(We originally reviewed Indian Sweets And Spices when it screened at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. It goes into a limited theatrical release this weekend.)
Generational gaps and cultural assimilation are the two driving forces of the story in India Sweets And Spices, a charming new dramedy from writer Geeta Malik.
Returning home from her first year of college at UCLA, Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) arrives back at her parents’ affluent New Jersey suburbs with two things her parents are not happy about – short hair and a new found sense of independence. She is looking forward to spending the summer lounging by the pool and catching up with friends. Her parents, Indian immigrants who have done very well for themselves since coming to America, are more concerned with her settling down with a nice Indian young man to become a wife and mother. That certainly seems to be one of the aims of the regular gatherings of Indiana American families that Alia’s mother Sheila hosts at their home in which food and gossip are shared in equal measures. At the very least, they are occasions where Ali is beset repeatedly by the older women with questions about her finding a nice man to settle down with.
Things get shaken up when Alia meets Varun (Rish Shah), son of the owners of the local Indian grocery store. Although their middle class background doesn’t match up to the others who attend Sheila’s gatherings, Alia invites Varun and his parents to one of the parties anyway. There, Varun’s mother Bhairavi claims to have known Sheila back when they were both at university in India, a former friendship the now more class conscious Sheila is reticent to acknowledge. An as the story enters the third act, it partially shifts focus, as Sheila takes a bit more focus when forced to examine the life she is living versus the life she gave up and perhaps change her mind about what she wants for her own daughter.
One of the hardest tricks in telling a story is to make the tale specific and unique enough to the characters while still being universally relatable for all. Writer/director Geeta Malik manages to thread that needle fairly well with India Sweets And Spices. There are definitely plot pints here that feel familiar from numerous stories that have come before. But by filtering them through the Indian American experience not they not only are freshened up somewhat, but are given room to play out in ways both expected and unexpected. The details within stories of lovers reaching out across some sort of societal divide may change, but they will still resonate with those unfamiliar with the specifics. After all, Romeo And Juliet is still enjoyed by audiences today, none of who are from 16th century Verona.
It would easy to somewhat minimize India Sweets And Spices by giving it an elevator pitch reduction of “Crazy Rich East Asians.” But that would be a disservice as Malik’s film shows neither the desire nor the budget to wallow in the glitzy, monied world of that other film. Instead, the well-to-do of this story still live in the Jersey suburbs and have an air of attainability about their success which helps to underline much of the conflict. And the geographical proximity between Ali and Varun’s families helps to suggest that the only real thing keeping them apart are the economic class constructs that they cling to.
The bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of Sophia Ali and she carries it well. She has a breezy charm to her performance, and exhibits that bemused tolerance we can all probably remember giving to our own parents when we were in our early 20s and knew so much more than those old squares did about how the world works.