January 19, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Geeta Malik
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ruby Hill, New Jersey, and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama film “India Sweets and Spices” features a cast of characters of Indian heritage representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: While on a summer break after her first year in college, a young upper-middle-class woman has some conflicts with her parents, including her parents not approving of her working-class boyfriend, and how she’s affected when she finds out her parents’ biggest secrets.
Culture Audience: “India Sweets and Spices” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching appealing but not particularly outstanding movies about Indian American culture.
As a blend of a romantic comedy and a family drama, “India Sweets and Spices” can be somewhat erratic in its tone and pacing. The second half of the movie is much better than the first half. It’s ultimately a charming story about a young woman finding her identity and coming to terms with how family baggage and family traditions affect her life. Written and directed by Geeta Malik, “India Sweets and Spices” benefits from having an engaging cast that can hold viewers’ interest, even when certain parts of the movie start to drag into a predictable formula.
Fortunately, there are some surprises in “India Sweets and Spices,” but they don’t come until the last half of the movie. The first half of the film gives the impression that’s it’s going to be a typical romantic comedy about a young woman who defies her parents’ wishes, by dating someone from a family that’s looked down on by her parents. In the second half of the movie, her parents’ secrets lead to the more dramatic parts of the story, which at times resembles a soap opera. “India Sweets and Spices” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
In the beginning of “India Sweets and Spices,” Alia Kapur (played by Sophia Ali) has just completed her freshman year at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and is about to go on a summer break. Her last party on campus before her vacation is a “social justice social,” which is the type of party she’s been going to on a regular basis. Alia gets drunk at the party and impulsively cuts her long hair into a mid-length bob.
Alia has already declared biology has her major. It seems that she’s planning to be a scientist or medical doctor, which would be a profession that her parents would approve of, since her father Ranjit Kapur (played by Adil Hussain) is a heart surgeon. Alia’s mother Sheila Kapur (played by Manisha Koirala) is a traditional homemaker. Alia has two siblings: sister Jiya Kapur (played by Rhea Patil) is about 13 or 14 years old, while brother Sahil Kapur (Ansh Nayak) is about 10 or 11 years old. Alia and her siblings were born in the United States, while their parents were born in India and immigrated to the U.S. not long after they got married.
The Kapur family lives in an upper-middle-class home in the fictional city of Ruby Hill, New Jersey. (“India Sweets and Spices” was actually filmed in Atlanta.) Alia is spending her vacation at her parents’ home. She’s looking forward to a summer of being free from school and hanging out with her childhood best friend Neha Bhatia (played by Anita Kalathara), who is a loyal and cheerful pal. However, since Alia and Neha follow their family traditions, they know they have to spend a lot of time at their parents’ social gatherings. These parties often take place at the Kapur family home.
Only other upper-middle-class or wealthy Indians in the area are invited to these parties. It soon becomes clear in the movie that these soirees are excuses for many of the party attendees to show off, brag about their lives, and gossip. Alia’s parents are extremely status-conscious and love to give the impression that they’re highly intellectual and cultured. As an example of their pretentiousness, there’s a scene later in the movie where Alia and her love interest are in the library of the Kapur family home, and she shows him that some of the “intellectual” books on the bookshelves are really just empty façades.
Alia’s love interest is Varun Dutta (played by Rish Shah), who works in his parents’ local convenience store that carries a lot of Southeast Asian food. The name of the store is India Sweets and Spices. Alia happens to go in the store one day to buy some biscuits for her family’s upcoming house party. The movie has a rom-com contrivance of Alia seeing Varun and being so instantly attracted him, she gets flustered and buys more biscuits than she needs.
Alia and Varun have their “meet cute” moment when they lock eyes and they strike up a flirty conversation. (In a self-deprecating nod to predictable “meet cute” moments in romantic comedies, the movie even has a wind-flowing-through-hair effect and angel sounds when Alia first sees Varun.) Alia tells Varun that she’s on a summer break from UCLA. And what a coincidence: Varun mentions that he’s completed community college and will be transferring to UCLA later that year when school starts again in the fall.
During this conversation, Alia also meets Varun’s parents—father Kamlesh Dutta (played by Kamran Shaikh) and mother Bhairavi “Peru” Dutta (played by Deepti Gupta)—and Varun’s sister Puja Dutta (played by Jia Patel), who’s about 12 or 13, and who helps out in the family store. Alia finds out that the Dutta family recently moved to the area. The entire family is friendly, so Alia impulsively invites Varun and his parents to her family’s house party. They happily accept the invitation.
Not everyone is happy about this invitation. Alia’s mother Sheila, who is a very uptight snob, is annoyed that this working-class family was invited to the party without Sheila being consulted first. And sure enough, when the Dutta family arrives, Sheila and her husband Ranjit treat the Duttas somewhat dismissively. And so do many other people at party, when they find out that the Duttas make their living by owning a convenience store.
The Duttas graciously brought food to the party as a gift, but Sheila turns her nose up that too, because the food is in a plastic Tupperware container instead of a more upscale container. Sheila is also somewhat annoyed by the gift because she sees herself as a socialite who hosts parties where guests don’t need to bring their own food and drinks. As Alia tells Varun later, Sheila is the type of person who looks down on anyone who isn’t wearing designer clothes. When Alia and Varun go upstairs to an empty room to make out with each other, they see something that turns Alia’s world upside down. It’s her father’s big secret.
Alia’s parents make it clear to Alia that they think it’s more appropriate that she date someone who can afford to pay for the privileged lifestyle in which Alia has been raised. The parents think an ideal match would be Rahul Singh (played by Ved Sapru), the son of their longtime friends Gurvinder Singh (played by Raj Kala) and Uma Singh (played by Priya Deva), who apparently have more money than the Kapur family. Alia and Rahul have known each other since childhood, but there aren’t any real romantic sparks between them. Rahul, who’s a student at Duke University, can be conceited and arrogant, but he’s not a complete jerk.
Even though Alia’s parents think that the Dutta family isn’t good enough to be in their social circle, Alia has a mind of her own and starts dating Varun anyway. As Varun and Alia get to know each other, and their feelings for each other grow stronger, they find out that their parents had very different courtships. Alia’s parents had an arranged marriage, while Varun’s parents married for love and of their own free will.
The differences between these two sets of parents cause tensions between the two families, mainly because Alia’s parents treat Varun and his family as if they’re second-class citizens. It’s not quite a “Romeo and Juliet” story, because there are other complications besides family disapproval of a romance. It turns out that when Varun’s mother Bhairavi saw Alia’s mother Sheila at the party, Bhairavi immediately recognized Sheila as a former friend she knew when they were students at Delhi University. Bhairavi hugged Sheila, who responded in a standoffish way and pretended not to know Bhairavi.
Eventually, Sheila admits that she and Bhairavi knew each other, but Sheila says she’s a different person now. How different? When she was in college, Sheila was a progressive feminist who formed a women’s rights activist group with some other female students. Bhairavi was one of those students. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s already revealed in the movie’s trailer.)
Alia, who considers herself to be a liberal feminist, is shocked to find out that her mother used to be a liberal feminist too when Sheila was Alia’s age. Sheila has completely opposite beliefs now. What happened to make Sheila change so drastically? That’s the secret that Sheila doesn’t want a lot of people to know.
“India Sweets and Spices” is by no means a boring movie, but it seems like writer/director Malik tried to cram in too many ideas that sometimes don’t flow too well together. The first half of the movie is almost like a breezy, lightweight comedy about Alia and Kapur’s budding romance, but the second half takes a very different and much more serious tone as Sheila has to deal with the secrets that she finds out about both of her parents. Both of these secrets will have negative effects on their parents’ reputations if these secrets are revealed to the people in their stuck-up and judgmental social circle.
The movie takes an interesting look at how upwardly mobile immigrant families in the United States can act to assimilate into American culture and achieve the American Dream. Alia’s family represents the toxicity of what can happen when any family puts too much emphasis on appearances and wealth and not on being genuine and compassionate human beings. Alia thinks she’s not like her image-conscious and materialistic parents, but there’s some friction in her relationship with Varun when he points out to Alia the ways in which she behaves like an elitist snob.
All of the cast members are convincing in their roles, but Ali as Alia and Koirala as Sheila are the ones who get to show the most acting range. That’s because Alia and Sheila are the ones who have the most depth to their personalities in this movie. Even though “India Sweets and Spices” does have a boyfriend-girlfriend romance as a big part of the story, the mother-daughter relationship is ultimately the one that has the most impact and will be remembered by viewers the most.
Bleecker Street released “India Sweets and Spices” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021, and on digital and VOD on December 7, 2021.