As art critic Dave Hickey once said, gossip is the currency of discourse. Such is true for the characters of the satirical dramedy 'India Sweets and Spices', and while the film is bursting with charm, it doesn't quite know how to give the salacious scandalmongers the depth or critique they deserve.
As UCLA student Alia Kapur (Sophia Ali, 'Unchartered') returns to her fictional upper-class hometown of Ruby Hill, New Jersey for the summer break, it's clear that she sees the town with derision: a shallow cesspool of gossip and extravagant parties that she both feels far removed from and sees right through - just look at the library of empty display books in her family's home. However, the new owners of the local sweets and spices shop give Alia's summer a bit more scandal and surprise than she initially had anticipated. Upon first visiting the shop, Alia invites the Duttas, Bairavi (Deepti Gupta, TV's 'High School Musical: The Musical - The Series') and Kamlesh (Kamran Shaikh, 'Evil Eye'), to the next big neighbourhood party without consulting her family first. Love thy neighbour, right? Especially when their son Varun (Rish Shah, 'To All the Boys: Always and Forever') is so attractive.
While the focus of 'India Sweets and Spices' does appear to shift with each half-hour that passes, the primary conflict is the cagey hostility Alia's mother (Manisha Koirala, '99 Songs') shows towards Bairavi at the very first party, each of which is treated as a chapter in the film and the main stomping ground for more secrets to be formed - or to worm their way out into public knowledge. When they do come out, the film finds the momentum to work towards a meaningful commentary on class and women's rights in India, but it never takes these ideas as far as they can or should go.
Director Geeta Malik's casting is by far the best part of 'India Sweets and Spices'; everyone, with one notable exception, tries their best to wade through a script that never allows their characters to progress past caricature status. One would expect such interchangeability for secondary characters, and while they are also victims of underwriting here, it's far more excusable than in the lead cast. It's no surprise that Ali's performance is the strongest, her charisma shining right through a character who is downright unlikeable. Alia tries her best to insist that she is better than everyone in her hometown by being able to point out its imperfections - when in reality she is just as entitled, spoiled, and bitchy as her "aunites". Ultimately, 'India Sweets and Spices' reinforces just as many Indian stereotypes as it tries to critique.
Everyone, with one notable exception, tries their best to wade through a script that never allows their characters to progress past caricature status.
That's not to say 'India Sweets and Spices' isn't entertaining; there are moments where an unexpectedly great joke would land just as my attention was waning. It's a real shame that the film also looks so flat and unappealing. Shot on Sony digital cameras, the film's washed-out aesthetic is a real disservice to the beautiful, colourful traditional Indian costumes worn by Alia and her family.
'India Sweets and Spices' has the exact feel of a telemovie one would catch at 12pm on a weekday, but you could do far worse than the typical cinema that timeslot serves up. The satire just needs a bit more spice, and the script just needs a bit of sugar to really make this film shine.