M, 101 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Whether or not there’s such a spirited critique to make of the wealthy and highly successful South Asian diaspora in the US, this jaunty social satire from Geeta Malik is clearly an inside job. Writer-director Malik, who is of Indian heritage, grew up in Colorado and studied at UCLA.
Her social comedy is set in a fictional enclave in New Jersey, where life for the affluent Indian community includes a constant round of parties. According to Alia (Sophia Ali), just returned home for summer after her freshman year, these events are only thrown by ‘aunties’ who want to show off their new chandelier, their latest sari or new French perfume.
It’s not all same-same, however. There is a refreshing new presence in the community. The Dutta family that has taken over the local store specialising in Indian foods and condiments, India Sweets and Spices, that lends its name to the film. Without prior consultation, Alia makes a spontaneous invitation to the Duttas, Bairavi (Deepti Gupta) and Kamlesh (Kamran Shaikh), to come along to the next family bash, the next big community event. The invite is more particularly directed at their handsome son Varun (Rish Shah).
Alia must have known that the Duttas would get the cold shoulder. The local shopkeepers. What next, the gardener and his family?
Sweet central performances can’t outweight the social satire laid on thick and the gaudy aesthetic in this inside job on cultural values
If there’s nothing quite like the snobbery on show here, is there anything quite like an Indian party? Ever since we went to Mira Nair’s delectable Monsoon Wedding, events like these have made an irresistible impression on screen, full of vibrant energy, awash with gorgeous colour, full of sensory detail.
India Sweets and Spices is punctuated with parties like these. In between these events, Alia gets off with Varun, her doctor dad Ranjit (Adil Hussain) gets off with the mother of her good friend Rahul (Ved Sapru), and a terrifying range of gossip is shared, much of it malign. Every party is the same, Alia observes, just different aunties hosting.
On this occasion, Alia discovers that her mother Sheila’s chilling elision of unwelcome guests is just as bad as her intolerable acceptance of her husband’s infidelity. It’s all messed up, and worse. Mother (played by Manisha Koirala) and daughter were already quarrelling over the slightest issue.
Then it transpires that Sheila has a secret past, concealed until the dignified Bhairavi, a friend of Sheila’s while at university in Delhi together, arrives on the scene. A photograph from those years says it all, and helps to explain other aspects of Sheila’s unbending character.
Alia is, on the other hand, a pretty direct sort of girl, who will say what she thinks and climb through a bedroom window to gets what she wants. The revelation that her mother was a feminist social activist in college amazes her, and the relationship between the two women in India Sweets and Spices takes centre stage.
If only Malik had avoided the televisual aesthetic and also delivered her characters with a touch more subtlety. The matronly dragons who line the rooms at the parties and sit around the restaurant tables as they do lunch are such caricatures. And it’s not just them fuelling the 24-hour gossip cycle in the fictitious New Jersey suburb of Ruby Hill, either. There are the ‘boring, petty and frankly interchangeable’ young joggers who pretend to be friendly towards Alia too.
Here and there the comedy really hits the mark, but the satire is laid on thick. Like the recent, Shiva Baby, set in an orthodox Jewish community in the US, it uses a heavy-handed approach that can be self-defeating. Members of the audience may wish to exit, to get away from the tiresome company they have found themselves in.
But if they do soldier on, the pay-off arrives when Alia and her mum join forces to turn the tables at the party celebrating Sheila and Ranjit’s wedding anniversary, exposing the rampant hypocrisy all around them.
Writer-director Malik has said that she is influenced by the great trio of female filmmakers of Indian background whose work has so often involved women in their culture, at home and abroad. Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta (Fire, Earth and Water) have made some unforgettable films about women.
India Sweets and Spices is a bit spicey and sour, but it is also rather slight.