Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Written by: Nisha Ganatra and Susan Carnival
In the late 90's and early 2000's we witnessed the emerging careers of two talented Indian female filmmakers: Nisha Ganatra and Gurinder Chadha.
The two women, who are close friends, 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 versus loyalty to yourself and your own personal dreams.
Reena, a budding photographer, 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. 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. Being a wife and mother is everything Sarita has ever considered doing or being, so 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.
Reena decides to keep the baby and raise it herself, much to the distress of everyone, 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 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 switch roles - Reena becomes the responsible and safe one, while Sarita 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.
Family is everything in this film - the families we grow up in and the families we create. 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.
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 good job in the lead role (which she took only after the previously cast actress dropped out) and Jill Hennessy produces a fabulously quirky performance as Lisa, 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). 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 skillfully, with underlying wit
As each character comes to terms with his or her role, so does the fabric of the film come together to produce a resolution. Whether the resolution meets the expectations and wishes of the viewers remains to be seen.