Geeta Malik is an award-winning writer/director whose accolades include the inaugural Academy Gold Fellowship for Women, the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, and the Austin Film Festival Comedy Screenplay Award for her feature script, “Dinner with Friends,” retitled to “India Sweets and Spices,” which she directed. The film stars Manisha Koirala, Adil Hussain, and Sophia Ali and was produced by SK Global and Madison Wells Media, and premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. She wrote and directed the viral narrative short, “Aunty Gs,” which earned a College Television Award (a “student Emmy”) in Comedy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Her first feature film, “Troublemaker,” premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival. She is a Film Independent Project Involve Fellow and an alumna of UCLA’s graduate film program.
Tara Karajica talks to Geeta Malik about her latest feature, “India Sweets and Spices,” women in film and her upcoming projects.
What made you want to be a filmmaker?
Geeta Malik: I’ve always been a writer. When I was a kid, I’d write poems and short stories and I didn’t really come into filmmaking until my last year of college, actually. Like I said, I’d always been a writer, but I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with that writing. And then, my last quarter of my last year of college, I took a screenwriting course. And, the professor there was wonderful, and she helped us see how to translate what you were writing into what you were seeing on screen. That just really captivated me. I’d always watched movies my whole life. I’ve always been a fan of movies. I just never really thought of myself as being a director until that class and she crystallized for me what it was I wanted to do, and how I wanted to translate my writing to the screen. So, I went to film school and I learned everything from the ground up about how to be a filmmaker. And, I went from there.
How did how did India Sweets and Spices come about?
G.M.: I was growing up in Aurora, Colorado and, at the time, there was a good number of Indians, but it wasn’t a huge, diverse community like I’d been exposed to later in my life. So, it was just me growing up and observing these parties and seeing my parents at these parties, interacting with the community there, and trying to understand why these parties were important and what were the social dynamics happening that I was seeing. When I was a child, I was too young to really understand what was going on, but as I got older, I started to relate a lot more to the aunties and uncles in our community, the older people in the community, and then I became a mom myself. And, after I became a mom, I realized these were people who had pasts that their kids had no idea about, and I really wanted to explore that. I wanted to explore that in the context of a mother-daughter relationship and a feminist relationship. And also, how women can support each other even in cultures where it is hard to break out of certain molds. So, I think it all came together that way.
Exactly, the mother-daughter relationship, feminism and life before kids are all themes you touch upon through a coming-of-age lens for Alia when she realizes things that summer, which is an eye-opening experience for her. Can you delve a little bit more on these themes?
G.M.: It’s a coming-of-age for both the mother and the daughter. And, I think that’s also something that I tend to see with women in my community, that there’s a point where they realize that they don’t have to live just for their family and that they don’t have to be defined by what they did in the years before. I think it’s also a very universal reckoning where people get to a certain age and stage of their life and think: “Am I where I want to be? Have I gone away from what I thought my identity was?” And, I think that’s really what we see in Sheila, the character of the mom, and she’s galvanized by her daughter. It’s a very heady time when you’re in college, and you’re out there, you’re learning about the world and your eyes are being opened to all these different experiences. And then, you come home and you feel like: “Oh, nothing’s changed. There’s nothing here for me.” So, her coming-of-age is really realizing there’s a lot of depth to her parents, and especially her mom, and they sort of help each other on this journey where one is forging her identity; she’s young and she’s at the same stage her mother was when everything changed for her mother. So, it’s a very important time for both of them and I think through all those journeys, Sheila really understands herself a little bit better and understands her daughter better and there’s a bonding that happens there as they both come out of this fog in a way that was really perpetrated by the community and the façade of trying to be perfect.
Feminism is a big part of this story. Can you talk about the feminism in this in this film? And how you being feminist – because I assume you are through what you’re depicting in the film – actually also informs your filmmaking? The film portrays women lifting each other up, which is opposed to what the Aunties do, which is gossiping and bringing each other down, another aspect also depicted in the film.
G.M.: I feel very lucky that I was able to put the words “feminist,” “feminism” and “patriarchy” into a film like this. I think it’s really important to discuss that. For me, as a female filmmaker, I think everything I do is through that lens, through the lens of trying to empower women and uplift women and have that community of support because you are absolutely right, the aunties are one side of the coin. They are more interested, it seems at the beginning, in tearing other women down, putting people in their place. I think that’s something we used to see in a lot of films, there was very much this mean girl trope and I think in the past years it’s really changed and I think women have been able to step behind the camera and been able to tell their own stories more and more so now, I think, than ever, and write their own stories and tell stories that uplift each other and say: “No, we don’t have to be pitted against each other. There’s room for all of us.” And, it’s important to have all of us in there because then it’s not the one woman – and I’m talking about the industry in general here – who has the entire burden of representation on her shoulders. If a woman makes a film, and it doesn’t do well, it’s like: “Oh, well, then these are all female filmmakers and none of them can direct it. None of them can do well.” I think the more of us that are out there, the more helpful it is for all women. And so, that is something I do try to convey. Every film that I write does center around women. That’s what I want to see. That’s what I grew up wanting to see. I never wanted to be the sidekick. I wanted to be the hero of the story. And, I think that’s very common for most women. You’d asked before about why I became a filmmaker; I sort of gave you my journey. I think that’s the emotional reason: wanting to see more faces like mine on screen and more women on screen, being active in their own stories, and I think that’s something that happens in India Sweets and Spices – seeing someone who seemed like a very passive character, the character of the mom, become active and not just stand on the sidelines around life.
I’m also interested in the sentence “What will people say?” that I’ve heard in a lot of films where South Asian families live abroad and are very concerned about appearances and appearances within the community and the thoughts of the community. There’s also this difference between generations as well that goes together with this sort of split identity combined with the fact that they don’t know about their parents lives before them. Can you talk about that?
G.M.: It’s certainly within the South Asian community that that’s a big thing. I think it is also a universal feeling, I was going to say, unique to the immigrant communities who are chasing the American dream – whatever the American dream might be –, the diaspora trying to fit in. People have their own insecurities and you don’t want to be singled out for doing the wrong thing; you’re trying to assimilate to a bigger life anyway and you don’t want to stand out in a bad way. You want to be the person who’s upholding the cultural values, but you also want to be the person who’s very comfortable in this new situation, so it is a very charged term. I will also say that I think it’s something you find in small towns, it’s something you find throughout the world, and I was also going to say it’s a generational thing, but actually, I don’t think it is anymore. If you look at social media, what are any of us always doing on social media? It’s the highlight reel. Our generation has social media and their generation had these parties where they could brag about their kids in person, and we can’t do that, we have to brag about our kids online. So, I think it’s a very common sentiment that you want to show people how amazing you are doing, no matter how emotionally devastated you are, or if you have sadness or there’s something that you’re covering up inside – those are usually the people who speak the loudest anyway, the people who themselves don’t feel worthy and I think we see that a lot in this film, for sure. I don’t want to give spoilers away, but there’s a climactic scene where you realize everyone has something that they’re hiding, everyone has something that they’re insecure about. And so, “What will people say?” – no one wants that spotlight turned on them, so it’s like: “Just play by the rules, do everything right, be as perfect as possible, and then you won’t be scrutinized.”
Can you talk about the casting and the shooting processes?
G.M.: We were very lucky with the casting. The production company that I partnered with has a strong presence in India and Asia and one of our producers, Kilian Kerwin, knows a lot about the Hindi film industry. And so, when we were working together on this project, I told him I would love to get an actor and an actress from India to play the parents and he mentioned Manisha Koirala and Manisha Koirala is my idol. She’s a phenomenal actress! She’s starred in some of my favorite films. So, the fact that he even brought her up, I was like: “Of course, we have to send her the script!” And, the same with Adil Hussain, who’s just an incredibly well-respected, beautiful actor who does a lot of films in India and globally. Kilian and the production company were really key in getting our actors for the parents. For the kids, we had a great casting office and we saw hundreds and hundreds of tapes from all over the world, from all over the USA. Sophia [Ali] was someone I had met at a table read many years prior and I was just blown away by her performance there. I always kept her in mind; I was like: “If we ever make this movie, I would love to have Sophia back in,” and she went to all the same auditions as everyone and she just kept rising to the top. So, she was the natural choice for me for Alia. And then, the two guys – Ved Sapru and Rish Shah – they’re actually British. And again, we went through tons and tons of tapes and they just were the best that we found. And, we love them. They’re great actors. Our casting office did a great job finding everyone; they went to different schools and acting schools. There’s such a huge pool of talent within South Asian actors, but it’s hard to get them into the mainstream. So, a lot of these names, we hadn’t even heard before and they absolutely deserve to be heard. I hope that this opens more opportunities for them. Our principal photography was in Atlanta and there are actually a lot of Indians in Atlanta and a lot of very talented actors. We had a local casting office there and they went to Starbucks, handed out flyers, and put up things in the little Indian areas and encouraged people to come out and audition for us. And, we found just a really great cast there as well.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past four years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in the USA now? Do you see any change? And, how are things in India?
G.M.: I think for women filmmakers, it’s getting better and better. It’s hard to know. I feel like that’s the same with minority filmmakers – we always feel like we’ve got this big wave, we’ve got all this momentum going, and there are all these films coming out and then the wind sort of dies, and you have to build this all back up again. So, I would say for sure, we’re making progress. There are a lot more women filmmakers out there and I think we’re all getting more and more empowered to just pick up the camera. The barriers to making your own films are a lot less these days. You can do it on your iPhone, everyone says that. But we don’t have to go to a studio and beg them for money anymore. We can we can really be independent in ways that we haven’t been able to in the past. I think that’s helped a lot. I think getting more women executives and more women producers, more women empowered to again help other women, instead of tearing them down. I think that that culture is changing a lot too. There are tons of female filmmaker alliances out here. There’s Women in Film, there’s Film Fatales… There are a lot of resources now for female filmmakers out here. And, I’m talking about America. In India, I don’t quite know. I think the tide is turning, hopefully. There are certain prominent filmmakers that have always been amazing. There’s Aparna Sen and there are women who have always been breaking ground in India as well. Deepa Mehta. Zoya Akhtar. And in Bollywood itself, there’s Farah Khan. I don’t know the Indian film industry as well as I do the American and even the American, I’m still getting to know, but it does feel like things are different and, hopefully, that continues.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker, and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
G.M.: I have so many favorite film female filmmakers! I’ll shout out in particular to Mira Nair. I always go back to her. I think she just really broke ground for brown female filmmakers. I especially love Monsoon Wedding. It’s one of my favorite films. And, I will also say Karyn Kusama, who made a film called Girl Fight, and she made that I don’t remember how many years ago – it’s been a while, but she’s been working steadily since then and has made some beautiful films. Girl Fight is really one that stuck with me. It’s Michelle Rodriguez in, I think, her very first film role and now she’s gone on to The Fast and Furious and all kinds of things. But Girl Fight’s great. It’s a boxing movie. It’s just wonderfully directed and a really subtle, cool story. I love just seeing a very angry woman, taking out her aggression through boxing, but without being cliché, without being cheesy. It felt very real and grounded to me. I love that film.
What are your next projects? Do you have anything in the pipeline?
G.M.: Yes, I’m currently writing a studio feature, which I’m excited about. And, I will hopefully be able to toss my hat in the ring to direct it potentially. So, we’ll see down the road if that works out. There are also two spec features that I’ve just written on my own that I plan to direct, and I have several TV shows in development – one that seems to be moving forward. There are a lot of balls in the air, as they say.
Photo credits: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival.
This interview was conducted (remotely) at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.