Everything starts and ends with tradition in “India Sweets and Spices,” an inviting intergenerational dramedy of comforting flavors, both witty and familiar. Packing a conventional coming-of-age tale into its pleasantly paced running time, Geeta Malik’s sophomore feature — about old-fashioned multicultural families with storied roots and their modern, independently minded offspring — doesn’t offer all that much that is thematically surprising. But the writer-director’s hearty enthusiasm for her Indian American characters of different stripes, as well as a memorably zesty lead performance by Sophia Ali (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Truth or Dare”), manage to deliver distinct yet relatable tastes to the viewer all the same.
These virtues surprisingly feel enough to make up for some bland, sitcom directing and instances of uneven acting throughout. They also warrant a wide audience for the universal story that “India Sweets and Spices” tells with earnestness, even when the script leans schematic at times. And much like the diverse crowds that flocked to the admittedly far superior “Crazy Rich Asians,” that audience isn’t limited to the specific demographics the film portrays, but includes everyone drawn to narratives that unravel common human struggles around family, class and identity at their core — qualities that should translate into a healthy shelf life for the film, especially on streaming platforms.
Despite the plainness of the picture’s one-note direction, the Bollywood-style colors are still appealingly vibrant and plentiful throughout the movie, set mostly in and around an affluent suburb of New Jersey. It’s a neighborhood filled with shoulder-to-shoulder stately houses and immaculately manicured gardens and terraces, one that unintentionally unearths some visual humor inside a Tony Soprano-style lavishness. It is this well-heeled outpost lacquered in money that the spirited UCLA student Alia Kapur (Ali) returns to one summer — but not before we meet her at an unhinged university party on the opposite coast, the final one of her Spring semester where the unruly Alia gets blind-drunk and (with shocking skill for someone so intoxicated) cuts her own hair. This act marks Alia’s first rebellion against her traditional Indian-American parents, a posh pair perennially concerned more about “What will people say?” than how a decision, big or small, would impact their own health and happiness.
We soon learn that this code of community-driven thinking and conduct informs every aspect of their life. Alia’s prim and proper mom Sheila (Manisha Koirala) especially runs a tight ship in the social affairs department, often throwing extravagant parties for their neighbors and relatives where they never cause any extreme scandals like running out of crackers mid-soiree or heaven forbid, shamefully wearing the wrong thing. Using a template nostalgically reminiscent of “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Malik roughly structures “India Sweets and Spices” around a number of these parties thrown both by Sheila, and in turn, various other unforgivingly gossipy “Aunties” (playfully referred to as “sari-wearing zombies” by Alia in one scene) in their wealthy circles.
Leave it to the young Alia to disturb the order! When she invites over the Duttas, the new shopkeepers in town, to one of her parents’ fetes in order to get closer to their handsome son Varun (Rish Shah), all hell breaks loose.
Well, not exactly, but the inclusion of the middle class Duttas does slowly disrupt a superficially perfect picture, and Malik has some fun with it as the rich, polite bunch gradually drops their faux civilities one by one, exposing their snobbishness humorously. The movie’s MVP, costume designer Whitney Anne Adams also does some inspired work in this regard, magnifying the divide between the upper-class folk’s gorgeous, jewel-encrusted formal wear and the Duttas’ contrastingly simple, but tasteful and elegant clothing. This split gets amplified when Bhairavi Dutta (a soulful Deepti Gupta) walks into her first Kapur gathering and faces a flabbergasted Sheila, whom she seems to know from decades ago.
What follows is a feminist awakening — or reawakening — for both Alia and Sheila, with the latter remembering her young, firebrand days as a political, troublemaking activist and reinstating her individuality against her routinely cheating husband. This third-act shift and consequent resolution frankly feels unearned on the page, but the actors — especially Gupta — give it their all to sell it, driving the story to a jovial conclusion where even more secrets get spilled and everyone hilariously airs their dirty laundry.
Elsewhere, Malik proves more successful with dissecting the notion of intersectional class — both the bonding and confrontations between Alia and Varun feel genuinely touching once Alia, more concerned about lounging by the pool than anything for a while, becomes acutely aware of the intricacies of her privileges. None of it is groundbreaking or even sophisticated stuff exactly, but “India Sweets and Spices” still leaves an unexpectedly nourishing aftertaste.