chutney popcorn


Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Written by: Nisha Ganatra and Susan Carnival

In the last few years we have been priveleged to witness the emerging careers of two talented Indian female filmmakers: Nisha Ganatra and Gurinder Chadha.

The two women, who are close friends, have delved deeply into what it means to be an Indian woman living in Western society, stuck between family traditions and all the possibilities that western society brings. Gurinder Chadha released the critically acclaimed Bend It Like Beckham, a film that explores one Indian girl's dreams of being a professional soccer player. (It has since been revealed that earlier iterations of the screenplay had the main character being gay as well, but I think rightfully Chadha decided to concentrate her energies on the racial and sporting aspects of her story.)

Nisha Ganatra released this gem of a film, Chutney Popcorn, as her first feature film after graduating from NYU. While not the break-out hit that Bend It Like Beckham became, it does share a lot of similar themes in terms of loyalty to one's family and loyalty to yourself and your own personal dreams.

Reena, a budding photographer and beauty parlour worker, and her white girlfriend Lisa have just moved in together. Reena's mother still can't get it into her head that Reena is gay, she still thinks of Lisa as Reena's flatmate, but that hasn't stopped Reena from becoming and out and proud lesbian. Reena's sister Sarita gets married when the film begins and immediately she and her new husband Mitch start trying for a baby. They soon find out that Sarita is unable to conceive a child. Being a wife and mother is everything Sarita has ever considered doing or being, so suddenly she needs to re-evaluate her goals in life.

Trying to be a good sister, Reena offers to carry the baby for Sarita. It seems she's perfectly fertile, and Mitch is all for the idea, which somehow makes Sarita feel like less than a woman. He donates sperm and they start to plan. Lisa isn't 100% OK with the plan, but she figures nine months and it'll all be over, they'll hand over the baby and life will go back to normal. Unfortunately, just as Reena falls pregnant, Sarita declares that she wants to call the whole thing off. Oops. Too late.

Reena decides to keep the baby and raise it herself, much to the distress of everyone concerned, especially Lisa who never considered herself a candidate for motherhood. Reena and Lisa's relationship is threatened as Reena becomes more and more obsessed with impending motherhood. Sarita withdraws from Mitch and her own marriage while she tries to figure out exactly what it is she wants from life. Mitch just wants to love his wife and to be involved in the life of his new son or daughter.

We see the sisters almost switch roles - Reena becomes the responsible and safe one, while the other learns to live life on her own terms. When finally the baby arrives the entire family is forced to assess what roles they will play in each other's lives and in the life of the newborn baby.

It's easy to dimiss this as just another pregnant lesbian storyline, except that the interactions between Reena and her mother and sister are just too heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking. Lisa's own mother gives her some sound advice in growing up and taking some responsibility for her life and loves. Family is everything in this film - the families we grow up in and the families we form later in life to keep us going. The message is that we cannot live without them and that not all families are going to look the same. In this time of debate over gay marriage and gay families in general, Chutney Popcorn just seems to stay relevant.

While there are some scenes that are meant to root the film squarely within the lesbian community, Chutney Popcorn is oddly free of many of the usual standards of lesbian films, such as coming out issues. Audiences heartily sick of pregnancy storylines might find the film slow going, but the relationship scenes between Lisa and Reena and how they resolve their differences around the birth of the baby should keep most viewers hooked. Nisha Ganatra does a surprisingly good job in the lead role (which she took only after the previously cast actress dropped out and there was no one else available) and Jill Hennessy as Lisa produces a fabulously quirky performance so at odds with the television roles she had previously been known for.

The standouts for me though were Sakina Jaffery and her real-life mother Madhur Jaffary in their roles as Sarita and Meenu (the mother) respectively. The overbearing mother is never an easy role, but it has to be played just right or all the family scenes would sink into caricature. Here those scenes are played with such underlying wit that the film practically sings along.

As each character comes to terms with his or her role, so does the fabric of the film come together to produce a very sweet, mostly happy ending. I particularly loved the pre-birth ceremony where Meenu tried to place everyone involved in their respective roles according to Indian tradition and then giving up and just doing the best she could with who she had. After all, traditions survive only through compromise and a willingness to accomodate and incorporate the ever-changing ways of society. Family is more than just blood, and the differences between us are all usually just in the mind. Having this be one of the first bi-racial lesbian relationships shown onscreen is just an added bonus.

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