Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Meet Geeta Malik – “India Sweets and Spices”

Geeta Malik is an award-winning writer and director whose accolades include the inaugural Academy Gold Fellowship for Women and the Academy Nicholl Fellowship. Her short film “Beast” played at Method Fest and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, and her first feature “Troublemaker” premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival, later distributed by Asian Crush. Malik’s most recent short, “Shameless,” has played at over 15 festivals, including the Sedona Film Festival.

“India Sweets and Spices” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

GM: “India Sweets and Spices” is a coming-of-age story about a daughter who thinks she knows everything, and a mother who thinks she knows best. Alia (Sophia Ali), the daughter, is home from college for the summer, and she discovers secrets about her parents that upend her entire world. When she takes action, she galvanizes her mother, Sheila (Manisha Koirala), to make big changes in her own world, too.

It’s a film about the power of women to uplift each other, and the courage it takes to be honest. It’s a coming-of-age for both mother and daughter.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

GM: All through my childhood, my parents dragged me to dinner parties with their Indian friends. We’d spend so many evenings listening to people brag about their amazing lives and gossip about their friends, and it was all so absurdly over-the-top. So, some parts are somewhat autobiographical — though exaggerated, of course!

The film started out as a pure comedy, an affectionate and irreverent send-up of those parties. But as I wrote, I realized that the adults were gossiping because they were hiding something — their secrets, their fears, their desires, their pasts.

And then I became a mom myself, and I understood what it is like to have lived an entire life before my children knew me, and how I carried my own past with me in many subconscious ways.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

GM: I want people to leave this film with a sense of hope! It’s certainly meant to be uplifting and inspiring. I hope they empathize with the characters and understand them, regardless of their own culture or upbringing. The themes are universal — the backdrop of Indian dinner parties is what’s specific.

I hope they think about the power of words, the strength of real community, and the importance of female support and solidarity.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

GM: Getting funding for an almost all-South Asian cast was certainly a big challenge! Finding the right team to bring this movie into the world was a big challenge. There were many false starts before we finally got up and running.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

GM: I tried to get the film funded for years, but it wasn’t until the screenplay, originally titled “Dinner With Friends,” won the Nicholl and Austin in 2016, which led to me getting representation, [that we started getting traction]. My manager then introduced me to Naomi Despres, producer extraordinaire, and she was absolutely key in getting the film to the right people. She took the script around, and we landed at SK Global, which then partnered with Madison Wells Media to finance the film.

Our producers and execs have close ties to Asia and were very well-versed and knowledgeable about Indian film, which was reassuring for me.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

GM: I’ve always been a writer, even as a child, so storytelling felt natural to me. I was also exposed to many kinds of films growing up — my dad loved goofy comedies and Westerns, and my mom loved Bollywood and art house films. I didn’t pick up a camera until grad school, but it was all in my head and on the page.

At a certain point, I realized that I wanted to see more of myself and my experiences reflected on-screen. I was inspired by filmmakers like Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha, who were telling diasporic stories — they truly broke ground for the rest of us. They showed me that brown women filmmakers indeed existed, and that was very powerful. It gave me the courage to try and follow in their footsteps.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

GM: Best advice: Trust your gut.

Worst: Give up, because there’s no place for you in Hollywood.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

GM: Be cool, but don’t be afraid to stand up for your vision. You can be a nice, kind, collaborative human being who still has the confidence to assert her vision for a film. Having a vision doesn’t mean you’re difficult. It means you’re a director!

Along those same lines, support your fellow women filmmakers. The more of us that are out there, standing up for ourselves and each other, the less pressure there is for any one woman to have to represent the entire gender.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

GM: This is such a tough question! It’s hard to choose just one, but I’d say the one that’s influenced me most, and that’s stuck with me most over the years, is Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding.” It’s a beautiful film in every way — visually, emotionally, sonically. It feels real, lived-in, utterly authentic. It showcases the joy and the stress and the sadness that comes with every wedding, but it’s also entirely unpredictable.

I remember how good it felt to see a film from within our culture by someone within our culture. Mira Nair doesn’t explain nor exotify anything for a non-subcontinental audience. You’re either along for the ride, or you’re not, and that was exhilarating to experience. Still is.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

GM: I’ve been lucky to be able to work even during this pandemic. The adjustment has been that instead of my kids and husband leaving in the morning for school and work — and my having hours of silence to be creative — I now have to squeeze it all in, between bouts of screaming fights over Legos, Zoom school, and leapfrogging my husband for our home office when we have meetings. The noise, dear god, the noise!

So, between juggling the family, work, and the nonstop global chaos, which looms over all of us, it’s been hard to stay focused. And then I have to step back and remind myself that this past year has been unprecedentedly insane, so it’s okay, and necessary, to just shut down at times. Coming out of this is going to be a long process.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/ or the doc world more inclusive?

GM: I think it’s simple. Give people of color the money, the opportunities, and the jobs. Cut out the middlemen of diversity initiatives that look great on paper, but that ultimately lead nowhere. And, again, the more of us that are out there, making films, the more people will realize that no culture is a monolith — that no one person should have to bear the responsibility for speaking for an entire people, and that there are plenty of deserving, talented people of color who are more than ready to take charge.

In the meantime, all of us can take the responsibility to research and educate ourselves, so that we can be excellent allies.

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