1 min

Written on the skin

Chutney popcorn exhibits a taste for dyke culture

FLESHING OUT. Chutney Popcorn portrays the intricacies and specificity of lesbian culture and promises great things to come from new director Nisha Ganatra. Credit: Xtra files

All the literature about Chutney Popcorn, director Nisha Ganatra’s debut feature, suggests that it is, first and foremost, a comedy.

While Ganatra’s movie tries to be funny, as many jokes fall flat as succeed.

As far as I’m concerned, this movie’s strengths are other than comic.

Here’s what happens: Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey) gets married and plans to start a family. Much to her disappointment, she is soon diagnosed infertile. Sarita’s lesbian sister Reena (played by the director) offers to carry a child for her sister and brother-in-law.

Neither mother (a brilliant turn by Madhur Jaffrey) nor Reena’s girlfriend Lisa (Jill Hennessy) are pleased, Sarita becomes uncomfortable with the entire process, and Reena’s dyke friends are quick to argue over the politics of the situation.

The film quickly becomes a study in characters as the pregnancy brings out family jealousies, maternal propriety, culture clash and political dogma in those around Reena.

Much has been made of the collision of strict traditional Indian values with lax contemporary New York City in Chutney Popcorn. But what’s most interesting is the director’s ability to capture something which, more often than not, and especially in feature length form, tends to elude the makers of lesbian films – the sense of a specifically lesbian culture, with its own, often singular, sometimes peculiar traditions.

There’s the turkey baster scene, for example.

After Lisa deposits today’s batch of male genetic information in its proper place, Reena mentions having read that an orgasm might help her get pregnant. Lisa’s discomfort is politically incorrect and honest: She doesn’t want anything to do with spooge, not least because “it smells!”

Ganatra manages to capture this moment without ever seeming to suggest that all lesbians are disgusted by sperm. In the same vein, her other lesbian characters are emblematic without reeking of tokenism.

In the end, Chutney Popcorn may have bitten off more than it can chew: There’s a lot going on here, and many of the quite intricate character relationships are not fleshed out as much as one might like. Still, what Ganatra has managed to capture is impressive. What’s more, it’s quite beautiful to look at. My advice is to keep an eye on Ganatra as she refines her style: If her control becomes tighter, her sensibility will shine.

Chutney Popcorn opens Fri, Aug 25 at the Carlton Cinemas (20 Carlton St; 598-2309).