“India Sweet and Spices” is set in an affluent New Jersey suburb called Ruby Hill, populated by wealthy Indian American families who spend their summers attending one lavish party after another.
It seems like a great location for a juicy reality TV show. It’s not such a great location for a drama, in part because writer-director Geeta Malik's film appears to have such contempt for this world that it doesn’t dig below its shiny surfaces. And yet it’s also not sharp enough to truly skewer this self-satisfied enclave beyond a few broad stereotypes about status-obsessed mothers and their selfie-taking daughters.
That contempt is expressed in the character of Alia Kapur (the winning Sophia Ali), a UCLA student who is coming home to Ruby Hill for the summer. She complains that her mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala) is controlling and overbearing, and she gets a barrage of texts from her mom admonishing her to be a nice young woman and not wear sweatpants on the plane. The final text simply reads “DON’T EMBARRASS ME!!!”
Alia has always treated her parents’ lifestyle with disdain — although not with so much disdain that she won’t spend all summer lying around their pool reading Vogue. Her parents’ parties are elaborate but stultifying affairs; the men (uncles) drink Scotch and order their wives to serve them, while the women (aunties) gossip mercilessly behind each other's backs.
Ruby Hill’s snobby ecosystem is thrown off balance when a middle-class Indian American family, the Duttas, open a new grocery store in the neighborhood called India Sweets and Spices. Given that the movie is named after the store, and that the Duttas are far more appealing and interesting characters than their rich customers, it's surprising we spend little time with them at the store.
Alia is smitten with the Duttas’ college-age son, Varun (Rish Shah), and invites the family over to her parents’ party that weekend. The modest Duttas feel utterly out of place among the opulence of Ruby Hill and are condescended to by the guests.
Varun’s mother (Deepti Gupta) recognizes Alia’s mother — it turns out they knew each other as young women living in India under very different circumstances. The most moving part of the film is learning Sheila’s tragic backstory, and what turned her into a hard-hearted social climber in America.
But that subplot gets buried under rom-com contrivances and a plethora of thinly written supporting characters, and an attempt at a pro-feminist finale feels too muted. What if Alia, instead of being such a passive character, could truly transform Ruby Hill? Unfortunately, “India Sweets and Spices” feels as shallow as the wealthy community it depicts.