Movie Review: “India Sweets and Spices”

Written and directed by Geeta Malik, “India Sweets and Spices” takes a fictionalized look at one wealthy Indian community living in New Jersey. It is a movie that succeeds in being touching and funny and rather cutting. Slightly messy, slightly unsure sometimes, but confident at other moments, it is a film which reflects its protagonist, Alia (Sophia Ali).

The movie starts off with Alia ending her first year of college at a drunken celebration the night before her flight home. It is a last night of freedom before returning to the more restrictive community in which she grew up. It is also a night that ends with her cutting her own hair in what may be a bit of defiance and what may be just a bad decision brought on by too much alcohol. Either way, Alia knows well before her mother, Sheila (Manisha Koirala), ever sees her that Sheila is going to have some thoughts on the results.

And so “India Sweets and Spices” gets off to a rollicking start, but also one that doesn’t quite set the tone for what is to come. This is not an out-and-out comedy, even if the opening would suggest it. Instead, what we are treated to is a serious look at some of the lies and deceptions that are rife within this particular, fictionalized, diasporic community.

Alia and her family spend a lot of time socializing within their community and are well aware of the gossip and sniping that comes with it. Perhaps because she is part of a younger generation and perhaps because she has just spent a year away from home, Alia makes the decision that she’s had enough of the lies and, upon learning a family secret, proceeds to set her world on fire.

I am in no way condemning (nor condoning) Alia’s decision, just noting that, after trying other methods, her calling out her mother and father, Ranjit (Adil Hussain), in the way she does is one from which there is no return. It is at times difficult to watch the results; Malik lays bare the sometimes harsh choices everyone involved has had to make through their lives, the compromises they have decided on, and the ways in which they have hidden themselves.

As we with any film that takes place within a specific group of people there are questions about the representations we are seeing. Are we watching the truth of such a community? It certainly feels as though Malik would have us understand a few of the traditions of this world and some of the ways in which social dynamics play out via this fictional narrative. The attempt to present the difficulties of living in such a diaspora is quite successful.

To help explain both the norms of the community and the ways in which it is changing, “India Sweets and Spices” brings a new family into the fold, the Duttas, who have bought the local Indian grocery store (after which the film is named). Alia instantly falls for the son, Varun (Rish Shah), potentially upsetting her will they-won’t they thing with another local boy, Rahul (Ved Sapru). More importantly, Alia unknowingly also brings an old friend back into Sheila’s life in the form of Varun’s mother, Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta). These characters then provide the match Alia uses on her world.

What doesn’t work for the movie is the fact that some of the narratives turns can feel rather sudden. As the stories plays out there are also elements to which the tale never returns. There is a benefit to this as the movie winds up feeling very much like a single summer in the ongoing lives of individuals, but at the same time other pieces feel like they are simply dropped in favor of more scintillating areas.

It would be exceptionally interesting to revisit this family (and community) in 10 or 15 years in order to see what becomes of Alia’s generation and their kids. How does the first generation of children born in this country deal with their lives as adults with families in comparison to those who emigrated here; how does that push-and-pull continue to affect them?

But, that is not this movie. “India Sweets and Spices,” instead, is a tale of the here and now and how choices can radically alter our world. Alia, brash and young and headstrong, provides an excellent look at this and the characters (and cast) as a whole make the tale worth watching.

photo credit: Bleecker Street

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