone who could portray the roles the way she wanted. “There is a wonderful selection of actors here as well but the fact that these characters were from India anyway. If they were supposed to be Indian American characters, I would’ve looked a lot more close to the pool of talent here.”
Malik is grateful for the successful run the film has had in the festival circuit, and is looking forward to its theatrical run. “I love film festivals, that’s where I cut my teeth, that’s where I got showcased,” she says, adding that she’s “grateful to those programmers and the audience that came to support us because as indie filmmakers, especially those who are working with people of color.”
She hopes that the audience of all backgrounds and ages can relate to the story of Alia, Sheela and Bhairavi. “For me, the central message of the film is this idea that even if your life is interrupted by something, you can always come back to who you were.” She also wants the audience to note how the Indian American community has been shown as coming together in a positive way and not tearing each other down. I hope people will take from this film as well,” she says. “Also this idea that you can have really nurturing friendships like Sheela and Bhairavi, and you can always come back to who you were, you can let all the other stuff go, all the pressures, you can just stop playing the game and really be who you are. And I hope people feel uplifted by that idea.”