Writer-director Geeta Malik’s “India Sweets and Spices” is set in the milieu of the Indian community in a New Jersey suburb, where the wealthy families with their weekend parties look down on the working-class fellow South Asians. The pic opened at Tribeca last year and played in theaters and will be on Hulu after March 8. This interview was edited for clarity and space.
Where did you get the idea for this film from? Did you go to these kinds of parties?
I went to these kinds of parties very often as a child. I grew up in Aurora, Colo., and the community there at the time was smallish, it wasn’t a huge community. We’d go to our friends’ and our neighbors’ dinner parties. It was just a way to keep up with the community and eat our own food and just relax and enjoy the company of people that you shared a culture with. As I got older, I was expected to interact more with the adults. And it was around that time where I started hearing what people were saying behind their backs but then smiling when they’d bring the chai. I thought it was a really interesting dynamic in our community. I think it’s one that is very relatable, that’s what I’ve been hearing from people. If you live in a small town or a different kind of minority community, this happens because you want to stick with your people, you want that comfort and that warmth of community, but there’s a lot backbiting that can also happen. I thought that was a really rich environment for storytelling.
So the title, “India Sweets and Spices” — did you come up with that after you came to L.A.? Because there’s a whole chain of shops called that here.
“India Sweets and Spices” was the name of the grocery store that I put as a generic space-holder and when we got lucky enough to make the movie, it just sounded like just the right title for the film. It had a double meaning also, sweets and spices. There’s something about that in the macro world of our lives as well that made sense. For me also, coming around to that name, the grocery store is such a nexus for our community, the dinner parties were a nexus for our community, but there’s such a difference in that. What I tried to explore in the film too is this class thing: Who do we see at the grocery store? How do we interact there? How do we interact in our own home? So it just had a lot of meaning for me.
You won a Nicholl Fellowship (in screenwriting). Did that make your path to making this film easier?
Yeah absolutely. I’d been trying to make this film for years. I showed it to a bunch of friends and producers. I was trying to get funding for a long time and was making no headway. It’s an all-South Asian cast, you know, and the subject matter, whatever it was, it was very difficult to get any foothold in the industry. In 2016, that’s when I won the Nicholl and it also won in Austin. Those two things finally got me some industry attention, got me my reps and then we were sort of off to the races. The Nicholl was very much a game changer.
And getting that cast: Adil Hussein and Manisha Koirala, how did you get those two Bollywood stars?
It was a dream come true to get those two. I had always wanted to cast from India for those two characters, the parents, because I wanted to go to Bollywood. I’m a big fan of Bollywood, there’s a lot of talent there.