Let’s Tell That Story: An Interview with Pratibha Parmar

In person, Pratibha Parmar appears calm and gracious, little like the courageous warrior woman we know her to be. She talks easily about her vision and desire to tell stories not usually told on the screen. She has numerous documentaries and short dramas under her belt, such as A Place of Rage (1991), which celebrates Angela Davis, June Jordan, and Alice Walker; Warrior Marks (1993), made in collaboration with Alice Walker; and The Righteous Babes (1998), about popular culture, feminism, and rock music. As funding for documentaries became increasingly scarce in London, she decided, seven years ago, to put together a feature film, Nina’s Heavenly Delights. It’s something of a surprise. A romantic comedy, it features established Indian families in Glasgow, and a love story between two young women.

Parmar points out that not since My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) has there been a film with Asians and gays as protagonists. Nina’s Heavenly Delights made its Italian premiere at the Torino GLBT Film Festival (19-26 April 2007). She spoke with PopMatters about the look, the structure, and the making of her funny, poignant and upbeat film.

The film takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, which has a great look. Tell us how the choice to film in that city came about.

Back in 1990, when I was just starting out in film, I was asked to go to Glasgow and make a video celebrating that city, for Channel 4 in England. Glasgow had been selected that year as the European cultural capital. It was my first visit to Scotland. I completely fell in love with it. The architecture, the buildings, the art are all stunning. Actually, what was really interesting for me was that it had a very European feel to me, the way the streets are designed and the way buildings are. And the architect René MacIntosh, his work is really stunning. Since my partner is an architect, I’m quite sensitized to architecture. So that was one of the reasons I chose Glasgow.

But the turning point was when I went to an Indian restaurant in Glasgow. All the waiters were Indian. They were all wearing turbans and they were all wearing kilts. When one of them was taking our order, he spoke in this Glaswegian accent mixed with Indian. It had this wonderful lilt to it and it just made me smile. I thought, when I make my first feature film I want to come back to Glasgow. There’s just something about the Scottish Indian people I really took to. They have a warmth about them. Plus there is just this whole notion of nation, identity, and culture that is very important for me to play with, because people don’t think there are Indian people in Scotland and Wales. They just think that they are in places like London and the metropolises. Indians in England and Scotland and Wales have been there now for three or four generations. They are settled communities now. What’s amazing is the kids who have been born in Glasgow, Wales or Yorkshire now speak with the local regional accents, but they are brown skinned. Yet there is still this notion of otherness and there is still racism. There is always a question of what your identity is and isn’t, whether you are a true British or not if you’re not white. I wanted to turn that whole thing around and say, “Here’s a Scottish Indian family, settled and integrated into a Scottish community and let’s look at their life. Let’s tell that story.”

You mentioned at the presentation of Nina’s Heavenly Delights that the film took you seven years to complete, from conception to finish. Can you describe some of the hurdles you encountered?

After 1990, I continued making documentaries and I started to make short dramas. However the kind of documentaries that I was making about cutting edge political and cultural issues weren’t being funded in Britain. The culture of funding really changed and it was becoming impossible for me to make the kinds of documentaries that I had made. So I thought, “I still want to be able to tell stories of people whose voices are not heard, whose experiences are not seen.” I wondered, “How can I continue to be a filmmaker?” I thought maybe drama was the way of trying to sneak in and tell those stories. I began to make some short dramas. I retrained myself. I never went to film school and I learned on the job as it were, even with the documentaries.

How did you shift from directing documentaries to working with actors and directing them?

It was one of the things that a lot of potential funders would say to me, “So you’re a documentary filmmaker, how would you know how to talk to actors? How can you tell them to give a performance?” So I said, “Well, okay I’ll think about that.” And I went off and I took a three-month, really intensive acting course. I felt, “This is the process the actors go through in order to try and get a performance, to try and understand what’s on the page. This is how they have to approach it.” As a director, this helped me get inside an actor’s head. And it’s the one thing I absolutely love about drama. I now teach part time. I teach screen acting to actors, how to act in front of the camera or the TV screen as opposed to acting on stage.

I noticed throughout the film a rich look, and yet I’ve heard that the budget was tight and the time to shoot was very short. How were you able to achieve such a sumptuous look with all that pressure?

It was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do. We only had a five-week shoot and the film has big set pieces, big food set pieces, the cooking competition, and the dance numbers. There were many actors, some experienced and some not. It was tough, but I had the vision for the film so clear in my head and I worked so closely with my director of photography, who was an absolute genius. We spent three weeks before the shoot just going through every scene. We looked at movies and I showed him scenes: “This is the kind of lighting I want. This is the ambience I want. I want a warm feel. I want these colors.” Since it had taken such a long time to get to make the film, I had folders and folders of information. For me, it was really important for the film not to look like a low budget, indie movie partly because it’s a food movie. It’s a film that celebrates love and family and food.

There is attention to the detail of the food, its texture, the way it is chopped, prepared, and sautéed.

We did a lot of those close-ups and things after the shoot. We did them as pick-up with professional chefs, stylists, and other people including my partner Shahin, who grew up in an Indian restaurant. They were all there working in the kitchen knowing how it should look and helping to make it look presentable.

Some people might call Nina’s Heavenly Delights a lesbian story or an East Asian story, but to me it extends beyond any single category.

I didn’t set out saying I want this to be a lesbian love story or an East Asian film. I just wanted to make a film about the surprise of love, when you first fall in love and how that feels. At the same time, I wanted to explore issues around forbidden love and say that forbidden love is not just about same sex love. I wanted to show some parallels between Nina’s [Shelley Conn] journey and her mother’s journey. Her mother had chosen duty over passion and desire. And Nina is choosing personal desire over duty. She is breaking that pattern in her family with her mother’s blessing. You understand why the mother gives her blessing because after her husband has died, the mother has realized that maybe she will have a second chance at love.

I also wanted to give that possibility to older Indian women who, in Indian culture, are too often just forgotten. They are pariahs, not appreciated or wanted by the family. I thought, things change, generations change, cultures don’t stay the same. Maybe it’s naïve optimism, but I think you have to create possibilities in cinema and show different ways of living and choices that people can make in their lives. If you put it out there then maybe somebody will see that and if they’re maybe going through something in their life then that will give them hope and the courage to say, “I can do that too.”

Nina’s mother, Suman, is a multi-dimensional character. It’s refreshing to see a middle-aged woman with grown children who has lost her husband, but not herself. The actress, Veena Sood, also has an incredibly expressive face.

She is brilliant. This was one time that I really learned to trust my instincts. She lived in Vancouver and I cast her without meeting her. I cast her from looking at her tape and speaking to her on the phone. I thought when I heard her, she was the right mother, the right Suman. And she truly surpassed all my expectations. I think she is stunning and very talented.

You have said that in your own long-term relationship, you fell in love over food. I wondered if you drew from other personal experiences, for instance, the drag queen cousin Bobbi [played by Ronny Jhutti] or the mother.

Definitely Bobbi. He is inspired by two friends of mine, one in New York and the other in San Francisco. They are both gay Asian men, one fond of dressing very flamboyantly and the other quite formative in the way he is in the world. So I created an amalgamation of them in Bobbi. He’s sort of a larger than life character, but he’s actually very comfortable in his own skin. In a way, that is a contrast to Nina, whom he is helping to say, “Just follow your heart.”

Your documentaries have a very feminist message to them such as A Place of Rage and later Righteous Babes. Can you discuss the feminist aspects in Nina?

I suppose on one level, it’s about choice and women, what choices do they have and how they live their lives. And I think that my feminist consciousness is about choices and choices I’ve made in my life and realizing them. When I went to university and discovered feminism and took part in my first women’s group, I suddenly realized that I had a choice. I could choose how I dressed, who I fell in love with. I had control over my own body, over my own destiny as a woman. I think, on that kind of basic level, for Nina and for Suman, that’s what it’s about. They have choices.

Apart from being just about love, the film has been called a romantic comedy and I find it a very interesting transition, apart from your move from documentary to fiction, but furthermore from serious subject matter to humor. Was comedy something you have always dreamed of?

You know, I really wanted to have fun. I wanted to make it a fun experience to watch. I wanted people to leave the cinema dancing and wanting to go and eat a curry. At the Chicago International Film Festival, it was amazing. There were two Indian guys who were literally dancing in the aisles. And I thought, “That’s what I always imagined. That’s exactly how I wanted people to feel.” So yeah, it was a leap, definitely, but I’m also interested as a filmmaker to explore different parts of my abilities and skills, different dimensions. I don’t want to be stuck in one groove. I want to develop creatively and as a person.

I was struck by something I read regarding the troubles you had getting funding for Nina. The UK Film Council had turned you down for a second time and the reason was, “Lesbianism has had its sell by date.” This statement kills me. What does this mean in the 21st century and how do you continue to have hope?

(Laughing) I know. I tell you, there were moments when it was really dire. I just thought, “Oh my God, how naïve am I, thinking the world has changed and financiers and distributors are going to be much more open to lesbian films and lesbian work? The UK Film Council is a public body, who has a public commitment to diversity in all its forms. One of its officers wrote me an email, saying, “We think this story and lesbianism has had its sell-by date.” I did write back, and I said, “Until people are not hanged and stoned and murdered for loving the same sex person, then there is still an interest out there.”

To me, this revealed the deepest level of homophobia. I think that what happened and has been happening is that there is a drive not to be PC any more, because it’s not cool to be politically correct. It’s much cooler to be kind of “Oh yeah, but we’ve all achieved equality now. We don’t need to make special things for anyone or anything.” In that kind of climate where everything is “the same,” people have the arrogance to make statements like that.

There was another incident where I was at a second meeting with a potential financier and he said he really liked the script. We were near the end, when he said, “You know, there’s just one little problem I have. Does it have to be gay? Can you imagine Lisa being a boy, being John?” And I said, “Well, no one needs that.” You don’t have to be hugely imaginative to see that, because it’s around us all the time, in advertising, in films. I said, “That’s not the story I wanted to tell.” So you know, it’s the 21st century, and how have things changed around lesbian and gay sexuality? In some ways, things have gotten better, but we still live in a world where homosexuality is not altogether tolerated.

I would like to hear if there is anything else brewing, after Nina.

Yeah, I’m a glutton (laughs). I thought, after Nina, I’ll just take some time off. I was so tired and I’m still recovering. I feel I need time out, but at the same time I already have ideas. I have a story, a coming of age road movie set in India, that is a fiction feature I’m writing at the moment. And another documentary actually, because I still love documentaries. I want to make a feature documentary on the life and times of Alice Walker. She is such an American icon. I think she deserves to have her life documented.