India Sweets and Spices  (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Geeta Malik, US, 2021, 101 mins

Cast:  Alia Kapur, Manisha Koirala, Hussain Ranji, Ved Sapru, Rish Shah

Review by Carol Allen

While American films featuring stories about black and Hispanic characters have been around for a very long time, movies featuring Americans of Indian and indeed Far Eastern heritage are comparatively new kids on the block.  One of the first was Short Circuit (1988) but back then the Indian lead role was played by a white actor in “brownface”. 

Now however the Indian Americans are beginning to take their place in the screen culture in such films as Kumail Nanjiani’s romcom The Big Sick and actress Archie Punjabi in tv’s The Good Wife – though Punjabi, like many other now internationally known Indian actors such as Riz Ahmed and Dev Patel is actually British.

India Sweets and Spices is however written and directed by Indian American Geeta Malik, born in Colorado of immigrant parents and apart from its opening scene, where 19 year old Sophia Ali (Alia Kapur) is seen partying with fellow students at the end of her first year in college, all the characters are Indian Americans.

Sophia goes home for the holidays to her family in the New Jersey suburb of Ruby Hill, a totally Indian community of families who have made good in America, live in luxurious mansions and keep up the traditions of their culture while enjoying the advantages of the modern world as well.

At first this looks like being a story of a teenager torn between two worlds and rebelling against the old fashioned values of her parents Sheila and Adil, played by Bollywood stars Manisha Koirala and Hussain Ranji.  Sheila in particular is very much the strict, traditional wife and mother. At first Sophia hangs out with her childhood friend Rahul (Ved Sapru), whom the ever gossiping women of the community expect her to marry, but things change when she meets Varun (Rish Shah), whose parents have just taken over the local Indian supermarket.

Sophia invites her new friends to a lavish party that her parents are hosting.   The women in particular greet the newcomers, who are not in their class of wealth, with condescending snobbery.  But in the course of evening two startling facts emerge.  Varun’s mother Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta) and Sheila turn out to have a shared youthful history and, equally disturbing, Sophia’s father Adil is having an affair with Rahul’s mother.  It is the gradual revelation of the history of Sheila in particular, which provides the dramatic engine for the film. 

It’s a strong story well told.  Kapur as Sophia is both beautiful and engaging.  Director Malik has found two very good looking actors to play the rivals for her hand, and Ranji as her father is also an impressive and handsome presence.  But it is Koirala as Sheila who is the real heart of the story, as the older woman gradually devolves back to the person she once was as her story is revealed.

The film is colourful as a Bollywood movie, particularly in the many party sequences, where the women parade in their rich and multi coloured saris and everyone eats tablefuls of Indian delicacies.

It is also interesting as a social document, demonstrating as it does not only the uniqueness of this traditional Indian American community but also what it has in common with other tight knit communities in other parts of the world – its gossiping older women, snobbery, love of tradition, family values and so on.  The story could take place for example in a Hassidic Jewish community; a Moslem community; in the working class neighbourhoods of England in the fifties, where like in Indian culture female friends of the family who were not relatives were always known as “Aunty”; or indeed among the past and present well off, middle classes of middle England. 

Our differences in culture actually point up how as human beings we have so much more in common with each other than those very differences at first suggest.