‘India Sweets and Spices’ Film Spurs Backlash From Same-Name Grocery Store

India Sweets and Spices Tribeca
Courtesy of Tribeca

India Sweets and Spices” is an independent film about immigrants who face family complications and romantic entanglements in America.

India Sweets & Spices is a chain of Indian grocery stores across Southern California. Now the grocery chain, founded in 1984, is raising hell over the movie, which debuted at Tribeca earlier this month.

Raj Jawa, whose father started the franchise, has begun to wage an online campaign accusing the filmmakers of stealing his family’s trademark. He has written to the filmmakers’ representatives, urging them to change the title.

“We built up this goodwill and this name for years,” Jawa said in an interview. “And they’re just going to slap it on their product for marketing purposes.”

The director, Geeta Malik, is based in Los Angeles with graduate film degree from UCLA. The script for “India Sweets and Spices,” originally called “Dinner With Friends,” won an Academy’s Nicholl fellowship in 2016. In it, the main character visits a store called India Sweets and Spices, which is described as “a dingy grocery store in the corner of a mini-mall,” and “small and cramped.”

The film is set in New Jersey, and was shot in Georgia. An Indian grocery store in Georgia was used to stand-in as “India Sweets & Spices.” In a statement, Malik said she meant the film to be an homage to Indian groceries in general, and the inclusion was not intended as a slight to the Jawa family or their chain.

“I’m saddened that Mr. Jawa feels this way — that was certainly never the intention,” she said. “The film is set in a fictional town in New Jersey, and there are scenes that take place at the local Indian grocery store. The title is meant as an homage to Indian grocery stores everywhere, since so many of their names include some variation of Sweets, Spices, and India. We hope that the film, and its title, are taken in the spirit in which they were intended, which is to showcase the strength of the South Asian community to come together in a familiar, warm environment.”

In an email to Malik’s reps at CAA on June 6, Jawa accused the filmmakers of trademark infringement. The Jawa family has trademarked the name for three purposes: restaurants, grocery stores, and rice and flour retail.

Mark Litwak, an entertainment lawyer who handles trademark disputes, said he did not believe Jawa has much of a case. Litwak noted that trademark law is designed to prevent customer confusion. So the Jawa family could prevent another grocery store from operating under that name, but it couldn’t stop a film from using the title.

“If this guy wants to go to court and argue that people are going to be confused, and instead of coming to his store and buying groceries they might go to the movie theater — good luck,” Litwak said. “If the movie is good, the store is being silly. It’s not going to hurt the store.”

Jawa said that the film has already started to show up higher than the store in Google search results. But he said he had not hired a lawyer, and was not sure if he would pursue his claim in court. Even if he has no legal case, he said, “I feel like there’s an impropriety at least.”

“I wish they would have talked to us,” he said.

Jawa said that his father immigrated to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and initially sold bikinis on Venice Beach. He saved up enough money to open the first store, in Culver City, before building up the chain across the region. A series of reversals, however, forced the family to sell off most of the stores, and they now own only one location, on Los Feliz Boulevard in Atwater Village, while the others license the name from the family.

Jawa, who has worked as an actor and filmmaker, said he supports seeing more Indian Americans on screen.

“We’re obviously trying to promote India and get India more representation in all ways. I’m not trying to come out against the film,” Jawa said. “Sometimes you feel like you get squashed.”