TRIBECA 2021: Actress Deepti Gupta on Making History With ‘India Sweets and Spices’

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Deepti Gupta

After having performed in Indian theatre, Pakistani dramas, Netflix shows, and many other Hollywood projects, as well as establishing herself as a highly demanded voice in the audiobook world, Indian actress Deepti Gupta is ready to take the next step in her career with India Sweets and Spices, a coming-of-age directed by Geeta Malik that will have its World Premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a film that features all the necessary tools to make history and create a cultural impact.

With charm, authenticity, and heart, India Sweets and Spices focuses on the Indian American experience and boasts a main cast completely composed of actors of South Asian descent, including Bollywood stars Manisha Koirala and Adil Hussain, as well as The Wilds breakout Sophia Ali in the starring role. “I hope that with films like India Sweets and Spices, audiences can see South Asians in all the different colors that we come in,” explained Gupta to But Why Tho?

The movie tells the story of Alia (Sophia Ali), an Indian American UCLA freshman who returns home to spend the summer with her wealthy and seemingly perfect family. During one of the many pretentious and gossip-filled parties organized by the neighborhood, Alia discovers some surprising secrets about her family and specifically about her mother Sheila (Manisha Koirala), whose past is somehow linked to local South Asian store owner Bhairavi Dutta, played by Deepti Gupta.

The Bhairavi character leads us into themes of activism and women’s rights in both India and the United States. For Gupta, who’s had to play stereotypical roles many times throughout her career, portraying this character was very important. “In playing Bhairavi, I just found this delicious buffet of activism that was part of her past and continues to be part of her life even as she runs this grocery store,” she explained. “In the film, I’m a businesswoman, and I have equal parts in the business with my husband. And that is not a small thing for a woman who’s coming from a very patriarchal cultural setup.”

Through the discoveries of its main character, Geeta Malik’s exceptional script makes emphasis on the fight against the patriarchal society in India, while also portraying the issues that the United States is facing too, which, as Gupta points out, are not that different from the issues in India. “ It’s such a big topic. For all the independence that women in America have, it is still very patriarchal,” she said. “In some external ways, women have more freedom than perhaps in India, but at the core of it, there are some very similar fights we are fighting: for our voices to be heard, for our bodies to be respected, for us not to be told to be one way or another.”

Gupta grew up in a very different time, with only two female role models to look up to: former prime minister Indira Gandhi, and the first Indian woman to become a police officer, Kiran Bedi. “Outside of that, in my own immediate community, the women, the aunts; there was nobody who felt like they had enough agency to speak up and fight for their rights,” recalled Gupta, who believes that storytelling is a key tool to inspire, create change, and reach every corner of Indian society, particularly the smaller towns and villages, which are still very traditional. “It is a hard job, but I hope that, as we keep telling more stories, they can penetrate those parts of the country and we start to impact change. Stories serve a very important role and they can truly change hearts,” she said.

Privilege and wealth is also a key theme in the story. Despite being from the same cultural background, Bhairavi’s family is looked down upon by most of the rich families that visit their store. “Every country, every culture has a class system, but it just looks different in each part of the world. Here’s a neighborhood where people are affluent and the way they feel good about themselves is by showing off the fact that they are affluent, and in doing so, they forget how unhealthy all of that is,” she said. “Kind of like when we get too obsessed with social media, we forget that it’s just a tool. It’s not the end-all-be-all of our lives.”

India Sweets and Spices is an opportunity for many South Asians to see their experience represented on screen, but also a tool to learn and reflect on the social structures around them. “I hope that when people watch this, not only do they see the class divide in the Indian American culture in the film, but also recognize the class structure that exists in their own communities because they do. They exist everywhere we go.”

All these social themes might make India Sweets and Spices sound like a heavy drama but, on the contrary, director Geeta Malik handles every topic with respect, humor, and a lighthearted approach. Even though this is only her second feature film, she successfully created an endearing and often hilarious movie, which is not an easy task considering the big cast, the very busy set, and all the cultural elements surrounding the story. “She is very calm on set. She’s able to stay very grounded no matter what’s going on, which is so important because she is the captain of the ship,” said Gupta about working with Malik. “I really appreciate that she is able to switch gears even on a busy set and that she is able to pay attention to the pulse of the story, that is so important.”

Also key is Sophia Ali, who brought a ton of charm and laughs to the film, not only on-screen but behind the scenes too. “She is a sweetheart. She is incredibly talented, and just so much fun to work with,” said Gupta about working with Ali. “We had one scene in the grocery store and it kind of ended at this one line, but then she just had this naughtiness in her eyes, so we kept improvising afterward, going on and on. Geeta had to tell us to stop! Sophia is incredibly talented and I’m so excited that she is getting to have a film like this come out in which people are going to watch her beauty and her talent.”

Besides acting, Deepti Gupta has become a highly demanded narrator and voice-over artist; she’s narrated more than half a hundred audiobooks such as This Is Your Brain on Food by Uma Naidoo MD and the New York Times Bestseller A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. She shared some tips for all young voice artists out there: 

“It is not just about the words and how you sound, it’s ultimately about the heart that you pour into it. And believe it or not, you start to listen to things, and you can tell when someone is truly into the story, into what they are saying, and when someone is just having what I call a ‘smooth jazz voice,’ there’s no heart in it,” she explained. “Study with a good teacher, who is not just giving you tricks, but also is truly helping you understand how to take one paragraph or ten lines and make them your own. A good voice can only take you so far.”

Unfortunately, many people in the industry are only looking for standard American accents, so Gupta had to learn to stand for herself to defy stereotypes in both cinema and the entertainment and audiobook industries. “Americans come in all shapes and sizes and languages. And I had to learn to stand for myself and say ‘this is how I sound, you can understand me and therefore I can tell the story,’” she said while also making sure to add an extra tip of advice. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And you will find your community, whether you find it online, or among your own people, find a community of friends or colleagues who support you and encourage you.”

Besides India Sweets & Spices, Deepti Gupta is working on a solo show for the stage and a possible film script (or a novel). But, if the opportunity were to arise, she would love to go back to India to work in Bollywood. “Always! I grew up in India so of course, Bollywood is a destination in my mind, as was Hollywood. Hindi is my heart language and to be able to work in my heart language, it’s a different experience,” she said. “My parents would finally understand what I do because I feel that when I work in America, they’re not very interested; now, they are excited that I’ve done a film with Manisha Koirala and Adil Hussain. That’s all that matters to them.”

You can see Deepti Gupta on India Sweets & Spices which will have its world premiere on June 12 at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Physical screenings are sold out, but you can catch this wonderful coming-of-age on streaming starting Sunday, June 13 at 6:00 PM.