Every generation finds itself clashing with the one that came before. Human nature and the natural effects of an ever-evolving society cause us to rebel, to reject some of the outdated values our parents clung to. Or, conversely, to watch our children reject the values we grew up with that seem irrelevant to them. India Sweets and Spices is a very good movie on this subject. Substantive without being didactic, and bursting with humor, it's a genuine feel-good film that focuses on the relationships between people in a manner that's as authentic as it is pleasing.
Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) is a student at UCLA who has a passion for social activism. When summer comes, she returns to the New Jersey home of her wealthy, very traditional Indian parents, Sheila (Manisha Koirala) and Ranjit (Adil Hussain). Weekends are spent attending fancy parties at the homes of equally affluent “Aunties,” most of whom seem to live for gossip. One afternoon, Alia goes to buy groceries at the small supermarket that gives the movie its name. She flirts with Varun (Rish Shah), the son of the new owners, inviting them all to an upcoming party. The act seems harmless until Sheila comes face-to-face with Varun's mother, Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta).
Without revealing too much, the uncomfortable meeting reveals that the women have a connection from the past. Sheila won't talk about it, but a curious Alia continually pries, eventually getting some answers from Bhairavi. The revelation that follows causes her to doubt the sincerity of her mother's traditional lifestyle. This, in turn, sets off a chain of events that forces Sheila to reevaluate the decisions she's made in life.
Maybe that sounds heavy. Parts of it are, yet India Sweets and Spices isn't really a heavy movie overall. Writer/director Geeta Malik tempers the serious core of the story with comedy emanating from Alia's modern-girl frustration at having to follow so many cultural norms, as well as with the developing romance between Alia and Varun. Having lighter elements surround a serious theme prevents the movie from teetering into melodrama and makes Sheila's past the kind of matter-of-fact, “this is where I've been” life event each and every one of us possesses in some way. Malik ties it all together nicely, so that Alia's journey dovetails with her mother's to make a thoughtful statement about feminism.
Aside from astute insights into culture clashes and the causes behind them, India Sweets and Spices works, in large part, because Sophia Ali is a thoroughly winning presence onscreen. She nails the romantic comedy scenes, then shows emotional depth in the dramatic moments. At all times, the actress makes Alia someone we want to spend these 101 minutes with. Scenes of the character raging against the conservative box her parents try to put her in could come off as forced, except that Ali approaches them with such truthfulness that we don't doubt them for a second.
India Sweets and Spices doesn't break any new ground in the filmmaking department, and there are occasional stray moments that border on being sitcom-like. Ali and Koirala create a compelling mother/daughter dynamic, though, and the movie's look at the shifting role of women in modern Indian culture is engaging. Slice-of-life pictures about real people, dealing with real issues, and learning to see each other in a new light are becoming harder to find in our current cinematic climate. Here's one that sends you away feeling both entertained and optimistic about the world.
out of four
India Sweets and Spices is rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, and brief drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.