“I’ve had a blast raising social justice consciousness!” cries Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali) at the final party of her year at UCLA before she heads home to her family in New Jersey. The trip home begins with a flurry of text messages from her mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala) – whom Alia calls the “Queen of Ruby Hill”, the affluent enclave in New Jersey where the Kapur family live, along with the many wealthy Indian families that throw lavish parties on a regular basis. Alia arrives home hoping to spend the summer relaxing and enjoying her time off. Alia’s father Ranjit (Adil Hussain) is a doctor, and has a fairly laid-back relationship with his daughter, suggesting he could use her help in his clinic, but willing to let go when she refuses. Alia’s relationhip with her mother, Sheila, is much more fraught, with Alia chafing at Sheila’s high standards and expectations of her, which include attending the many parties thrown by the neighbourhood Aunties.
The Aunties give us an insight into the ideas about culture, class, and gender expecations, along with a side of the gossip that fuels their interactions. I fully remember the strains of, “What will people say?” in my own family, and the film mines this theme: for the residents of Ruby Hill, it starts with the concern over what others will think, but includes the idea that everything people think or do will provide fuel for the community gossip machine. The flip side, of course, is that everyone in Ruby Hill, including Alia’s parents, has secrets, and it’s those secrets that challenge Alia. Alia herself is comfortable with who she is, comfortable with her activism. If she chafes at her mother’s expectations it’s not because she doesn’t want to wear Indian dress or attend the parties, it’s more that she doesn’t want to be like her mother, a housewife and mother who lunches and gossips with all the other Aunties. Alia knows fully what is expected of her at these parties, and she puts on her game face as she straightens her posture and passes around a plate of samosas, even as she sneaks a beer in a quiet corner with her longtime friend Rahul (Ved Sapru).
In some ways, the themes the film explores aren’t exclusive to the Indian diasporic community, but are shared by many immigrant communities, and usually boil down to the contrast between immigrant parents, holding on to sometimes old-fashioned, old-country values, and their children who embrace the culture of the new world they are born into, along with its often more independent and modern values. The parents of Ruby Hill are no different from the parents in my Ukrainian family, placing high value on a good education (and especially on the “right” schools) and good careers – I have uncles who became, at their families insistance, doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, even when their interests lay elsewhere. Alia’s interests do not include marrying Rahul, as everyone seems to expect; rather, she finds herself quickly smitten with Varun (Rish Shah) the son of the owners of the local Indian store that gives the film its title, “Indian Sweets and Spices”.
I wish India Sweets and Spices were less uneven in its directing, writing, and, at times, acting. Its best moments are when it embraces Bollywood tropes and culture: when Alia visits the Indian Sweets and Spices store to buy biscuits for one of her mother’s parties, she spots Varun, the son of the owners. Music (“Kaisa Lagta Hai” from Baaghi) swells, the wind machine blows her hair. At the party thrown by Sheila, the guests arrive to the strains of “Sheila ki Jawaani” – a clever song placement that tells us that “Sheila’s Youth” is going to be important in this narrative.
Because India Sweets and Spices is at its best when director Geeta Malik focusses on Sheila and her story, and Manisha Koirala is resplendent in the role, at turns brittle and fragile as her daughter discovers her mother’s own secret, a university activism that reveals that mother and daughter are more alike than they are different, and which explains Sheila’s at times overwhelming concern for her daughter. Koirala manages to give Sheila depth. We learn that she knows about and lives with her husband’s infidelity, carrying on with her veneer of perfection. There are occasional cracks, as with the moment in the kitchen where she looks harried, but true to form, she picks up a tray of samosas, straighteners her spine, and carries on with her mask put back in place.
This, too, is one of the film’s best moments, because the camera follows Sheila out of the kitchen, and then pans over to the doorway where the Duttas, the four Sweetshop family members, having been invited to the party by Alia, stand, much less fancily dressed, mom with a Rubbermaid container of food, in shock and awe at what they’re seeing. It’s a thirty second lesson in class differences, without having to say a word, and a fine moment in a film that spends too much time telling rather than just showing.
But when the film focusses on Sheila, and on Alia’s questions about her mother’s life, we get more of its best moments. Alia moves beyond chafing at her mother’s expectations, and tries to see the young woman Sheila was, and how she connects to the woman Sheila is now. She wonders why a woman who was such an activist would “spend all of the god damned time cleaning stains out of the rug and reading gossip magazines?” The weight of family and community expectations is central in the film, and Alia discovers that just as her mother has expectations for her, her mother has also had family expectations to live up to. When Alia confronts her mother, Sheila’s response is one many parents would echo: “Back then, my life was complicated. I want your life to be simple. Easy.” And this is contrasted by Alia musing that her life, and the lives of all the Ruby Hill children, is far too easy.
That said, it’s Alia’s quest to find out more about her mother’s youth and activism that serves as the catalyst for Sheila to realize that she deserves more from life, that she, and other women like her, deserve respect. Sheila once thought that her life with her husband in the US was a chance to start over, and slowly her life became different and less meaningful in many ways as she distanced herself from the feminist causes that mattered to her. Where Ranjit is desperate to hold on to their life, to paint over the cracks in their relationship, Sheila once again chooses a more meaningful path for herself, one in which she can have the respect and dignity she finally feels she deserves.