INDIA SWEETS AND SPICES Director Geeta Malik On Crafting An Authentic Indian-American Experience (Exclusive)

Ahead of the release of her new film, India Sweets and Spices, we caught up with director Geeta Malik to talk about crafting an authentic Indian-American experience, casting Manisha Koirala, and more!

With Bleecker Street's family comedy India Sweets and Spices now playing in theaters worldwide, we were able to sit down with writer/director Geeta Malik (Shameless; Troublemaker) to talk about the critically acclaimed film and her desire to craft an authentic Indian American experience for a western audience. 

The film tells the story of Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali), who returns to her family’s posh suburban New Jersey home after a year away at college and upends their well-ordered life with her brash independence. After befriending Varun (Rish Shah), the handsome son of the new owners of the local Indian grocery, she invites his family to a dinner party where long-buried family secrets are revealed.

Alia’s unexpected discovery and subsequent surprise turn to rebellion when she uncovers secrets about both her parents that push her toward a daring and ultimately hilarious confrontation. The film celebrates a young woman’s coming of age journey set against a lovingly framed glimpse of the life of an Indian American family.

Check out the video interview below, and keep scrolling for the full transcript!

ROHAN: When writing the script, how much did you draw from your own personal experience growing up and how much did you sort of create specifically for Alia's story? 

GEETA: Definitely took some creative license, but this is definitely based on my memories and emotions going to those dinner parties growing up. There was a lot of - you know, you’re a kid, and you go play in the basement, with video games or whatever, you get a little bit older and as a girl, I was expected to help serve food and all of that. Then, you become a teenager and you start realizing, “Wow, this is kind of a crazy situation we got going on here.”

ROHAN: This film really feels like an authentic Indian-American story, which is kind of a rarity in Hollywood. Was it important to you to tell as authentic a story as possible?

GEETA: Yes, it was really important to me to make it as authentic to my experience as an Indian-American as possible. I tried not to overexploit our culture, I didn’t want to be like, here “mainstream audience,” we know what that’s code for, this is how you make chai, this is all of our spices. I didn’t want to do that. This is just us, this is how we live, so I didn’t want to over explain things, so yes, I’m glad it felt authentic. I did try to do that.

ROHAN: This film touches on so many different themes - sacrificing for your family, young romance, arranged marriage, outdated traditions - were there any storylines you would’ve liked to explore further?

GEETA: That’s a great question, I feel like there was already so much going on in the movie. I think, at times, it felt like there were a lot of threads I was trying to make sure weave together properly. I would’ve loved to explore more of Shiela’s past, I think there was a lot more we could’ve shown in India, shown really what she was up to when she was younger that we just didn’t have the time or budget for, or didn’t necessarily enhance the story, but I was interested in learning more about that and showing that story. So, that would probably be the biggest thing.

ROHAN: Manisha Koirala is such a Bollywood icon - can you tell me more about casting and working with her?

GEETA: Yeah, she’s phenomenal. I’ve been a fan of hers forever, my favorite Bollywood film is Dil Se, I mean I still listen to the music. She’s fantastic and just always on-screen, she shows such integrity in her characters. She’s always been a phenomenal actress and so when we were looking to cast this film, I did tell our production company that I would love to work with someone, for the parents, I would love to cast people from India, from the Hindi film industry, from Bollywood. I made a short list of actors who I thought were great, who we could maybe get for this movie and then one of our producers, he does a lot of work in India, he worked on Delhi Crime, they shoot their all the time, and he was like, “How about Manisha Koirala?,” and I was like, “What?! Could we talk to her?” (does mind exploding gesture).

So, he sent her the script and we got on a WhatsApp call and I was trying hard not to freak out be a fangirl, you know, acting like I’m professional, I’m a director, but it’s Manisha Koirala! We had a good rapport from the beginning and she really understood the character and we had a great collaboration on set and she was just wonderful. Really warm, wonderful human being, who really wanted to portray this character with integrity, as I said before, and I think she did just a great job. It was really fun working with her.

ROHAN: I've always been curious, from a filmmaking standpoint, what is the process behind obtaining the rights to many of the Bollywood songs you use in the film? 

GEETA: Certain songs were very, very expensive, so we had to pick and choose what we could use, but we had wonderful music supervisors Linda Cohen and Bianca Valencia. They gave me a library of Bollywood songs that they had already cleared some of the rights to and they’re at different price points and I went through hours - and I’m a huge Bollywood fan, so this was no big problem for me. Just to sit there and go through all these songs and listen to them and think about how they’d work in the film. Sheila Ki Jawani, I had actually written into the script, like that was a sequence, I knew I wanted that song for, if possible. I never dreamed we would be able to actually get it, but everything else, all the other Bollywood songs, we were able to clear through our supervisors, but one of them, I tried to use lyrics and themes that fit what was going on in the screen, so hopefully, that’s a little Easter egg for people who know Bollywood and Hindi.

ROHAN: My folks speak Gujarati and English at home - did you ever consider having the Kapur family speak Hindi or another language at home or did you want to keep it English?

GEETA: I wanted to keep it English, I personally grew up - So, my parents, I’m mad at them all them all the time because my mom and grandmother speak English, Hindi, Gujarati, and Punjabi, my parents are both Punjabi, they spoke Punjabi to each other at home, but we never learned it properly. So, I learned some Hindi and I call my kids “beta” and stuff like that. I incorporated that into my own language, but at home, my parents also grew up in the west, they had their teen hood in London, so they’re very comfortable in English, so for me, putting this film in English made total sense because that’s how I grew up. I grew up speaking English at home, with Hindi peppered in and so that’s what I wanted to show in this film.

ROHAN: What was the most fun scene to write and then realize in live-action? There was a scene were Alia told off a few aunties and that really felt like some long overdue wish-fulfillment... 

GEETA: That was awesome because I never did that. I wish I had done that, but I personally never did that. So, that’s exactly it. It was, “I’m writing this movie, I can have my character actually say what’s on her mind.” I think that was also just this moment of Alia, the character herself, starting to break free from all of this and saying, “You know what? This is ridiculous.” All this hypocrisy here, she’s just not onboard anymore, so it was a little cathartic moment for me as the writer and director, having grown up this way, but also for Alia’s journey. It was a moment where this is the beginning of the end of this pretense that we put on at these parties.

ROHAN: You were able to cast Sophia Ali and Rish Shah, who are both these rising South Asian stars. I mean, Sophia will soon be seen in Uncharted while Rish is doing Ms. Marvel - can you tell me more about casting them and writing a modern young romance between their characters?

GEETA: Sophia, I’ve known for a while, she came in for a table read early on and she read for the part of the best friend. It was a really casual table read, just for me to hear the dialogue and I kept looking at her. She is so good, she should read for the actual lead role. Then, Rish, we had awesome casting directors on this film and they scoured the Earth, they went to theater programs, they went to colleges, they went to all kinds of places to find these two young guys, Rish and Ved Sapru, who played Rahul, and Rish is British and we found him there and he auditioned over Zoom, over tape and so from the beginning, it was easy to see for all of these characters and even for our supporting characters, what they could bring to the table. And Rish and Sophia had a really natural chemistry in the audition, we had them audition together as well, so that worked out nicely.

Then, as far as showing young romance, I feel like I also grew up a little bit different than my friends, whose parents came directly from India, like I said, my parents are Indian origin, my mom grew up in Kenya, they both had their youth in London, they both moved their when they were like 14 and so for me, there is a little more liberal that I wanted to show, also just in the Indian community, we’re not all daughters and sons of super duper strict parents who will like lose their minds if you kissed someone. Not that Alia would ever tell her parents that she spent the night with Rish’s character, but just that there’s a casualness to it, like you can explore and you don’t get judged for it by your peers the way you would by maybe the aunties and uncles.

ROHAN: You make a really interesting choice where Alia's father isn't really depicted as a villain or anything like that. I mean, he's not doing good things, but outside of Alia being angry with him, he's still shown as a man that cares about his family, even if he's strayed off-course. What led to that decision?

GEETA: I think that goes along with the theme of hypocrisy throughout the film where it’s very easy for people to compartmentalize and I think that’s what happens with Ranjit, with Adil’s character, where he’s like I love my kids, I’m a good family man, I’m providing for them, but there’s still a part of me - the same with Shiela - that’s still stuck in this youth that they never got to have. In India, he was also forced into something, she was forced into something for whatever reason, and they never got to explore who they were, like Alia and that generation can.

So, for Ranjit, I never wanted to make him a villain, I don’t think he was out to hurt anyone, he wasn’t trying to be a jerk, it’s just at a certain point, there’s a good amount of ego that can come with being a successful doctor in the States and I think the opportunities were there for him and I think because he didn’t have a great relationship with his wife, it’s something he was able to do and not feel like it took away anything from his family. Then, of course, the reckoning comes, no it actually does hurt your family.

ROHAN: The film is split into different parties, which is a really interesting structure since we get to see how everything starts out relatively normally before cracks begin to show and everything ultimately comes to a head at the end. Was that structure always in your script?

GEETA: The structure was pretty much in tact from the beginning, I think the very first draft it was much more of a satirical comedy and it was always set at these dinner parties, there were always meant to be these mile posts, but I think as I wrote more and the story developed, it really came down to those four parties, so the first one, she comes home, it’s very much business as usual, whatever, I’m serving my samosas. The second one, like you said, the cracks start to be revealed, she finds something out about her family at that party. The third party, she’s really getting over it, she’s starting to talk back to aunties and uncles, she’s trying to figure out what am I going to do next and then, the fourth party is the climax, so yeah, I always wanted to have those parties as a progression.

ROHAN: Alia is the main character, but this is as much Shiela's story as it is hers. Was that important to you to be able to tell both perspectives of these women's stories?

GEETA: Yeah, I think for me, it was just really trying to figure out where these aunties and uncles were coming from, even in my youth. Looking at these people, I always judged them the way I thought they were judging me, “Oh, they’re just gossipy, whatever,” and then as I grew up, I have kids now too, I’m a mom, and they don’t know me before I was mom, so just really thinking about Sheila and how she got to where she was and why the stereotypical aunties and uncles, why they behaved the way they do. What are they trying to prove to each other? What are they trying to hide?

Just really digging into that and I think for Sheila, for me, knowing that these women had freedom and a lot of anger, a lot of vitality when they were younger and for so many of them, there is community pressure, there are society pressures, there are familial pressures that can start to chip away at that identity and for Sheila, it happened in a very drastic way.

For the movie, it’s dramatic and tragic, but for a lot of these other aunties and uncles that I look at, I just wanted to study them and be like, “Well, why are you this way? What happened in your past that brought you here where you just seem to be part of this same stereotype cause you probably weren’t always that stereotype? Who were you in your youth?,” So, I really wanted to explore that, especially with Sheila.

India Sweets and Spices is now playing in theaters worldwide!

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