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Geeta Malik, writer/director of India Sweet and Spices

Bleecker Street releases India Sweets and Spices nationwide on November 19th, 2021.

NYC MOVIE GURU:  When it comes to entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually, which of those three elements was most challenging to tweak in the editing room?

Geeta Malik: I would say the emotional part of it because the intellectual message was, sort of, in the dialogue and it happened as it was in the plot as it was, even. But to draw out the emotions, to get the right takes, and the right visuals for that, I think that that was probably the most challenging.

NYC MOVIE GURU: I believe the more specific a story is, the more universal that it becomes. How do you feel about that observation and do you think that it applies to India Sweets and Spices?

GM: Yes, I think that that's absolutely true because when you tell a specific story, that is very relatable. Going through a journey and a change, whatever it is, everybody can relate to that. I feel like that even with India Sweets and Spice, it's a very specific community, it's a very specific story of a specific girl and her family. Family dynamics, community dynamics and being a kind of small town thing, I think that people can relate to that universally.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Who do you think is ultimately responsible for bringing a character to life?

GM: That rests on the shoulders of the actor. I wrote the script, too, so I can write the dialogue and it can sound really cool and snappy in my head, and then I can get on set and I can direct and say that I want it this certain way. But the actor has to inhabit that character. The actors have to bring their own collaboration to it which I love. I love collaborating with actors. If the dialogue feels stilted coming out of their mouth, then I want to tell them, "How would your character say it?" So, I really feel like that authenticity comes from the actor.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How important and challenging was it to make the characters so complex and feel so human?

GM: It was very important for me to make them feel like whole human beings and fully-realized people---people who you and I might know---versus this idea of just cardboard people moving through a plot. I really wanted to make it feel like this was actually the life that they were living. Especially for someone like Sheila who did have this whole past and whole life before she became who she was in Ruby Hill, it was important for that to be filled out in a very real and authentic way. Manisha Koirala is a legend and brought so much to that role---so much nuance that I hadn't even written into the script. She brought it with her talent. With India Sweets and Spices, there are stereotypes and caricatures for sure. Everyone is larger than life in these parties, but I hope that we start there and then that's the starting point. I hope that by the end of the movie, those layers and complexity for all the characters exists. We understand why they were acting like stereotypes at the beginning.

NYC MOVIE GURU: India Sweets and Spices has so much charisma and warmth. How do you define charisma and warmth? How do you detect it in your actors?

GM: These actors have charisma in spades. Manisha Koirala, for instance, has been working in Bollywood forever. She's mesmerizing onscreen. She's so beautiful and such a talent. The same with Adil Hussain. They bring such integrity and groundedness to their characters, whoever they play. Warmth is really interesting because, being such a fan of Manisha and Adil anyway, I was a little nervous to meet them. I was like, "How am I going to direct these people that I think are legends and incredible actors?" They were both, immediately off-the-bat, super warm and friendly, really down-to-earth and chill, and made my job that much easier because they were those people--good human beings--in real life. The chemistry that they had with their actors, to make a family feel like a real family, that warmth and banter and all of that, felt effortless for them.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to balance the light and dark elements in India Sweets and Spices? How did you avoid preachiness?

GM: It was only challenging in the sense that I tend away from drama anyway. If I have to write a dramatic scene, I want to just toss in a joke which is a bad impulse. [laughs] I think that being able to balance those two comes back down to having characters that feel real. So, in my own lived experience, the really heavy moments are heavy, but it's followed by something light or something absurd will happen, and you're able to get a little bit more perspective on it. So, I think that that's just my natural tendency---my natural voice. In balancing the two, not being preachy was also important. There's a moment when Sheila makes a strong statement and it's followed by a guy making a funny face, so that felt very real to me, too. That's how that uncle would react to hearing what she said. So, I made sure that we had these themes that told the story that mattered, that was important, but the films that I love best are not ones that made me emotionally devastated at the end; they're the ones that leave me feeling hopeful and uplifted. So, I always wanted to end on that note.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which fictional character from books or cinema do you think Alia would get along with?

GM: I don't know if they would get along in the sense that they'd have something in common, but one of my favorite series of books growing up was Anne of Green Gables. It has very spunky and outspoken protagonist, so I see little bits of her DNA in Alia.

NYC MOVIE GURU: India Sweets and Spices deals with the topic of individuality. What advice would you give Alia if she were to ask you for advice on how she could find individuality in this shallow, technology-centric world?

GM: I think I would say, "Turn off all that stuff, first of all, as much as possible." The important part is to not compare yourself to other people, and to develop your own voice, whether that's through writing or art, and if you're not an artist, then if you find something that you are passionate about, that's what can set you apart. The goal shouldn't be to be set apart, anyway. It should be to be able to find something that you love and to find that path in your life, so I would say, "Turn all the social media crap off and find what makes you really happy because that passion is what's going to drive you."

NYC MOVIE GURU: I don't think that India Sweets and Spices has a villain. What do you think of that observation?

GM: No, I don't think that there is. There are people who are moral gray areas and all of that, but I consciously tried not to have a villain. If characters made mistakes throughout the film, they had somewhat of a redemption and came to somewhat of a realization by the end.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you prefer the audience to judge the characters in India Sweets and Spices or to experience them?

GM: [Laughs] I've grown up with judging. Judging often tells more about the person doing the judging than about the person they're judging. I would say that if you have compassion for yourself, you'll have it a lot more for others. So, I think, for me, experiencing a character, trying to get into their shoes and skin, and to understand what they're going through is far more important.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about the word "genre", especially when it's hard to lump most films into just one genre?  

GM: The word "genre" is tricky for me, too, because I feel like if I had to describe what I do, it'd be like a dramedy. I don't like that term really either because that just feels like it's neither one nor the other. If you have a horror film, it could also be hilarious or really dark and sad. So, genre is tricky.

NYC MOVIE GURU: I feel like a plot is just a box to contain a film's emotions. After 10 years, I remember a film's emotions more than the details of a film's plot, so how important is a plot, ultimately?  

GM: I feel like the plot tells your characters' journey and tells the story, but I'm the same as you. I'll remember how a movie made me feel. I'll remember the joy associated with it or whatever emotion is associated with that film. I won't necessarily remember every plot point or all of the nitty-gritty, but I'll remember if I enjoyed it and why I enjoyed it. I'll remember certain frames. I'll remember, "Ooo, that shot was really cool and that stuck with me!" So, I'm certainly more of an emotional film watcher as well.

NYC MOVIE GURU: India Sweets and Spices has some surprising twists and turns in its plot. How much of the plot would you want the audience to know before seeing the filmt?

GM: You're right. I think there are a few twists and turns in this film, so I don't think that the audience needs to know anything. I think that knowing that it's a film about a South Asian community, that could be plenty. Then people will come in with their own expectations and judgements anyway, and, hopefully, those are subverted as well.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Which film do you think would pair well with India Sweets and Spices like wine and cheese in a double feature?

GM: You know what would be fun? It's very not obvious, but I think it would be fun: a movie like Parasite. There's a family in that and some facades in there, too.

NYC MOVIE GURU: And also a clash between two different social classes.

GM: Exactly.

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