Chutney Popcorn (1999)

by Natalie Porter


Intricate Designs

It is always refreshing to see a woman-directed film featuring a female protagonist, considering that the majority of cinema productions are male-driven. But because this is such a novel experience, I tend to go in with high expectations. When I heard that Nisha Ganatra’s first feature Chutney Popcorn was garnering critical praise, I hoped that this film would be something new and innovative. And indeed, the film offers an unusual and humorous perspective on both the lesbian and Indian-American communities, featuring an interracial lesbian parenting-couple. What Chutney Popcorn does not offer, however, is a lead character who engages the audience by offering some clues to what she is feeling, or relief from tedious TV sitcom devices, like jokes based on stereotypes to get a quick laugh

Chutney Popcorn solicits viewers’ attention immediately, opening with the camera focused on young women’s bodies in the process of getting henna tattoos. These intricate designs are then photographed by Reena (played by Ganatra), who works at a beauty salon in New York where she also displays her photographs. The camera cuts to one of her shots, showing a hennaed hand dipping into a bowl of popcorn, an image that suggests the cultural mixing implied by the film’s title. Such fusing is actually a struggle for Reena, who is a lesbian, born into a Punjabi-American family. The film follows her attempts to deal with the conflicting attitudes of her lesbian friends and traditional mother, DDa (Madhur Jaffrey).

cover art

Chutney Popcorn

Director: Nisha Ganatra
Cast: Nisha Ganatra, Jill Hennessy, Madhur Jaffrey, Sakina Jaffrey

(Mata Productions)
Inc., 1999

DDa tends to nag Reena because she considers a career in the arts impractical and assumes that being a lesbian means virtual sterility. And DDa, predictably, wants grandchildren. To that end, she favors Reena’s sister, Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey), because, early in the movie, Sarita marries a white man named Mitch (Nick Chinlund), who hopes to have a family. Reena and her girlfriend Lisa (Jill Hennessy, perhaps best known for her role as Claire Kincaid in TV’s Law & Order) ride Reena’s motorbike to the wedding ceremony, an activity that has potential for disaster—symbolic and literal—as her Indian sari billows about her. She arrives late, just as the newlyweds are departing, looking ridiculous in her huge helmet, then proceeds to feel like an outcast, as her mother visibly disapproves of Lisa. While the rest of the family dances, Reena stands on the sidelines. This forlorn image indicates Reena’s dilemma: while she feels marginal to her family’s culture, we soon learn that she also feels different from her white lesbian friends because of the color of her skin.

For Lisa and Reena, though, race is not an “issue,” or source of misunderstanding. The couple’s only concern, at least at first, is Lisa’s restless resistance to commitment, which prevents her from unpacking her belongings once she moves into Reena’s apartment. And again, Lisa’s seeming instability leads Reena to question her own sense of identity. DDa adds to her self-doubt, treating her lesbianism as a passing phase for Reena, and Lisa as a “roommate.” DDa even arranges for her daughter to meet a nice young man, a family friend. He tells Reena that he will pretend to date her, to keep her mom off her back, if she hooks him up with Lisa, whom he also thinks is her roommate. Reena explains to him that Lisa is actually into Indian chicks, and, by the way, is her girlfriend. Expecting the worst, I was not disappointed: the guy responds to this news by suggesting a threeway, just like too many male sitcom characters who can’t conceive of lesbians without inserting themselves into the picture. His proposal is a weak punchline, precisely because it’s so cliched.

Chutney Popcorn repeatedly falls back on such cheap laughs and stereotypes. Too often, for instance, Reena’s mother’s ignorance is treated as “endearing” rather than grievous . And at one point, Reena’s lesbian friends hang out in front of the salon, and as various women walk past, they try to determine which of them are dykes, depending on their lack of fashion sense. This scene is almost painful to watch because the jokes are so clumsily set up: the actors seem to be anticipating each other’s lines, and their performances seem forced.

The plot almost makes up for such limited acting skills, with a complex scenario that entwines all of the main characters. This begins when Sarita is unable to have a child and Reena, seeing her disappointment, offers to be a surrogate mother. But Reena’s friends remind her that she’s “not a rent-a-womb!” (the film’s only clearly articulated semi-political statement). Lisa is also skeptical of having a pregnant girlfriend, but agrees to handling the turkey baster, in a funny, slightly crude scene. But when Sarita rejects the whole scheme, feeling that her marriage is suffering, Reena discovers that she has become pregnant and expects Lisa to help her raise it. Lisa is overwhelmed by this proposal and returns to her mother’s home.

Even with all this trauma, Reena remains reserved, making it difficult for the audience to connect with her. Again and again, she appears cruising on her motorbike, with the cool soundtrack (by artists like Talvin Singh and DJ Spooky) in the background, perhaps contemplating her situation. It’s hard to be too worried though, since Chutney Popcorn is a comedy. There’s no doubt that the audience will leave feeling good, because they have been entertained while supporting a film directed by a woman. If the packed theatre I attended suggests anything, today’s mainstream audience is eager for an alternative to male-dominated cinema, overloaded with special effects and sidekick roles for women.

As a comedy, Chutney Popcorn is frequently amusing and captivating. But, as a film raising consciousness concerning social issues, it is not so successful. It supplies several examples of prejudice, but rather than seriously questioning these attitudes, the film quickly dismisses them with simple laughs, so no one needs to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps I am being unfair by demanding that Ganatra set some new standards for intelligent, contemporary romantic comedies, but I feel that her film had the potential to do more with its subject matter. If it had balanced its humor with considerations of the real concerns that a lesbian parenting couple might have in a society still invested in the concept of the nuclear family, Chutney Popcorn might be a film worth seeing twice.

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