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Infidelity and feminism are at the core of India Sweets and Spices

One person’s fluffy comedy is another’s slow-burning drama.

India Sweets and Spices: Sophia Ali, a still life in shallow waters.
India Sweets and Spices: Sophia Ali, a still life in shallow waters.

Many families, in some way or another, exercise their right to rely on secrets and lies as means of postponing (prolonging?) life’s darker moments. It wasn’t until I turned 30 that my mother copped to having my alcoholic third-grade teacher fired for calling her baby a “worthless cripple” (my arm was in a cast) and a “kike.” This was followed by my admission to chucking a rock at the sea-hag’s headlights. My parents seldom journeyed down life’s darker thoroughfares. When it came to cheating, Babe and Larry never had sex with each other, let alone extramarital sweethearts. Nor would anyone mistake my mother for a “women’s libber,” After all, she wasn’t nicknamed Babe based on her ability to hit a ball with a stick or consume 20 hot dogs in one sitting. Both infidelity and feminism are at the core of India Sweets and Spices, but you’ll have to wait for first-time writer-director Geeta Malik to set aside her “chick-flick” cravings before addressing the issues at hand.

We open on a coming-of-age romcom, an Indian-flavored Goodbye, Columbus. Haircuts play a major role in story development. ‘Twas the night before summer vacation, a time for partied-out Alia (Sophia Ali) to take a clipper to her sorority sister so the latter wouldn’t return home to Texas with a bad case of big hair. At first glance, one could easily confuse Alia and her friends with drunken high school students. When mother Shiela (Manisha Koirala) was Alia’s age, she was shaving her head in protest of sexual assault on campus. What happened to the once crusading feminist? In the end, it was easier to snag a husband with flowing locks. Security trounced militancy and she traded in her radical lifestyle for a lavish suburban compound in chi-chi Ruby Hills, New Jersey and an arranged marriage to a serial philanderer.

Once home, Alia quickly returns to her parent’s lavish lifestyle, which includes scattering air-kisses among the gossiping hoard of locals in attendance for their regular fancy dress get-togethers. But a lot has changed in Alia’s absence; that includes a switch in ownership at the titular grocery that sees the handsome Varun (Rish Shah) currently stocking the shelves of his parents’ store. A gust of slow-motion wind running through her hair was a bad choice of cliches to express Alia’s sudden interest. On impulse, she invites Varun and his parents to that weekend’s cookie-cutter gathering. While sizing up the potential for summer romance with alternate romantic interest Rahul (Ved Sapru), she spots her father Ranjit (Adil Hussain) at the top of the stairs and in the arms of Rahul’s mother.

Varun and the folks don’t fit in with the overstuffed nouveau riche revelers in attendance. (Ranjit purchased books by the pound to use as decor.) Varun later jokes about throwing a pool party at his house and the butler needed to inflate it. But Varun’s mother Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta) instantly pegs Sheila as her former resistance-fighting classmate. When pressed, Sheila wriggles her way out of it. So far, so what? The subject is Indian assimilation, but the execution is strictly that of a small screen romance. All it took was the dark at the top of the stairs to shine dramatic light on a comedy that appeared to be going nowhere fast.

The following morning, Alia confronts Ranjit over breakfast. It results in both parents advising their daughter to butt out. The same thing happens when she raises the subject with Rahul. His advice is to suck it up and enjoy the summer. Is it any wonder that she finds comfort in the arms of Arun? Mom’s way of dealing with stress is clearing the dinner-table with a sweep of her hand. In retrospect, Sheila refers to youthful digressions as young and stupid. This coming from a middle-aged woman who sold her soul to be with a philandering “good provider.” Fortunately for Alia, Sheila didn’t raise her daughter to wallow in the martyrdom of melodramatic drudgery. Leave it to Alia to look past the fatuous nature of the gatherings and stare unblinkingly into the epiphanic light of reason. Her first bid at picking up mom’s torch is asking a pampered uncle if he even knows where the kitchen is. One person’s fluffy comedy is another’s slow-burning drama. The free-wheeling confessionals that cap the proceedings have sure-fire crowd-pleasing delight scrawled all over them. (Starts Friday at a theatre near you.) ★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

Finch — A post-apocalyptic amalgamation of Tom Hanks’ greatest hits (notably Turner and Hooch and Cast Away) lies at the heart of this wake up call to climate change deniers. (Perhaps the non-believers in the crowd might finally face reality if the message comes cloaked in sci-fi trappings and with the Walter Cronkite of cinema as their guide?) Finch (Hanks) isn’t the sole survivor of the climate holocaust, but it isn’t until over an hour into the picture that the presence of others is called into question. It soon becomes clear to both character and viewer that Fitch’s days are numbered. Hemoptysis had set in, a throat-clearing whoop that makes Doc Holliday’s hacking in My Darling Clementine sound like a tickle. Afraid that Goodyear (Seamus) might not be able to fend for himself when the day finally comes, or that a fellow survivor will fricassee the pup, Fitch creates Jeff, a robot to care for his beloved dog. Don’t let Caleb Landry Jones’ name in the credits fool you. This is a one-hander, with Jones on board to provide Jeff with his voice and motion capture likeness. Fitch not only teaches the gangly bot how to drive an RV — no small feat when one considers our hero’s observation that Jeff was literally born yesterday — but he instills within his homemade friend lessons in trust and humanity. Miguel Sapochnik’s (Repo Men) sophomore feature asks that we come for the entertainment and stay for the ecological messaging. Either way, you win. 2021. — S.M. ★★★

The Human Voice — It’s not often a director remakes their own film, and even rarer for a feature to be reimagined in short form. Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Human Voice both share as their source material Jean Cocteau’s one-act monodrama La Voix Humaine. With a flip of ​​the proverbial, “Speech is silver, silence is golden,” the first third of Almodóvar’s free-handed 30 minute redo plays out sans dialogue — give or take the words needed for the woman (Tilda Swinton) to purchase an axe from her local hardware store. The concluding 15 minutes are spent in monologic debate, a one-sided phone conversation between the woman and her (unheard) lover of four years. It’s hard for Tilda to compete with the campy set dressing and DVD covers. At times, I paid more attention to the lofty loft and the woman’s taste in books and DVDs (a Douglas Sirk twofer!) than I did its occupant. The stage version ends with the depressed diva savagely strangled by her phone cord, while the shortened modern dress version takes a last-minute detour. With nary a land-line in sight, Almodovar closes with a stylistic tailwind that spares the woman’s life while choking the narrative impact. Apart from Swinton’s performance, two things stand out: playful opening credits spelled out in fonts designed from hardware store items and answering the question of who gets custody of the dog. 2021. — S.M. ★★

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India Sweets and Spices: Sophia Ali, a still life in shallow waters.
India Sweets and Spices: Sophia Ali, a still life in shallow waters.

Many families, in some way or another, exercise their right to rely on secrets and lies as means of postponing (prolonging?) life’s darker moments. It wasn’t until I turned 30 that my mother copped to having my alcoholic third-grade teacher fired for calling her baby a “worthless cripple” (my arm was in a cast) and a “kike.” This was followed by my admission to chucking a rock at the sea-hag’s headlights. My parents seldom journeyed down life’s darker thoroughfares. When it came to cheating, Babe and Larry never had sex with each other, let alone extramarital sweethearts. Nor would anyone mistake my mother for a “women’s libber,” After all, she wasn’t nicknamed Babe based on her ability to hit a ball with a stick or consume 20 hot dogs in one sitting. Both infidelity and feminism are at the core of India Sweets and Spices, but you’ll have to wait for first-time writer-director Geeta Malik to set aside her “chick-flick” cravings before addressing the issues at hand.

We open on a coming-of-age romcom, an Indian-flavored Goodbye, Columbus. Haircuts play a major role in story development. ‘Twas the night before summer vacation, a time for partied-out Alia (Sophia Ali) to take a clipper to her sorority sister so the latter wouldn’t return home to Texas with a bad case of big hair. At first glance, one could easily confuse Alia and her friends with drunken high school students. When mother Shiela (Manisha Koirala) was Alia’s age, she was shaving her head in protest of sexual assault on campus. What happened to the once crusading feminist? In the end, it was easier to snag a husband with flowing locks. Security trounced militancy and she traded in her radical lifestyle for a lavish suburban compound in chi-chi Ruby Hills, New Jersey and an arranged marriage to a serial philanderer.

Once home, Alia quickly returns to her parent’s lavish lifestyle, which includes scattering air-kisses among the gossiping hoard of locals in attendance for their regular fancy dress get-togethers. But a lot has changed in Alia’s absence; that includes a switch in ownership at the titular grocery that sees the handsome Varun (Rish Shah) currently stocking the shelves of his parents’ store. A gust of slow-motion wind running through her hair was a bad choice of cliches to express Alia’s sudden interest. On impulse, she invites Varun and his parents to that weekend’s cookie-cutter gathering. While sizing up the potential for summer romance with alternate romantic interest Rahul (Ved Sapru), she spots her father Ranjit (Adil Hussain) at the top of the stairs and in the arms of Rahul’s mother.

Varun and the folks don’t fit in with the overstuffed nouveau riche revelers in attendance. (Ranjit purchased books by the pound to use as decor.) Varun later jokes about throwing a pool party at his house and the butler needed to inflate it. But Varun’s mother Bhairavi (Deepti Gupta) instantly pegs Sheila as her former resistance-fighting classmate. When pressed, Sheila wriggles her way out of it. So far, so what? The subject is Indian assimilation, but the execution is strictly that of a small screen romance. All it took was the dark at the top of the stairs to shine dramatic light on a comedy that appeared to be going nowhere fast.

The following morning, Alia confronts Ranjit over breakfast. It results in both parents advising their daughter to butt out. The same thing happens when she raises the subject with Rahul. His advice is to suck it up and enjoy the summer. Is it any wonder that she finds comfort in the arms of Arun? Mom’s way of dealing with stress is clearing the dinner-table with a sweep of her hand. In retrospect, Sheila refers to youthful digressions as young and stupid. This coming from a middle-aged woman who sold her soul to be with a philandering “good provider.” Fortunately for Alia, Sheila didn’t raise her daughter to wallow in the martyrdom of melodramatic drudgery. Leave it to Alia to look past the fatuous nature of the gatherings and stare unblinkingly into the epiphanic light of reason. Her first bid at picking up mom’s torch is asking a pampered uncle if he even knows where the kitchen is. One person’s fluffy comedy is another’s slow-burning drama. The free-wheeling confessionals that cap the proceedings have sure-fire crowd-pleasing delight scrawled all over them. (Starts Friday at a theatre near you.) ★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

Finch — A post-apocalyptic amalgamation of Tom Hanks’ greatest hits (notably Turner and Hooch and Cast Away) lies at the heart of this wake up call to climate change deniers. (Perhaps the non-believers in the crowd might finally face reality if the message comes cloaked in sci-fi trappings and with the Walter Cronkite of cinema as their guide?) Finch (Hanks) isn’t the sole survivor of the climate holocaust, but it isn’t until over an hour into the picture that the presence of others is called into question. It soon becomes clear to both character and viewer that Fitch’s days are numbered. Hemoptysis had set in, a throat-clearing whoop that makes Doc Holliday’s hacking in My Darling Clementine sound like a tickle. Afraid that Goodyear (Seamus) might not be able to fend for himself when the day finally comes, or that a fellow survivor will fricassee the pup, Fitch creates Jeff, a robot to care for his beloved dog. Don’t let Caleb Landry Jones’ name in the credits fool you. This is a one-hander, with Jones on board to provide Jeff with his voice and motion capture likeness. Fitch not only teaches the gangly bot how to drive an RV — no small feat when one considers our hero’s observation that Jeff was literally born yesterday — but he instills within his homemade friend lessons in trust and humanity. Miguel Sapochnik’s (Repo Men) sophomore feature asks that we come for the entertainment and stay for the ecological messaging. Either way, you win. 2021. — S.M. ★★★

The Human Voice — It’s not often a director remakes their own film, and even rarer for a feature to be reimagined in short form. Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Human Voice both share as their source material Jean Cocteau’s one-act monodrama La Voix Humaine. With a flip of ​​the proverbial, “Speech is silver, silence is golden,” the first third of Almodóvar’s free-handed 30 minute redo plays out sans dialogue — give or take the words needed for the woman (Tilda Swinton) to purchase an axe from her local hardware store. The concluding 15 minutes are spent in monologic debate, a one-sided phone conversation between the woman and her (unheard) lover of four years. It’s hard for Tilda to compete with the campy set dressing and DVD covers. At times, I paid more attention to the lofty loft and the woman’s taste in books and DVDs (a Douglas Sirk twofer!) than I did its occupant. The stage version ends with the depressed diva savagely strangled by her phone cord, while the shortened modern dress version takes a last-minute detour. With nary a land-line in sight, Almodovar closes with a stylistic tailwind that spares the woman’s life while choking the narrative impact. Apart from Swinton’s performance, two things stand out: playful opening credits spelled out in fonts designed from hardware store items and answering the question of who gets custody of the dog. 2021. — S.M. ★★

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India Sweets & Spices is a trademark stolen from a 30+ year running family business in Southern California, operating since 1984 starting in Venice, California. As trademark holder, as son of the founder, I respectfully request everyone to boycott this film in all forms.

Nov. 15, 2021

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