Pratibha Parmar: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

Pratibha Parmar is the writer, producer, and director the lesbian romantic comedy "Nina's Heavenly Delights," a fun story about food, family, and culture that opens in San Francisco this week and in other major U.S. cities throughout the year. Parmar was in San Francisco this week to promote the movie, as well as work on her next project involving The Color Purple author Alice Walker, so we had a chance to sit down in a café near the Bay Bridge for a chat the other day. We talked about the film, being vegan (she told me "there are meat dishes in the film just to appeal to a broad audience"), the Color Purple, and gay marriage. My review of her movie is here; the interview went as follows:

I just saw the film today, but I was really taken by it. It was a fun ride. Sometimes you see a movie like this one and we're in Scotland, it's Asian, there's Indian food, and that could start to pull you away... but this seemed to just plow into all these universal themes that everyone can related to. Was that a really conscious effort?

The conscious effort that I tried to make with the film was to just make them human beings. They're human beings and, yes, they come from a particular culture, and they have a particular traditional background, but they're a family like any other family and are going through the same journeys that a lot of people go through.

And that journey is about... for all of them in their different ways... it's about really being true to yourself. And I think that is a universal theme. We're all, as human beings, are on a journey trying to find out who we are and live by that truth if we have enough courage to do that. And that's what the film is exploring. I think the more specific you make a story, the more universal it becomes.

And how much of Nina's Heavenly Delights came from your own background, as opposed to being just a story you wanted to tell?

Quite a lot of it comes from my own background. I fell in love with my partner over making a curry for a group of mutual friends. We argued about which spices to use when. And she's of Pakistani origin and I'm of Indian origin, so we had different styles of cooking. So that made for a lot of spicy spark between us, and we sort of fell in love in the process.

And she also grew up in her family-run Indian restaurant, a High Street Indian restaurant. In the UK, there are a huge number of Indian restaurants. Actually, chicken tikka masala is the national dish in the UK now. It's not fish and chips and it hasn't been for a long time. The British national dish is chicken tikka masala.

But I wanted to go behind the façade of one Indian restaurant and say, 'OK, what is the story of this particular family at this moment in time in their lives, when the father has just died and how does that act as a catalyst for change for the mother, for the brother, for the sister, and for Nina.

It was interesting that everyone was hiding something they loved for the benefit of everyone else in the family.

Exactly.

And it was just amazing to see that every character was able to have that story told within a 90-minute movie...

Yeah, we really worked on that. It's an ensemble piece and a family story as much as it's a queer story about Nina falling in love with another girl.

In my review, I seemed to think even the food is a metaphor for the rest of the movie...

Absolutely.

It seemed like everyone was so concerned about the dish, they didn't want to be the ingredients, but it seems like you had to own up to being the best ingredient possible for the dish to be strong.

That's a lovely way of putting it. That's exactly right. It is about finding your own particular spice to lighten up your life and live your own truth. Food is definitely a metaphor in the film for different journeys.

And how long has this film been a part of your life?

Far too long (laughs). Far too long. I wrote the story eight years ago, and the screenplay was done within the first couple of years. But finding the funding for it just took the longest time. The fact that is has a gay storyline at the heart of it was one of the biggest obstacles, and I was told that by financiers.

Is it different to have to live with a project for this long, with the whole festival circuit and all, rather than if it were The Golden Compass and it was just huge, immediate, and everywhere?

Maybe. Although most filmmakers say after you finish making a film, for the year after that just know that is the year you will spend just traveling around the film festival circuit with your film. And I've been doing that, but it's also been released now. It was released last week in New York, so I was there to introduce it. It's being released here (in San Francisco) this week, and I'll be there on Saturday to do an intro and a Q&A.

For me, traveling around the film festival circuit has been incredibly gratifying and very affirming, because as an indie filmmaker you're so much up against the odds. There are so many closed doors, and so many obstacles. You're trying to kick these doors down and trying to make your film and keep the integrity of your own vision. And, a lot of it, you feel very much alone and very isolated, even when you do have friends and teams of people around you. You're still on your own going out there, keeping the momentum going. Because if you don't keep the momentum going, no one else is going to do it, and you can't let the ball drop.

So, for seven years, I've just been keeping it going and keeping it going. So to then go to film festivals and screen it, and actually have the contact with audiences, and be sitting in the cinema when people are laughing and really enjoying the film is just really affirming. That's the nourishment you need as an indie filmmaker. That's the nourishment I need to then get the energy up for the next project, and start the journey all over again.