nina's heavenly delights

2006

Written by: Andrea Gibb and Pratibha Parmar
Directed by: Pratibha Parmar

While you’re watching Nina’s Heavenly Delights, especially somewhere like a film festival surrounded by a bunch of other shameless romantics, it feels magical – almost bewitching. It has all the elements of an entertaining, if overly sentimental romantic comedy. When thinking critically though, I can't help wondering what if they'd taken one more pass at the script? What if they'd looked one more time at some of the more saccharine moments? It seems almost a shame to think in those terms, because I really did thoroughly enjoy the 93 or so minutes I spent watching this film. However, on second viewing, those glaringly bad moments shone like a beacon.

As the film begins, Nina is returning home to her Indian family in Scotland from self-imposed exile in London. She has come home for her father’s funeral, a man who taught her to cook, and taught with such love that it has left an indelible mark on her life. She ran away to avoid a loveless, arranged marriage, and now on her return she finds that everything has changed. Things are bad financially. Her mother is selling the family restaurant because, in an effort to raise cash to save it, her father lost half the restaurant in a horse race.

The winner’s daughter, Lisa, is her brother’s girlfriend. Her former fiancé and his father are the ones offering to buy the restaurant. Nina is aghast at the thought of losing the last real connection she has with her father, so when she finds out that her father had managed to get to the finals of the local, prestigious, curry-making competition, she is determined to go through with the competition and win. The problem is, she kind of sucks.

Nina persuades Lisa not to sell her half of the restaurant and to help her with this last attempt to save the restaurant. There’s an obvious spark between them, and we start to understand why Nina fled from her straight-laced, normal upbringing. She’s deeply ensconced in the closet, and deeply fears her mother's disapproval. After all, it is one thing to run away from your family, it is another to have them turn away from you.

Stories that draw a metaphor between the sensuality of food and sex are not uncommon. Think Like Water For Chocolate, or even the classic What’s Cooking? This film endows good food with an aphrodisiac-like quality. More, it claims (over and over and over) that truly good food can’t be cooked without true love. In fact, it isn’t until Nina wakes up to herself and recognises the nature of her feelings for Lisa, for her family and friends, and even for her father, that she becomes imbued once more with the power to make truly wondrous food.

The main characters are surrounded with the obligatory, quirky cast of secondary characters. Nina’s little sister has a passion for Scottish dancing. Her older brother has a secret of his own that is revealed partway through the film which changes the whole nature of Nina and Lisa’s relationship. Nina’s mother has been faithful to her husband for thirty years, but now she has a chance to reunite with her first and true love. Nina’s best friend, an Indian drag queen, longs to yank Nina from the closet almost as much as he longs to star in a Bollywood musical.

For about two-thirds of the way, this debut feature from Pratibha Parmar practically sings along too, a Bollywood spectacle of flavours and laughs and romance, just without the music. Then, suddenly, the film begins to freefall into its own Scooby Doo ending. You know the type – it’s the kind of film ending where every single possible loose end in the film is tied up and happy by the time the credits roll.

Also, someone needs to take this director aside and explain to her the golden rule of people dying at the beginning of films. Unless it's a horror/zombie flick, they need to stay dead. They shouldn't haunt the characters, physically, however benignly. It's one thing to wonder if someone you love is still with you, it's another for them to pick up a spoon and start cooking. Perhaps the director should have trusted her own ability to evoke that presence using the tone of the film, rather than resorting to the literal.

If you offer up your mind, heart and senses to this film, it might truly satisfy you. If your penchant is for gritty realism and you loathe sentimentality, then this film could be your worst nightmare.

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com