By Neha Kirpal
The defining themes of Geeta Malik’s films have been feminism, family relationships and the role of women in our world. Coming back to that vision once more, the US-based award-winning writer-director’s latest film India Sweets and Spices, starring Sophia Ali, Manisha Koirala and Adil Hussain, is a coming-of-age film about immigrants who face family complications and romantic entanglements in America.
Released at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, the film follows teenage protagonist Alia who comes home from college at UCLA for the summer after her freshman year, and discovers secrets about her tightly knit and wealthy Indian family that turn her life upside down.
A recipient of major prestigious awards – including the Edie and Lew Wasserman Film Production Award, the Coppel Screenwriting Award and the Jack Nicholson Distinguished Director Award – Geeta began her film journey almost two decades ago, scoring hits early such as the 2004 short film Aunty Gs, which earned an award in comedy production from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Her 2007 short film Beast, an exploration of character, nature versus nurture and how the past never really leaves us, played at Method Fest and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. Her first feature film, Troublemaker (2010), a road trip film about an Indian-American woman trying to reconnect with her estranged father, premiered at the 2011 Cinequest Film Festival.
We spoke to her about the inspirations behind her films.
How did you decide to become a filmmaker?
I was always a writer. Even as a kid, I was constantly writing short stories, poems, and plays, and I always loved movies, from Mel Brooks comedies, to Bollywood blockbusters, to arthouse films. But it never really occurred to me that I could put my own stories up on screen until my senior year of college, when I took a screenwriting class. That class sparked something in me — it made me realise that I could take charge of seeing my own experiences reflected in what I was watching.
So, I started writing my first screenplay, but I found that I didn’t want the journey to end when the screenplay was done. I wanted to be the one behind the camera to translate my words to the screen, and so I went to film school to learn how to be a director.
I remember being very inspired by two movies in particular: Better Luck Tomorrow and Girlfight. Both of those films, and the filmmakers (Justin Lin and Karyn Kusama) made me feel like there was room for someone like me in the industry. There was something magical about seeing minorities and women telling stories outside of the mainstream, and I wanted to do the same.
Tell us about your vision in your earlier films: Aunty Gs, Beast, Troublemaker, and Shameless.
Aunty Gs was about moms, and wives, and women in general being taking for granted. I loved the idea of aunties out there, living their best lives, while we’re all assuming they’re at home, vacuuming or clipping coupons or whatever. I wanted to see them doing something unexpected and fun and joyful.
In Beast, I wanted to explore the idea of character: how much free will do we have to change and evolve, and how much of our personalities are innate? A young girl is told she has a certain future, and so she reacts to that, but she ends up fulfilling the prophecy anyway, despite her best efforts.
Troublemaker is a film very close to my heart. It’s a road trip movie, but it’s also a love story, and a story about friendship, and a coming-of-age film. I made Troublemaker on a shoestring budget with a cast and crew of wonderful people, who are good friends to this day, and it was very run-and-gun, lean filmmaking. I learned a lot on that film.
Shameless is a short film that more blatantly exposes patriarchy. I just loved the idea of turning people’s judgement right back at them, and then ending on a hopeful note, a strong note, of two women looking toward their futures.
Tell us more about your latest film India Sweets and Spices and the idea behind it.
India Sweets and Spices is also a coming-of-age story, but in this case, it’s both the mother and the daughter who come of age. The idea came from my own childhood, and going to dinner parties with my parents, and listening to the adults talk about themselves and their lives. There was a lot of bragging and posturing, and while it made me laugh, it also made me want to dig deeper into why people felt they had to project that perfect image.
As I got older, and became a mom myself, I realised that it was about hiding their own insecurities and fears, and often, the mistakes they felt they’d made in their pasts. The script started out as pure satire, and then evolved into a more layered exploration of community, feminism, and what it means to live a truthful life.
Who or what are some of your biggest inspirations?
I have a million favourite films and filmmakers, but on a personal level (as well as a filmmaking level), I’m very inspired by Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Deepa Mehta – brown women directors, telling a wide variety of stories throughout the diaspora, who showed me that it could be done. Seeing them succeed gave me the courage to try as well.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your profession, particularly as a woman?
Whenever I need to stand up for my vision, there’s always that worry in the back of my mind: will I be labelled as difficult if I fight for, or against, something I feel strongly about?
I think that’s a particular fear for women, and it’s hard to quiet that fear, but that’s what a director is supposed to do — to work hard, and collaborate and be respectful, but to speak up and protect that vision.
I think there’s also an instinct to place all women in one category or another, instead of seeing us as whole, distinct human beings who shouldn’t have to answer for our entire gender.
Tell us a little about your family.
I grew up in Aurora, Colorado. I have an older sister and a younger brother, and I’m very much the quintessential middle child! My dad was a pilot, and my mom was a research scientist and then a high-school science teacher. Both are now retired. I’ve been married for many years now, and have two bright little daughters of my own.
What are some of your hobbies and interests?
I read nonstop. As a kid I always had a book in my hand, and nothing has changed now that I’m older! I also like running, hiking, sports, and generally being active. I watch lots of movies and TV, I play Legos with my kids, and I still dabble occasionally in playing music. I grew up playing the violin, and every once in a while, I’ll creak out a song or two.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing a studio feature right now, and developing my own spec features to direct, as well as a few TV shows. My long-term plans are to continue telling stories about minorities and women, and my ultimate goal is to just keep making movies! I feel like I’m just getting started.
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