Filmmaker Geeta Malik on Breaking the Rules of Cinema

Welcome to Freeze Frame, a column in which Hollywood’s established and emerging filmmakers discuss a shot or scene from a movie that has stuck with them throughout their lives, and impacted the way they view cinema.

geeta malik
Courtesy of Geeta Malik

Since the mid 2000s, Geeta Malik has written, directed, and produced indie films that explore intersecting identities and exhibit her dry sense of humor. In 2004, she released a short film called Aunty Gs, in which a handful of housewives meet to play pickup basketball and go out on the town when their husbands leave for work. Her 2011 feature film Troublemaker follows a messy twenty-something who embarks on a road trip to find her father. And her latest feature, India Sweets and Spices, just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and long before premiering at Tribeca, the film received the acclaimed Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting award.

India Sweets and Spices is a coming-of-age story that follows Alia (Sophia Ali), a rising UCLA sophomore home for the summer who discovers, in between attending increasingly lavish parties thrown by the aunties in her suburban upper-middle-class New Jersey neighborhood, her mother’s political past. It is a charming exploration of mother-daughter relationships, a young person’s burgeoning sense of class consciousness, and the malaise felt when returning home after a year away. “I love the rollercoaster of emotions,” the director said of her love of films and filmmaking when speaking with W.

In her work, there are often “tonal shifts,” she explained, placing her characters along an emotional tightrope that they must walk throughout the duration of the film. Characters find themselves in laugh-out-loud or awkward situations, only to quickly find themselves enveloped in more serious drama. Many of the party scenes in India Sweets and Spices exemplify this awkward tension, and charmingly, in these moments the protagonist learns as much about herself as she does the secret lives of the aunties and uncles around her.

For Freeze Frame, Malik spoke about her journey to filmmaking, being enamored with Miloš Forman’s rule-breaking mode of making cinema, and what inspires her to continue making movies, even when the external challenges of Hollywood put pressure on indie films.

Sophia Ali “Alia” (middle) has the attention of both Rish Shah “Varun” (left) and Ved Sapru “Rahul” (right) at a party in her suburban New Jersey home in a scene from India Sweets and Spices.

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

How did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I was always a writer, always trying to express myself. My mom kept poems I wrote when I was four or five years old. I grew up around film, literature, art—my parents were both solid scientists, very much the immigrant parents, but they loved the arts and always exposed that to us. My mom had these tapes of Bollywood songs. She missed home and her family and culture so much—she didn’t grow up in India, but she is Indian—and the tapes were just hours of Bollywood songs. They would be playing all day, and I would just glance up now and then, and somehow it was absorbed into my head. There are scenes and shots that are still part of you.

Do you think the younger you are when you see something, the more pure your relationship is to it? Or are you just more open to things at that age?

I think it’s a pure thing. As a kid, you’re not sitting there and analyzing it: “Oh, I love that zoom-in.” It’s emotional and visceral. You watch it, and the clip sticks with you. That’s the approach I have to filmmaking. I always had these images in my head, but it wasn’t until my last quarter of undergrad when I took a screenwriting class with this amazing professor who showed us Thelma & Louise—I had seen it before, but we analyzed it, and I realized how someone wrote those amazing scenes. It made me think of how I could translate the things I was writing into the screen. So I decided to try directing and I went to film school.

India Sweets and Spices tells a story that I think a lot of people can relate to—especially if you’ve grown up in an ethnic household with an emphasis on community. Where did the idea for this story about a young girl returning home from college for the summer and learning about her mother’s past come from?

I always wanted to tell the story of these dinner parties, when everyone got together to speak their own language and have their own food. My mom calls them “Desi therapy.” I found that fun and fascinating and wanted to set a story there. The shift, for me, came after I had my kids. I started writing the script from the perspective of Alia, a teen who is somewhat oblivious to her privilege and trying hard to be aware in her world. Then I had my kids, and I was like, Alia doesn’t know anything about her parents. I was fascinated by the idea of how these grown-ups, and the ones I saw when I was a kid, they were really braggy. It was like Facebook before Facebook. They were doing that because they were covering up all of their secrets, insecurities, sadnesses, and trying to portray this image of having achieved the American dream. I was thinking of what they left behind and who they were before they had their kids.

The film you chose to discuss for this column is Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. It’s historical fiction, based on the play of the same name about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When did you first see this film?

I was probably a little too young when I first saw it, maybe a pre-teen. I just remember being so entranced by it. What really drew me to it and what I see going forward in the DNA of my own films is that Miloš Forman takes this rebel character from the play—and Amadeus could have been a really stuffy period piece, could have been very pompous—to the screen. And he’s crazy and bawdy; it’s a very lively film. I felt very taken by this world and felt, These are rules we can break. I played violin my entire life, so I felt I had to portray a certain image when playing. In this movie, Salieri does that, but Mozart breaks all the rules. I felt a real kinship with that, and Forman does that with a lot of his films. He takes rebel characters and puts them in a role that doesn’t quite work for them. Mozart, of course, became insanely successful, but his personal life was such a mess, too.

Why did you choose this scene?

From the beginning, Salieri holds himself to a certain standard, but he’s sneaky, he’s like a kid—he sees chocolates and tries to taste them, and when Constanze comes barreling in, he hides because he thinks he’s been caught. He takes in this bizarre scene of Mozart speaking backwards and laughing his iconic high-pitched laugh. Salieri sees Mozart flirting, but he is celibate and in love with this opera singer whom he does not want to touch. Meanwhile, Mozart and Constanze are basically wrestling on the floor of the palace. There’s the moment where Mozart tells Constanze to be quiet, because he realizes they’ve begun playing his music in the other room, and Salieri realizes he’s watching Mozart, the man who is going to ruin his life. Salieri watches this whole tableau of Mozart breaking all of these rules that Salieri will never let himself break, and Mozart succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. I love that study of genius.

Amadeus is also a coming-of-age story in many ways, not unlike India Sweets and Spices. Why did you decide to set your story during that summer break between the first and second years of college?

At that point, you graduate high school and you’re off to your adventure, but if you’re lucky enough, you have the safety net of your parents and a great sendoff. You feel like you’re off to change the world, and you get to college. My first year of college, I had a great time, I partied with friends, met all kinds of new people, learned new things. But I felt like I knew everything. Then, you come home and revert back to your childhood. Alia walks into her bedroom and it’s the exact same way it was when she left, but she thinks she’s grown and evolved—and she has—but that know-it-all feeling you have when you come home is vital to this story. In learning the truth about her parents’ past, that’s really when her eyes are opened. That’s what makes her become mature. She thinks she’s going to have a boring summer, and it turns out to be the opposite of that.

When you think of the style of films you like to write and direct, and the messages you want to convey with those stories, what is the most common thread between them all?

I think the common thread is that I use humor to discuss something I am in turmoil about. The features I’m writing now and the stories I want to tell—I have a whole folder—it’s hard for me to do just pure comedy or pure drama. I have to have some sort of take on what I’m discussing. In my first short film, Aunty Gs, the aunties have a moment of freedom before coming home and serving dinner, and it was done in a very over-the-top, satirical way. They’re wearing sneakers with their saris and playing pick-up basketball. The message in there is that there is some oppression, some suppression of who they are and who they want to be, which is echoed in India Sweets and Spices as well. There is a feminist bent to what I do. I want to make movies about minorities and about women, that’s why I became a filmmaker. I want to see myself and my community on screen.

Sophia Ali “Alia” relaxes at home in her suburban New Jersey swimming pool during her summer break from UCLA in a scene from India Sweets and Spices.

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Now that you have more perspective and distance from your earlier work, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of being a filmmaker and doing it for a living?

There are certain financial challenges. I have two kids, so it can be challenging to find time for it. There are the external challenges of Hollywood maybe not being ready for the characters and stories I want to write. It’s changed a lot in the past handful of years, but when I first graduated film school, no one really cared about seeing South Asians on screen. There were people making these films, but they were outside of the system, very indie, very low budget. They were great and part of our canon as Indian Americans, but it’s a challenge. The internal challenge is the constant doubt. You think, I want to do this for a living—but am I good enough, am I helping my community, am I portraying us the way we should be portrayed? It’s a constant existential crisis. I’m like Salieri, seeing something amazing and wondering how can I get to that!

How do you work through that internal struggle and overcome it?

Especially as a writer, having a community to commiserate with is so important. Writing is isolating, and I have a group of friends who are also writers and we encourage each other. I keep in mind the reason I want to do this. I am very stubborn and fueled by rage so that anger can keep me going when I see things that are not portraying us the way we should be, or don’t care about representing us the way we should be—all minority communities, women, just in general—that fuels me and helps me say, I am not going to be weeded out.

Having certain incremental successes also helps. I have a folder of rejections, and I don’t look at them, but I do have them. You only need a few “yes”es. I have enough tiny wins to keep me pushing forward.