EXCLUSIVE: Indian American Filmmaker Geeta Malik Brings the Sweets and Spices to Festive Comedy

A scene from Geeta Malik’s INDIA SWEETS AND SPICES. ©SK Global Entertainment.

By ANGELA DAWSON

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Filmmaker Geeta Malik (“Troublemaker”) recalls growing up in a tightly knit Indian American community in Aurora, Colo., where her parents would regularly take her to elaborate dinner parties hosted by their friends and extended family. These gatherings always presented a chance to gossip, eat, dance and show off one’s material success in attaining the American dream. Those curry-scented memories have provided the perfect fodder for Malik’s second feature film, “India Sweets and Spices,” a coming-of-age comedy that both celebrates and gently pokes at the multifaceted culture from which she hails.

The comedy centers around Alia (Sophia Ali), a 19-year-old college student who returns to her upper middle class New Jersey home for summer break after a year on the West Coast where she has become immersed in modern American culture and social activism. Back at home, though, she is plunged into her parents’ upwardly mobile world, ritually filled with weekly social gatherings with family and friends, where everyone seems to be in a competition to throw the most ostentatious and elaborate party.  Alia reunites with Rahul (Ved Sapru), a young man she’s known all her life and is expected to eventually settle down with.

Then, Alia unexpectedly meets Varun (Rish Shah), a handsome young clerk whose parents recently moved to town and now manage the local Indian supermarket. Without first checking with her parents, she invites the new arrivals to her family’s upcoming party. As it turns out, Varun’s mom, Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta) and Alia’s mom, Sheila (Manisha Koirala) were once close friends in college in New Delhi but their surprise reunion brings to light secrets that Alia never knew about her mother. Alia also makes an alarming discovery about her father, Ranjit (Adil Hussain), a prominent local physician.

Malik, who received a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences for her script, says she wanted to make a coming-of-age story that felt authentic for audiences, and what could be more universal than a young person returning to their hometown only to experience some tension within their family and community?

Malik began writing the comedy a decade ago, but soon discovered she was pregnant with her first child, and then her second. It was after she became a mother herself that she decided to further explore the parental characters as well as that of her teenage protagonist in her story.

Bleecker Street’s “India Sweets and Spices” opens in theaters Friday Nov. 19.

Reached via Zoom, Malik was excited that her long-gestating project was finally ready to share with the world.

Angela Dawson: After the 10 years it took to bring this story from his conception to the big screen, how do you feel?

Geeta Malik: I feel like I should be jumping out of my skin excited. I feel like my brain is catching up to all of this. It feels surreal, in a very good way. At some point, I’ll probably just lie flat on my back and think, “What just happened?”

Dawson: What were the challenges of shooting not just one or two party scenes, but several?

Malik: We got very lucky. We had an amazing location manager who somehow found us a cul-de-sac of houses that each looked different enough inside, and we used each one of them. It was almost like having a little backlot. For three weeks, we’d just go to a different house and do the parties there. We had a great crew. The key departments—costumes, for props, all of that—they did a lot of research to make all the details as authentic as possible, and it was a lot of fun.

Dawson: Everyone in the cul-de-sac was on board? No holdouts?

Malik: Everyone was cool.  But wait, there was one. We had to shoot a night scene on a driveway and it was a very emotional scene, and on neighbor wasn’t happy so we had some interruptions, but, in the end, we got the scene.

Dawson: You drew from your own experiences growing up with these elaborate parties. Were they really every week?

Malik: They felt like every week. Maybe it was every couple of weeks, and everyone took turns hosting a party because you couldn’t not host one if you went to someone’s party. It was sort of this round-robin thing.

Dawson: Has your family seen the film? Have they asked you which character is based on them, especially the gossiping “aunties?”

Malik: My family has seen it. I don’t know how many actual aunties have seen it. They start out as these caricatures or stereotypes and I hope, by the end, they have a little humanity and that any auntie who sees it won’t feel like I slighted them in any way. It was more a mash up of different aunties.

Dawson: How much did the script change after your second daughter and when you submitted it to the Nicholls competition?

Malik: The biggest difference was Sheila’s (the mother) story. I felt a lot more kinship with the mother character after I had my own kids. The initial draft was very much lighthearted comedy, satire, poking fun at the community. It was more about the love triangle (among Alia, Rahul and Varun) and the class stratification in this love triangle. After I had my kids, I decided I wanted to include more about the aunties and uncles. I wanted to learn more about that generation—these people who had these full lives before they had their kids as I know my kids wouldn’t know all the things that I’ve done. Someday, I’ll have to sit them down and tell them, but they’ve never known me as anything other than “mom.”

Dawson: Do you think these traditions of hosting elaborate parties will die out with this generation?

Malik: That’s something I’ve thought about a lot because I’m sort of now the age of an auntie myself.  My kids and their friends are going to look at me and my friends and call us aunties. The Indian Americans who have grown up here I don’t think will continue those same traditions. We haven’t so far. I had a Diwali party for my kids the other day and it was all their school friends, but it wasn’t like anything I grew up with as far as a Diwali party. We’re not showing off or any of that stuff. So, I feel like it’s a tradition that’s going to die out a little bit because we don’t have that same need to compete and prove ourselves as immigrants as the previous generation did.

Being able to come to America (for them) was huge. It already was a feather in someone’s cap. Succeeding in America was a dream. We’re very lucky; we’ve grown up here. Our parents went through all that; we don’t have to. We have a lot more freedom to just be who we are and not compete in that way. That being said, social media adds a totally different dimension to all of this. So, people are still playing that game, it’s just in a different sort of medium.

Dawson: You don’t feel the pressure to host one of these big parties?

Malik: No. But the parties that we had when I was growing up was all about being part of this Indian community and holding onto that identity. Because I grew up in the U.S., I already have a hybrid identity. I don’t feel I have to cling to the Indian side or convert to the American side. I can easily be both, which I think the generation prior to mine wasn’t able to do. You bring that culture with you and you’re afraid to lose it so you cling to it. Whereas (first generation Indian Americans) are more relaxed about it because we’ve already grown up with it.

Dawson: You grew up in Colorado. The film is set in New Jersey and shot it in Georgia. Why did you set it in New Jersey? Is there a large Indian American population there?

Malik: Yes, huge in New Jersey. Edison has a really big population of Indian immigrants as well as New York. Our executive producer (Kilian Kerwin, who also was head of production for Ivanhoe Pictures on the hit “Crazy Rich Asians”) is from Short Hills, so he knew that area very well. So, Alia went away to college—let’s put her on these two different coasts. She goes to UCLA. This idea of her being really far away from home and then having to come back. It’s a metaphorical journey too— coming back to that place.

Dawson: How was it shooting in Atlanta?

Malik: I loved the city itself. My politics are far more liberal than the outskirts so I had a hard time with some of the political things that were happening at the time. Our casting office ended up being across the street from a protest—the heartbeat bill (which would have restricted abortions after six weeks) was in the news. That being said, I loved Atlanta. I loved shooting there. The crew was amazing. I remember talking with our DP, Shane Kelly, and remarking how the crew was like a well-oiled machine. Everyone was super chill. No one raised their voice on set, which I loved. Shane was really chill too. I asked him how long he’d worked with this crew and he said it was his first time. Yet everyone had the same chill vibe and I thought that was great. A lot of them are Atlanta locals. Same with the cast. All of supporting talent pretty much were all from that area. There’s a lot of South Asian talent there, which was pretty surprising to me. I didn’t know we would be able to find them.

Dawson: Speaking of cast, you have actors with a wide range of experience—newcomers as well as veterans. Can you tell me about casting Sophia Ali as Alia?

Malik: Yeah. I met her at a table read early on in the process—before we’d even signed with production companies or producers. It was just a relaxed table read to hear how the script sounded out loud. Sophia was there playing the part of the best friend but I kept looking at her as she read and thought her voice sounded so right for the dialogue I’d written. I knew we needed to bring her in if we ever got the chance to make this movie. Then, when we got to make the movie, I was like, “We’ve got to bring Sophia in.” She and I had stayed in touch over the years and became friends. So, she auditioned with everyone else and was just perfect for the part.

Dawson: And you cast Manisha Koirala as Sheila, who’s a very popular Bollywood star. Was it a dream to get a chance to work with her?

Malik: Oh yes. Manisha is one of my favorite actresses of all time. She was in “Dil Se..,” which is one of my favorite films of all time, let alone Bollywood films. I’d grown up watching her. She has so much integrity as an actress. I had a short list of potential actors from the Hindi film industry who were character actors. Then, one of our producers who works a lot in India said who knows the Bollywood scene very well suggested Manisha. I said, “Could we? Is it a possibility she would read this?” So, he sent her the script and she read it, and apparently liked it enough that we got on the phone and had a good rapport. I was trying not to lose my mind and go all fan girl. It was a total dream come true to work with her. She arrived here knowing her character inside and out. She’d done so much legwork on the character and really understood who Sheila was and what we were trying to do with this film. She was just a wonderful human being.

Dawson: What’s next for you?

Malik: There are two specs that I’m writing and I’m writing a studio feature that I hope to direct. I have a TV show that I’m pitching around town right now. We’ll have to wait and see what lands first.