A simple, saccharine-free love letter to a fast-disappearing India, “Little Box of Sweets” reps an impressive directorial debut by U.K.-based actress Meneka Das that’s perfect for niche outings and tube play. Seventies-set story, inspired by Das’ own upbringing in a village in Uttar Pradesh, is a tapestry of small moments, but compensates dramatically with fine lensing of the northern landscape and a deft East-West score that’s in synch with the script’s emotional rhythms. Already screened at some minor fests last year, the pic is skedded for a two-week run at London’s ICA Cinema this summer.
Slim plot centers on high schooler Asha (Das), who lives with her grandparents (Raja Zutshi, Mohini Mathur) in Allahabad and always helped out with grandma’s chores at the Bungalow, a colonial-style manse housing Indian Commissioner Dev (Rahul Vohra) and his English wife, Sheila (Helena Michell), a local schoolteacher. Since childhood, Asha has been best friends with Dev and Sheila’s son, Seth (Joe Anderson).
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When Seth returns from schoolabroad, the two re-cement their friendship, though Seth’s father now deems the upstairs-downstairs relationship to be a social no-no. Despite his father’s disapproval, Seth still goes on seeing Asha, and quickly realizes she’s the only girl for him.
There’s nothing especially new about the story, which is decorated with traditional meller elements like Asha’s grandma wanting to marry her off to a rich banker’s son, Asha studying hard to try to escape her working-class roots, and entrenched class snobbery being thumbnosed by a younger generation. But the pic is more about the telling than the tale.
Das’ screenplay is economical with dialogue and — until the shock resolution — resolutely avoids plot mechanics or false story trails to crank up the drama artificially. It’s a movie of feelings and atmosphere, part eulogy to a “simpler” past, but without becoming an exotic postcard. Its simplicity is in the tradition of the ’50s and ’60s films of writer-director Bimal Roy (though sans songs).
Though she looks a tad old for the part, Das is fine as Asha, combining determination and humility in a low-key mixture, and playing well against newcomer Anderson, who’s remarkably natural as her upper-class vis-a-vis. Das’ real-life sister, Sheenu, who also produced and could easily have played Asha herself, scores as Asha’s cousin and soulmate, Lalli. Michell is gently sympathetic as blowhard Dev’s very English wife.
Excellent tech package gives no hint of the pic’s independent funding, with richly saturated Super-16 lensing by Belgrade-born Dusan Todorovic and alert spotting by composer Andrew T. Mackay. Editing is trim throughout.
Period in which the film is set is never specified onscreen, though a reference to the 1975 Hindi classic “Julie” fixes it. Period art direction is a little unclear, and in essence, the story could have taken place at any time from the ’50s to the ’70s. For Indian movie buffs, there’s the nice in-joke of using a picture of onetime film goddess Waheeda Rehman for Asha’s late mom.