Chutney Popcorn (1999)

Genres - Comedy Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Comedy of Manners, Ensemble Film, Family Drama, Gay & Lesbian Films  |   Release Date - Jul 14, 2000 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 92 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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Review by Brian J. Dillard

Unconventional subject matter, a decent screenplay, solid casting, and a low-key comedic sensibility distinguish this labor-of-love indie from first-time writer/director/producer Nisha Ganatra. A comedy-drama about an Indian-American lesbian who becomes pregnant with her brother-in-law's child was never going to be an easy sell, but Ganatra and co-writer/co-producer Susan Carnival invest their offbeat story with strong characters, knowing humor, and lots of believable familial and cultural conflict. Peppered with both lesbian and South Asian in-jokes, the screenplay doesn't always meet a mass audience halfway, nor is it particularly elegant in the way it delineates the resentments between Reena, her sister, and her mother. Yet the handful of awkwardly written scenes are mostly forgivable because Ganatra elicits such strong performances from her cast. With her gorgeous eyes and a round, expressive face, Sakina Jaffrey is able to portray her infertile character's grief forcefully and visually, without resorting to bombast. Meanwhile, her real-life mother, veteran actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, provides gentle comic relief without neglecting her character's inner life. Jill Hennessy, star of NBC's Law & Order, brings emotional directness and easygoing sensuality to her role as Reena's conflicted girlfriend. Unfortunately, though, Ganatra was saddled with the central role in her own film after her lead actress bailed at the last minute; the strain of wearing yet another hat shows in her sometimes flat, unexpressive performance. Recurring images -- of Reena riding her motorcycle, practicing her photography, and working as a henna artist -- provide effective visual shorthand for the emotional life Ganatra otherwise doesn't portray. And it's this strength for visual storytelling that suggests Ganatra has a bright future behind the camera. Despite a few rough edges, her first feature tells a story that hasn't been told before. And despite the limitations of working on a low-budget indie, she tells this story with flair and originality.