We all have that moment when we suddenly realize our parents are people. For India Sweets and Spices’ Alia Kapur (The Wilds’ Sophia Ali) the fateful twist comes during her summer break home from college. Her return to the affluent Indian-American enclave of Ruby Hill, NJ is initially uneventful: Alia’s days are spent lounging at the pool, bickering with her mother, Sheila (Manisha Koirala), and following her parents to an endless string of dinner parties with friends and neighbors. But after discovering her father (Adil Hussain) locked in an embrace with her best friend’s mom, Alia’s world is shaken to its core. Everything she thought she knew about her parents, their lives together, and their values, comes undone. But just as Alia has some growing up to do, so too does Sheila, whose past life as a feminist activist in India suddenly resurfaces after a surprise encounter with an old friend.
“The story really came to completion after I had my first kid,” she told Refinery29 over the phone in the aftermath of the film’s festival premiere. That’s when she picked up a draft of a script she’d written back in 2011 about her experience being dragged to one dinner party after another by her parents. There, she watched the women gossip and the men sip drinks, all with healthy helpings of samosas, tea, and cookies to keep the momentum going. But though she initially identified with Alia’s character, giving birth prompted her to start wondering about the backstories of those around her. What secrets were they hiding behind that genteel exterior and those sky-high expectations?
“I was just exhausted and trying to get back to being who I was before, and focus on my writing and my career while trying to raise a tiny child,” Malik said. “ I had this entire life before this child came into my life, and [that led to] just trying to figure out what was actually happening at these dinner parties. Who were these women, who were these men before they were mom and dad?”
The result is a poignant, culturally-specific, but universally relatable, movie that will make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, call your mom.
Refinery29: A lot of immigrant narratives — especially those centering around women — are about that second generation chafing against “traditional” family values. This movie takes that idea a little bit further.
Geeta Malik: “We see a lot of coming-of-age of younger people, but not so much that older generation. Especially for South Asian narratives, the parents are very overbearing, very traditional, very conservative. My parents are actually very liberal, and the community that I was in — certainly there are traditions and there were people who are conservative, but they were also drinking scotch on a Saturday night. They were out there partying. They were living their lives. They were making money and they were chasing the American dream. They weren't just sort of stuck in this old world mentality. I think that was important to show. But then also, the mom got caught up in this whole whirlwind of leaving her country behind and trying to make a new life, trying to fit in, and then really losing herself in the process.”
You wrote the first draft of the script in 2011. Did it take a long time to get made because you had other things going on in your life, or was it a question of failing to get greenlit and funding?
“Definitely a combination of both. In 2011, I had a skeleton [of the story] but then my family sort of took over. I was still writing, I was still making short films and I was still working. But the script kept nagging at me. I really focused again on it in 2014-2015 when I was really like, OK, I have to make this movie. But of course the money wasn't there. I tried to talk to a million different producers and executives, production companies, and I don't think it was time yet — for them anyway, it was certainly time for me. In the last handful of years something has really turned.”
What kind of feedback were you getting when you initially pitched the idea?
“‘You're not going to be able to cast any stars because there are no South Asian American stars.’ We ended up getting these wonderful actors from India. Manisha Koirala was an idol of mine, but sadly here people don’t know those names, even though [Bollywood] has such a huge audience. So having a South Asian cast without any bankable star was the hurdle. I also heard that the story might not resonate with people. I did get a lot of people trying to make it more exotic, like ‘Let's put this humongous wedding in the middle of it,’ or whatever. A lot of the feedback was steering us in cliché and stereotypical territory.”
Sophia Ali has since built up a following from her role in The Wilds and Grey’s Anatomy. How did you end up casting her as Alia?
“When I met Sophia, it was before any of her excellent successes. It was at a table read, that a casting director friend of mine — who ended up casting the film – put together. I was trying to get support and to figure out how to get funding. Five, six years ago, Sophia came in and read the part of the best friend. And I kept looking at her and going ‘She gets it!’ She has such a great voice and her acting really captivated me, even in this small role. I kept in touch with her and we became friends, and when it came time to cast this film, she was at the top of my list. We saw tons and tons of tapes, and did a lot of auditions, but Sophia rose to the top every time.”
I read something you recently said about Mira Nair, and being struck by her ability to not explain cultural or exotify cultural references for Western audiences. Why was that important for you to carry into this movie as well?
“If I'm watching a film I don't get a cultural reference, then I'll go look that cultural reference up. You know what we could do? We can help educate ourselves. You don't have to be part of the community to enjoy it. There's so many films that don't necessarily reflect my experience that I adore because there's some human factor that ties us to them.”
It’s interesting you say that because thinking back to some of the movies that have resonated at festivals this year, so many of them are very culturally specific. Shiva Baby dominated the Toronto International Film Festival, and one of Tribeca’s big highlights was In The Heights. Have you seen a real shift in how people are talking about AAPI stories?
“Yeah, and I think it's been a long time coming and we're all very excited. I hope it lasts because this has happened before. It was 20 years ago that The Joy Luck Club came out. When I was putting a pitch deck for India Sweets and Spices, I was like, What do I compare it to? Monsoon Wedding was like 20 years ago, and Bend It Like Beckham. What has there been since then? There hasn’t been a lot.”