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‘India Sweets and Spices’: Geeta Malik, Manisha Koirala and Deepti Gupta on Women’s Empowerment, Challenging Indian Stereotypes

·10 min read

For the cast and crew of “India Sweets and Spices,” the Tribeca Festival debut on June 12 served as a welcome reunion after a long year of What’sApp messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

“A lot of our cast is scattered throughout the world, and it’s been tough with this COVID situation so we really missed them,” Malik tells Variety about celebrating without a few film family members. “It would have been really special to have them here.”

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Malik joined the cast — including Deepti Gupta, Anita Kalathara, Reena Shah, Rupal Pujara, Christina Burdette, Kayan Tara, Moses Das, Indra Dattagupta, Vee Bhakta, Kamran Shaikh, Priya Deva, Jia Patel and Richa Chandra — for the comedy’s world premiere at Brookfield Place in New York City.

The film festival premiere served as a launching pad for the movie, which focuses on a young woman named Alia (Sophia Ali), who comes home for summer break after her freshman year of college and begins to look at her tight-knit, affluent Indian community — and the secrets the people within it are hiding — in a new light. Alia is no longer able to accept the status quo and ready to challenge everything and everyone, and that starts with her mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala).

After the premiere, Malik, Gupta and Koirala reunited virtually to discuss the movie’s themes and how they’re switching up representation of the Indian diaspora before a global audience.

What inspired this story?

Geeta Malik: It’s based on things in my life — very, very exaggerated and fictionalized — but I did grow up, to an extent, with this community. I grew up in Aurora, Colorado. The community has gotten much bigger, but it felt small. It felt insular. It felt like everyone was always in each other’s business, sometimes in good ways to support each other, and sometimes in gossipy ways that were detrimental and hurtful.

It arose from me thinking about those experiences, and just wanting to write a comedy, making fun of my aunties and uncles — and then feeling guilty about that — but then digging deeper. I got farther and farther into my writing, developing these characters in the story, and wanting to explore what these characters were all about, [and began] asking, “What is in your past and how do you hold on to that integrity?” or “How do you lose that integrity, and can you get it back? Can you return to who you used to be?” I just found those questions really interesting.

Since this movie is semi-autobiographical, when did you realize you’d need to switch up some of the scenes?

Some character names had to be changed; some scenarios had to be finessed. There were moments where I was like, my mom might get some emails and calls. But overall, hopefully I portrayed our community in a kinder way than we’re actually used to, not these cliches and stereotypes. We show that they’re actual human beings.

This movie is a coming-of-age tale. But it’s not just about a young woman’s coming of age; instead, all the characters come into their own. Why was that important to show?

GM: The central relationship is Sheila and Alia, that’s very important, the mother-daughter relationship. But also the friendship between Manisha and Deepti’s characters, Sheila and Bhairavi, there’s this connection that happens. They went away from each other for such a long time, [but] that core friendship, that core support for each other, never went away completely. So to see them reconnect, I think that’s also a very important theme in this film. And just strong women in general. I love strong women. I support them; I’m supported by them. And I think it’s very important to keep those bonds intact.

Manisha and Deepti, were those themes what made you want to sign on?

Manisha Koirala: I loved the whole screenplay and the whole story, and the evolution of the characters. It’s so true for so many of us, as we age, we sort of compromise with the ideals that we had when we were younger and had more energy to be rebellious. We compromise slowly into a very set life, and then all this superficiality happens. But this is a film to realize not to compromise. You need to stick to your values and principles, and get out of your comfort zone, and it’s okay to do that.

Deepti Gupta: I didn’t really grow up with a lot of women around me who I could look up to and see as role models. The women in my immediate family and extended family were still very much within the patriarchal structure, not feeling like they had agency, even when they were dealing with very difficult circumstances. In playing Bhairavi, what I loved was that here was a woman who is somehow able to hold on to that fire that got ignited through that experience with Sheila, and to be able to build a life, and to maintain a life, with that integrity.

I met Geeta’s mom and I was just looking at her and I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t know a lot of women like her, who are that age and who are so badass.” And I want that. What this movie shows us, is that older women, so to speak, can be equally as badass if they chose to. That, to me, is very exciting, because so many times, especially South Asian women of a certain age, get so stereotyped in the parts and in the small capacity in which we see them. I feel like the beauty of what Geeta has done is giving us these women, who may seem like they fit that mold, but then we also get to see them go, ‘Here I am!’ I want to see more of that.

Geeta, this is your second feature after 2011’s “Troublemaker.” How have you seen Hollywood change in relationship to those cultural narratives and stereotype?

GM: It has been a progression. I think we still have a ways to go, but we’re getting there. I think just this last handful of years, people are just open to seeing these movies. They’re not saying, “Oh, that’s only for South Asians or that’s only for whatever culture that film is portraying.” I think it’s just, “Oh that movie looks interesting, I’m going to go see it.”

I do feel like audiences are a lot more open and financiers, production companies, producers are a lot more open. They’re not as skittish. We’ll see if that wave continues, because it does seem to kind of go up and down. There’s like a peak where everyone is making these films and excited about these films. And then it’s like “Okay, you guys had your couple years” and we move back to the way it was. It swings both ways, so I’m hoping the momentum remains.

What has it been like putting a spotlight on Indian culture amid the pandemic, where India has been ravaged by COVID-19?

MK: The situation has been pretty rough. I’m in Nepal at present, which has a porous border with India, so whatever impacts India, impacts Nepal as well. It’s been very taxing on the healthcare system. But the good news is, slowly the infected rates are going down and the rate of people recovering is going up. I might have to fly back to Mumbai to start projects, because our work, I don’t think it can stop. One whole year totally at home and the situation was heartbreaking, but things are improving.

DG: When my parents had COVID, there was a time when it was like, “Okay we need an oxygen concentrator.” And there was none to be found in Delhi. I was awake at night trying to text message and What’sApp all kinds of people. Then a friend of mine has a mom who’s a nurse here in the U.S., and she gave me the number of oxygen concentrator company here, and they’re like, “Sorry we’re out of five liters and 10 liters.” All the people here who have family back there have already purchased what they could, and sending it back over there, which itself is taking longer due to COVID. So, by the time it’s even going to get there, hopefully it will be useful.

My aunt was able to get my parents an oxygen concentrator. Thankfully, my family was in a position where they could pay more for the dire situation that we were in. But then my father was like, “Okay, well, it’s fine now. Wrap it up and return it.” And my uncle was like, “No, this oxygen concentrator is like a refrigerator for you now. It’s going to stay in the house, because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Because the infrastructure is destroyed, there’s such duress and we don’t have something that’s going to take care of it. I feel like in the older generation, people are trying to be like, “No this is serious and we need to take measures in our own hands.”

GM: Making the film felt like such a coming together. We were all such good friends on this film; it was such a community within a community. We were doing post during COVID, so we were in our masks on the mix stage, sitting six feet far apart. What I really want to emphasize is the resilience of Indians, Indian Americans and our diaspora. A lot of people are trying to help with what’s happening in India and Nepal. This is a very scary time for a lot of us personally; so it’s definitely been on our minds.

[India Sweets and Spices producer Gigi Pritzker says the cast and crew has pledged to support Save the Children’s “Breath of Life” initiative, “which will provide life-saving medical care, humanitarian aid and rehabilitation support to the people of Delhi. With so many of our cast and crew along with their family and friends impacted by the devastation of COVID-19 in India … we hope that our support will inspire others to donate to this immediate and worthy cause.”]

What do you hope that people take away from this movie?

MK: It’s an out and out comedy, but it has a lot of family values and coming-of-age themes — not only for a younger daughter, but also for the mother, who understands that she probably doesn’t need to compromise to lead a good life. There’s so many takeaways from this, but I think in totality, it’s a heartwarming entertaining film.

GM: I hope people find it relatable in their own families. You don’t have to be South Asian; you don’t have to be South Asian American; you don’t have to be a woman to hopefully understand the themes and the story, and relate to the characters, and find something of yourself in the characters. I hope at the end of the movie, they feel uplifted and hopeful and ready to go change the world, because that’s how I feel when I watch it. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to our characters and they don’t themselves know, but they know that the future is looking brighter because they have found their core again; they’ve returned to who they used to be, or they’re searching or finding who they are going to be.

DG: I hope that this [movie] is the start of us experiencing the South Asian diaspora in all the different colors and shades that it exists in. I feel like we do such a good job of presenting that and I hope that, as we’re representing some of us, that more films like this come out and we get to see more. Because there’s so many stories.

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