Part portrait of merging cultures, part investigation of the parameters of family loyalty, “Chutney Popcorn” is many things, the most important of which is a very good comedy. The freshman feature from 26-year-old Nisha Ganatra, “Chutney Popcorn” is an extremely likable film that treats delicate topics with wit, sensitivity and humor. Despite a largely unknown cast, a specialized theatrical release looks probable, as does a rosy future for the precociously talented Ganatra.
She plays Reena, a photographer and henna-tattoo artist living in Gotham with her girlfriend, Lisa (Jill Hennessy of TV’s “Law and Order”). Reena’s traditional Indian mother, Meenu (Madhur Jaffrey), barely acknowledges her daughter’s lesbian lifestyle, favoring instead her older, married daughter, Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey). When Sarita cannot conceive a child, for the first time Reena can performa task that her sister can’t.
Desperate to help Sarita and hoping to win her mother’s approval, Reena offers to serve as a surrogate mother. But inevitable complications arise: Sarita has a change of heart, Lisa feels marginalized and Meenu thinks the whole thing is a mistake. In short, the pregnancy forces each woman to reassess her identity and her relationships.
With co-writer Susan Carnival, Ganatra draws unexpected parallels between Indian and lesbian communities. Juxtaposing scenes of Indian prayer rituals with those of lesbian bonding, Ganatra illustrates that while the two subcultures could not be more disparate, each has traditions and codes that unite its respective members. Ganatra repeatedly uses the henna tattoos as a leitmotif to bridge the two cultures: though Indian in origin, the tattoos acquire a carnal, symbolic edge when Reena applies them to Lisa’s skin.
One of the delights of Carnival and Ganatra’s script is the consistency with which it manages to surprise. Just when it seems a scene is about to play out predictably, the writers take it in another direction altogether, which means, fortunately, that you can rarely see a punch line coming. Far from contrived, however, scenes feel remarkably organic; action seems to evolve naturally from character and situation.
Script aside, “Chutney Popcorn’s” best asset is its cast. Though their differing physicality might suggest otherwise, the heavy-set Ganatra and reed-thin Hennessy are affecting and believable as the lovers. Sakina Jaffrey’s Sarita is an intriguing combination of cool disregard and wounded pride. And Madhur Jaffrey turns in what must be the most bitingly funny maternal portrait since Debbie Reynolds’ in “Mother”: Imbuing Meenu with quirky ebullience, she wrests irony and sarcasm from almost every line but manages to remain sympathetic even when she seems thoroughly out of touch with her daughters’ modern world.