Beyond brown shame: Refreshing "India Sweets and Spices" moves past struggles of hyphenated identity

Geeta Malik's new movie set in a rich enclave of New Jersey reflects a new direction for South Asian diaspora films

Published November 28, 2021 8:00AM (EST)

Rish Shah, Sophia Ali and Ved Sapru in "India Sweets and Spices" (Bleecker Street)
Rish Shah, Sophia Ali and Ved Sapru in "India Sweets and Spices" (Bleecker Street)

Early on in "India Sweets and Spices," Alia (Sophia Ali) spots a handsome young man from across the way in the local Indian store. Immediately, they lock eyes, and romantic music swells, as her hair blows back elegantly by a mysterious indoor breeze. It's a dramatic cliché familiar to fans of Bollywood, whose over-the-top romantic arcs typically start with a scene like this. Alia, it seems, is living in a Bollywood daydream of her own, though crucially she actually lives in the posh New Jersey suburb where she was born and raised. 

That type of scene, so steeped in love for mass Indian culture, would never have made it into a Hollywood film 20 years ago. Geeta Malik's "India Sweets and Spices," however, is full of these little nods to India. In the film, Alia and her mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala) realize they're more alike than different after Alia uncovers her mom's secret college days as a feminist organizer. The film interrogates ingrained class prejudice, gender expectations and intergenerational dynamics.

It's a departure from the coming-of-age films of the early aughts that centered on modern-day South Asian assimilation into western communities. In 2006's "The Namesake," based on the Jhumpa Lahiri novel of the same name, Kal Penn's Gogol is stuck between two worlds: the Indian one that he's desperately trying to denounce by changing his name and dating white girls in order to fit in, and the American one that also doesn't feel correct either. Gogol is battling a case of the hyphenated identity in which neither half feels enough to make him whole, and the only thing that wakes him up to his parents' sacrifices and his cultural pride is his father's death. 

Bend It Like BeckhamParminder K. Nagra in "Bend It Like Beckham" (Getty Images/Sundance/WireImage)

Meanwhile, Gurinder Chadha's 2002 comedy "Bend It Like Beckham" also attempts to find an identity balance for its main character. Jesminder "Jess" (Parminder Nagra) is a rebellious female soccer player — a sharp contrast to her mother's expectations of what a good little Indian girl should be. If her mother had her way, Jess would sit at home learning to cook the perfect roti while patiently waiting to be married off to a suitable man. Jess's sister's wedding provides the backdrop for the film, showing Jess what life would be like if her mother's vision came true. But Jess can't wait to change out of her feminine Indian garb and back into her jersey and cleats, and to her family, a girl playing any sport is improper. As Jess continues to rise in her team's ranks, her family's scrutiny makes her question whether following her passion is worth challenging her family's long held beliefs about what women should or shouldn't do. 

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Even 2001's cult classic "American Desi" speaks to the feelings of assimilation and stripping your culture in order to fit in. Krishnagopal (Deep Katdare) renounces his Indian heritage for much of his upbringing, even shortening his name to "Kris." His worst nightmare comes true when he arrives at college to three South Asian suitemates who are unapologetic in embracing their brownness. They cook Indian food, join the Indian club on campus, and regularly watch Bollywood films in their dorm, much to Kris' chagrin. But after Kris develops a crush on an Indian girl, he finds himself turning to these new, reluctant friendships, and ultimately realizes that his heritage is something to love instead of something to run away from. 

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For a long time, these films spoke directly to what the diasporic experience was: Am I American enough? Indian enough? Where do I fit in? Do I have to give up who I am to appease my family's expectations? As a '90s kid myself, born and raised in the Midwest to Indian immigrant parents, I have struggled with these questions, sometimes feeling like the chasm between my Indian self and my American self was too big to cross and bring together. My childhood was the era where kids would be bullied for bringing their "smelly" rice and dal for lunch or be called names on the playground that insulted our heritage. Why would I lean into my brownness if such hatred was waiting for me on the other side?

Fortunately, times have changed even though bullying and identity issues haven't gone away completely. But now, our media is finally investing in and producing varied stories that showcase the prism of Indian-American experience. I'll always be thankful for having the likes of "Bend It Like Beckham" and "The Namesake" while I was dealing with my own identity-based questions as an adolescent, but it's nice to see the stories about our community evolve along with us and highlight different aspects of our experiences.  

Compared to the previous era of Indian-American films, the crux of "India Sweets and Spices" is not about Alia's confusion about who she is or what her relationship to being Indian is. In fact, Alia feels very at home in her Indianness, donning elegant mirror-work lehengas for family parties, picking up Parle-G biscuits from the Indian store, and hanging out with family friends that are as close to real family as it gets for most immigrants. Alia slips into heightened Indian accents when joking with friends and seeks out Indian dating prospects in both Varun (Rish Shah) and Rahul (Ved Sapru), clearly affectionate for her culture.

SpinIn "Spin," teenager Rhea (Avantika) discovers a passion for creating DJ mixes (Disney/John Medland)

The film follows and builds on the foundation of "Spin," a recent Disney Channel Original Movie that also allows its main character Rhea to fully embody her Indian identity: conflict comes from Rhea's internal struggle about whether she wants to pursue DJing rather than how connected she feels to Indian culture. Instead, Indianness is a fabric of her life. Rhea works at her family's Indian restaurant where her grandma does an elaborate Bollywood-style dance every night, Rhea mixes popular Bollywood music for the dinner rush, and her big DJ debut is constructed with her mother's traditional Indian tunes. At school, she even suggests a fundraiser event inspired by the Hindu holiday Holi.

None of it is embarrassing, and Rhea's culture is even lauded by her school crush Max who deems the whole spectacle "legit awesome." "Spin" is aimed at a younger generation, but along with "India Sweets and Spices," the approach of these narratives is a stark contrast to the Indian identity-based films I grew up on. There's no "brown shame" at the center of these films, and there's no exoticization of our culture either.  

Instead, "India Sweets and Spices" gives us a different aspect of the diaspora experience by trying to understand Sheila's generation and the things they gave up in order to give their children the life they have. For Sheila, the sacrifices were extreme: her identity as a feminist in India caused her to be persecuted and then exiled, and she lost the agency (and the will) to make decisions for herself after she is forced into an arranged marriage. My parents made similar decisions, even if they weren't as soul-shredding as Sheila's; they gave up their native country and moved thousands of miles away seeking better jobs and a better life. I, like Alia, didn't realize the full extent of their sacrifices until I became an adult myself.

Malik tells Alia and Sheila's story warmly and fully injects the film with recognizable yet nuanced aspects of South Asian immigrant culture, warts and all. There is noticeable exploration of class and status through the aunties in Alia's elite community gossiping about and acting superior to Varun's family who own the local store that everyone frequents. Though they're from a perfectly stable and normal middle-class background, the Duttas don't fit into the lavish Ruby Hill community filled with high-status individuals in mansions. This is a common, though usually unspoken, aspect of our culture: we can be judgmental of and condescending to those not working as doctors, lawyers or engineers. 

India Sweets and SpicesRish Shah and Sophia Ali in "India Sweets and Spices" (Eliza Morse/Bleecker Street

Even worse, Varun attends community college, automatically placing him on a lower plane than Alia in the community's eyes. Education is of utmost importance, and just getting a degree isn't seen as enough; the name of the school does too. Aunties in "India Sweets and Spices" are shameless in their judgments, making snide comments to Varun and his mother's face at dinner parties and even in the store that they own. In an excellent clapback against their collective gossip, Alia drops truth bombs about each of these meddling aunties' own children: one got caught in a threeway in the school gym, one cried in class after failing a Physics final, and another is a (lovable) pothead. Gossip rules the community, and fans of Hasan Minhaj will pick up on the Hindi line that he made famous in his comedy special "Homecoming King" coming to life in this film: "Log kya kahenge? What will people think?" 

Through Sheila's story, the film also delves into antiquated Indian values about female agency and a woman's place in society, and even seeks to understand how those outdated opinions can find themselves stuck in time and perpetuated in modern-day migrant communities. Sheila often finds herself at odds with Alia, likely because she sees part of herself in her and is worried to see that story play out again. It colors their relationship and shows that Sheila had given up on what she once stood for; for so long after she was unceremoniously married off, Sheila saw the feminist fight as pointless and wanted to shield her daughter from the consequences of rocking the boat.

But at its heart, the story is about how we relate to each other and seek a deeper understanding of where we came from. Late in the film after it's revealed that Sheila used to be just as headstrong as she raised Alia to be, it's as though Alia can suddenly see her mother in 3D. Suddenly, she clearly sees all of the hardships and turmoil that have made her who she is today, and with that comes a deeper respect for her roots. Traditional elder Indian generations are stoic and secretive, choosing not to divulge the details of the past for a better future. Malik's film shows us that it's usually worth the nudge. 

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Both "India Sweets and Spices" and "Spin" are contemporary examples of how Hollywood is evolving and the stories we're allowed to tell are changing. The diaspora films of yesteryear are, and always will be, important to the South Asian film canon. But I no longer complain to my friends about how to bridge the gap between my Indian heritage and my American upbringing, and I think there has been enough conversation in the past 20 years to make those hyphenated identities feel much more at home in the fabric of this country. It's a sign of our culture growing up (and Hollywood finally getting with the picture) that we're seeing immigrant stories expand in different directions.

We aren't just immigrant doctors, lawyers or engineers anymore. We are DJs who also happen to be great coders. We are social justice warriors who don't mind ruffling a few feathers by shaving our heads and speaking our truths at family parties. We are mothers and daughters who fight and make up and then fight again. We are freelance journalists and aspiring screenwriters with big ideas and big ambitions who are trying to figure it out one day at a time. We are more than just people grappling with cultural assimilation, and it's undeniable how great our stories can be if we're allowed to tell them.

"India Sweets and Spices" is in select theaters. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Radhika Menon

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