Tribeca 2021 Interview: Geeta Malik on Bringing Her Unique Flavor to “India Sweets and Spices”

“I’ve had a blast raising our glasses and consciousness together,” says Alia (Sophia Ali), presiding over a social justice social at UCLA, about as far away as she could get from her parents, both geographically and culturally in “India Sweets and Spices.” Still, while she prides herself on being progressive, Alia’s gift for event planning surely was passed on to her by her more conservative mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala), who as part of a well-to-do Indian community in New Jersey is required to keep up appearances as each weekend one family after another throws an epic party and to disappoint with either the decor or gulab jumun would be social suicide. Sadly, Alia is back in her mother’s domain for the summer rather than running her own show, having to hear the pernicious gossip of aunties comparing their kids’ collegiate achievements and running out to pick up last-minute items for the party, but in Geeta Malik’s clever comedy, there is as much of an education to be had back east as what’s waiting for her on the west coast when she sees the world she grew up in with fresh eyes.

Although Alia has her choice of men in “India Sweets and Spices,” meeting a kindly grocer at the local store of the title (Rish Shah) and seemingly aware that a longtime friend (Ved Sapru) has been nursing a crush, what unfolds is a love story between the young woman and her mother, discovering that the two more have been more alike at her age than she thought. Not only does Malik tell a fascinating intergenerational story as Alia looks at opportunities her mother could’ve never imagined for herself, but one which considers how South Asians who think they’re leaving the caste system behind may find some of it simply reworked in a class system in America with its inherent misogyny and inequality that extends back centuries. However, the film is first and foremost a good time and after recently celebrating in style with its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Malik spoke about living up to the promise of a script that had been awarded a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship, finishing up filming just before the pandemic and staging all those wild parties.

How did this come about?

I grew up in a community similar to what you’d see in the film, but obviously very exaggerated for the movie, and it was something that always lived in my head and wanted to revisit. As a kid, you see all these things happening around you in the context of these parties, and as I got older and I went back and thought about my past and my culture, I was like, “Something’s interesting was happening at these parties that I didn’t realize at the time.” So I made my first feature right out of film school, and then I got pregnant with my first kid and I started writing this comedy about these ridiculous parties, but then as I was writing and thinking about my own kids that I was now raising, I really started to see it more from the point of view of the adults at the party, and what they were going through and all the things that they had hidden and buried in their past and how that was manifesting now in the present. I started thinking about my mother and really [wanted to] explore the mother-daughter relationship and the cultural phenomenon of being part of an immigrant community, but also still trying to fit in in a non-Indian world.

Was the idea of castes translating into the American class system always there? It’s one of the more interesting parts of the film and I was surprised to learn you didn’t actually grow up in New Jersey where this takes place, though I imagine it’s common in most suburbs.

That was always part of it. I grew up very comfortably middle-class, but I always noticed, for instance, going to some of the parties and my feet would sink into the carpet, or they would have the designer light switches, and we had the ones you actually had to manually lift up and down. Small things like that, I definitely felt that, and I certainly knew that the people being invited to these parties were not the shopkeepers in our community. As you said, there are certain classes of people who went to these parties and at these parties, all the gossip was about money. A lot of it was about keeping up with each other and the bragging contests people get into, without any self-awareness. It was like Facebook before Facebook. It’s like, “Look at how amazingly I’m doing, and look at all the cool cars and watches and stuff that I have” and partly because as immigrants, a lot of people came to America to make their fortune, and to send money back home and they didn’t have the opportunities back home they had here.

Did Alia change much as the years passed? And how did you find Sophia Ali to play her?

She became a lot more overt, the way I characterize her. Many times it’s my voice coming out of Alia, [which is] inevitable as the writer/director, but I feel like there was a radical element that I always felt was missing from growing up in these communities, and that I wanted to portray through Alia as a mouthpiece. Sophia was someone I actually met long before I hooked up with these production companies and my producer. I have a friend who’s a casting director, [who] put together a table read for me when the script seemed like it was congealing and Sophia came in and actually read the part of the best friend. All the actors were wonderful, but all through the table read, I was like, “Who is that girl?”

Sophia really stood out as someone who really understood who Alia was and what this community was about and there was something about the way she connected to this character that made me feel very comfortable with her. I actually stayed in touch with Sophia the whole time [we were raising the financing] and I went back to my casting director friend and I was like, “Can we bring Sophia in?” I told the production company about her. They loved her, and I loved her. She’s a phenomenal actress and just got the character on a level that a lot of people didn’t.

This may not apply, but these kinds of opportunities don’t come around for South Asian American actors all that often and I know for “Crazy Rich Asians,” which this shares some producers with, the process involved laying out a pipeline for casting when it may not have existed before. What was casting like?

Luckily, the casting directors were amazing. One of the producers on the film, Kilian Kerwin is really closely tied to India and the Hindi film industry in Mumbai, so that was our Bollywood connection and he really was the one who connected me to Manisha Koirala [to play] Sheila, and Adil Hussain, who plays Ranjit. Then we shot in Atlanta, and we had people on the ground, going to Starbucks and say, “Hey, are you South Asian?” People really did a lot of footwork, but the bench is also really deep in Atlanta. There are certain pockets in the state where there are these larger South Asian communities, so we were able to get plugged into them pretty easily.

You set up quite a challenge for yourself with all these parties you have to throw. Were there some crazy days in terms of extras and logistics?

There were definitely some crazy days. The parties were so much fun. There’s just a lot of energy that comes with having so many people in one room, all dressed up and pretending to eat food and drink scotch. We shot two of the parties on two consecutive nights, and the other two were a little more spread out, and it was exhausting — it was a lot of people to corral — but it was fun. We had such a great crew and something that keeps coming up with the actors that were there, everyone that I’m still in touch with says, “It’s just really cool to be in a room with so many South-Asian actors.” Sophia herself is half-Pakistani, half-white and we have actors from all different regions in India and all different regions of America, from the diaspora. Just to have everyone who experienced a similar culture to be in one room, to be telling the story was really special for all of us. You’re usually the one brown person on set or one of a handful who is doing a dance in the background, so for them to all be front and center, I think was really, really cool, especially at these parties.

The way that you’re able to get the camera in there, it looked like it had to have 360 degree lighting and steadicam. What was it like to figure out?

Logistics were very interesting. I worked with Shane Kelly, an incredible [director of photography] and couple of days into shooting, I looked at Shane and I was like, “You must have worked with these guys before. How long have you been working with them?” And he just kind of looked at me. He’s like, “I’ve never worked with most of this crew before in my life.” I think he brought his gaffer Jim, but that was the only guy he had worked with before. It was like a machine and really smooth. People want to work with him because he’s so laid back and chill, yet knows exactly what the shot needs. We did have to have 360 lighting a lot of times, and we did have to shoot around things, but he was really instrumental in finding creative ways around those challenges.

Does anything happen you might not have been expecting, but made it into the film and now you really like it?

There is a lot of things. One that really stands out for me, and this is a testament to Sophia is that she was so friendly to all the actors, they had really great rapport and that gave us some permission to play on set and to improv. And there’s a scene in the hallway where she’s in the bathroom, overhearing all these aunties gossiping about her family and she comes out and she tells them each something shady about their kid, to throw it back in their face, and at the end of it, she sticks her finger in one of the aunties chai cups, and walks away. That was not in the script, but it was just the perfect button on that scene. We just cracked up and I [said], “Let’s do it also as scripted, just so we have it” but of course what we ended up using was that amazing moment of improv that was just off the cuff.

This film is just so full of life in that way. What’s it like to start sending it off into the world?

It feels great. I’m so ready to celebrate, especially after this crazy year and I think people forget how long these journeys can be. I started writing the script ages ago, and then winning the Nicholl in 2016 was a huge turning point, but that was in 2016. It’s now 2021. Someone told me that today, “Every movie is a miracle,” and I so believe that. It just takes so many moving pieces. We actually ended up [having] one pickup to do in Los Angeles. We had 24 hours to shoot it, because Sophia was going back to shoot her Amazon show in Australia, so she flew in for 24 hours and flew right back out two weeks before COVID shut the world down and we got it in just under the wire, so I feel so grateful and so lucky to even have a completed film at this point. The icing on the cake is to get it to Tribeca, so it’s just amazing.

“Indian Sweets and Spices” opens on November 19th at select theaters. A full list is here.