BERLIN 2000 REVIEW: "Chutney Popcorn," The Lesson is, Keep it Light
by Eddie Cockrell
Few American independent films in recent memory are as critic-proof as the cleverly written, sprightly paced "Chutney Popcorn," and therein lies a lesson for aspiring young filmmakers. While often reliant on the genuinely funny ethnic and sexual one-liners in its beguiling script to propel it over some awkward characterizations and choppy narrative, there's little doubt that director and co-writer Nisha Ganatra has a nascent talent for pleasing crowds -- a fact borne out by the film's festival track record to date, which includes audience awards at the Newport, San Francisco gay and lesbian, and Los Angeles Outfest confabs. "Chutney Popcorn" is a relentlessly sunny film, and since relentlessly sunny plays, relentlessly sunny eventually sells.
Ganatra, who stepped into the role after losing her lead actress a fortnight before filming, plays desi-American Reena, an affable, wisecracking New York photographer and henna-tattoo artist. Reena's lesbian lifestyle and long-time girlfriend Lisa (Jill Hennessy) is the source of constant comic woe to her Punjabi mother Meenu (Madhur Jaffrey), particularly since Meenu's other daughter Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey, her real-life daughter) can't wait to start a family with affable new American husband Mitch (Nick Chinlund). Yet when the newlyweds discover Sarita can't conceive, Reena hatches a plan to serve as surrogate mother. Complications, as they say, ensue.
Ganatra and co-writer Susan Carnival do a fine job of illuminating and contrasting the Indian and lesbian cultures, drawing subtle yet strong visual linkages and peppering their script with healthily acerbic observations. Yet those same quips, many of which are drowning in glib buzzwords ("know this: I'm here for you," says a doctor and a running gag finds one of Reena's pals referred to by all as having a multitude of "issues") becomes annoying shorthand for the honest pain and courage with which her characters surely must be wrestling.
The film looks terrific, thanks to a crew Ganatra's called "the Lilith Fair of independent filmmaking." Of particular note is the fine, if somewhat manipulatively employed, soundtrack, which features a pleasing blend of indie bands and a fusion of hip hop and traditional Punjabi rhythms called bhangra.
Nearly a year after debuting at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the clearly giddy Ganatra told the enthusiastic full house at the final public screening in Berlin that "it looks like we'll have distribution now" in the United States. And that's appropriate: by recognizing that audiences will respond to a light treatment of serious issues and engineering a film that plays to those strengths, "Chutney Popcorn" is a blueprint for filmmakers eager to hit the mainstream without sacrificing their visions.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic and consulting programmer whose work also appears regularly in Variety and nitrateonline.com.]