I was drawn to India Sweets and Spices, part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival slate, primarily because I thought it would offer recognition. Not just for the one person I knew who had an extra role in the film but also for the suburban Indian enclave it depicted. I wanted to see how close it hit to home (though the film is set in New Jersey and I’m from Connecticut) as it was described as a “fresh take on the classic coming of age story”.
I felt some familiarity with the characters and the settings. However, the film left me feeling less than satiated with its core story.
I watched India Sweets and Spices about a week after seeing Jon M. Chur’s film adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes Broadway musical, In the Heights, and I have to give this film kudos for drawing on an almost entirely South Asian cast. After an intro party scene in California, once New Jersey became the setting, I only noticed two white folks on the side of a couch in a bar scene. While In the Heights received some criticism for its lack of inclusion of darker-skinned Afro-Latinx, I thought it better to avoid a deeper discussion of the inclusion or exclusion of darker-skinned South Asians here partly because I didn’t pay attention to that and partly because, from my experience, the party experiences I recall seemed culturally similar to what was shown. (Which means the filmmakers didn’t have to draw people from the rich tapestry of the subcontinent.)
Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) returns home to New Jersey (from UCLA) for a summer where she rejoins her family in hosting or attending local parties with and for other Indian families. At these soirées, aunties and uncles trade gossip about others in the community. They renew their encouragement that Alia get together with Rahul, at least an equal match as a partner (marriage is quite frequently encouraged by aunties and uncles, and I don’t mean just in the film) if not actually a prior flame. However, these superficial parties are at odds with who Alia strives to be, given she is coming off a semester in which her social justice group had a lot of success. (At least as evidenced by the aforementioned opening party scene.)
But quickly the film spins out at least two other plots worth following, one where Alia meets potential love interest Varun (Rish Shah), a newcomer to the town whose lower-class family runs the titular grocery market, and one where Alia realizes her mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala) has hidden part of her life from her children, specifically the college period when she, too, was a social justice advocate.
Of these three main threads, the story with the mother offers the most return as it gives Sheila’s character a bigger emotional arc. Yet it doesn’t feel like her mother’s arc impacts Alia at all, as they never explore the activism at the core of Alia’s identity. Considering the other two narratives, I would offer that the one with the superficial parties (aka Indian values) reaches a hilarious if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. However, Alia and Varun’s love story seems like too much of a stretch, given how quickly it was introduced and how convenient it appears to be.
Overall, I enjoyed watching India Sweets and Spices more than might be inferred from the above. I had no complaints about the cinematography or the production quality (having the credits in the style of Indian snack packaging was clever). It’s an entertaining, solid effort from writer-director Geeta Malik that calls out upper-class Indian culture in the US and offers several hilarious moments (the one uncle who was super excited with his Tesla’s self-parking feature might be my favorite) even if it doesn’t tie the threads nicely in the end.