Chutney Popcorn is the world's first lesbian feature from the South Asian diaspora. So why does it feel so familiar? NNisha Ganatra's debut comes decked with all the right garlands. She's a Vancouver-born New Yorker who studied with Spike Lee at New York University. The film was shepherded to the screen at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Films. Romantic comedy It scored good notices in Variety and indieWIRE. Both San Francisco's Lesbian And Gay Film Festival and Los Angeles' Outfest gave it their best-film prize. Gloria Steinem likes it.
But all that rah-rah sounds like the hollow cheer of low expectations. The fact is, Chutney Popcorn is a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. If it were about straight, white L.A. teenagers, as most romantic comedies are these days, how impressed would Steinem be?
It's not the same thing, I know. But maybe, now, it should be.
Ganatra, who also co-wrote the script, stars as Reena. She's a downtown lesbian artist who rides a motorcycle and lives with her white girlfriend (Law & Order's Jill Hennessy), openly defying her exasperated mother (Madhur Jaffrey).
Reena's sister Sarita is the good daughter. She's just married and is set to get pregnant. But it turns out she can't, so Reena offers her womb as a surrogate. The set-up has promise, but the payoff unravels like a cheap sweater.
The whole film hinges on Reena. We have to understand that she's breaking new ground in her life even as she holds on to a deep love for her family. But Ganatra gives her character nothing but style cues -- the motorcycle, plus plenty of mehndi -- covered with a carapace of superiority and smart remarks. By the time Reena's meant to be in the depths of suffering, I couldn't care less.
Emotional depth Without emotional depth, or insight into its characters, all Chutney Popcorn has left is the talk of the new. But it's been nearly 10 years since Srinivas Krishna's Masala and Hanif Kureishi's films and books brought to pop culture the dizzying hybrid states created by living South Asian in the West.
Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala showed the pressure family tradition put on New World romance. Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji On The Beach captured the conflict between generations of Punjabi women in the diaspora. That was in 93.
Instead of building on these other artists' work, Chutney Popcorn fails to go even as far. The only new thing Ganatra brings to this party is urban dykestyle. New if you don't count Go Fish and The Watermelon Woman. In fact, after the second or third scene where characters sit around talking about what it's like to be a lesbian, I figured Guin Turner and Cheryl Dunye were going to turn up any minute and the whole thing would degenerate into a potluck dinner.
Screwball style Either Chutney Popcorn should be much funnier and more frenetic -- following the screwball style of David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster -- or it should go far deeper into the envy and resentment between the two sisters. Any Margarethe von Trotta film would do as a model. But as is, it fails on both fronts.
And why is it called Chutney Popcorn? It sounds good, but what does it have to do with the film?
Maybe I'm expecting too much. Maybe Ganatra shouldn't have to stand on the shoulders of those who were doing it a decade ago. After all, there are still only a handful of films like hers. But I'd still rather expect too much than too little.
CHUTNEY POPCORN, directed by Nisha Ganatra, written by Ganatra and Susan Carnival, produced by Carnival, Ganatra and Sarah Vogel, with Ganatra, Jillian Hennessy, Sakina Jaffrey and Madhur Jaffrey. A Mongrel Media release. 93 minutes. Opens Friday (August 25). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 74. Rating: NN