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
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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