For over two decades, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar has been giving a voice to minority groups, whether through her outreach work in remote parts of the world or her documentary films such as Khush and Warrior Marks. Through all of her projects, Parmar has remained committed to introducing a different side of minorities to mainstream culture, in hopes of changing their minds about lesbians, women and South Asian stereotypes.
This summer her most recent film, the romantic comedy Nina’s Heavenly Delights, which opened last fall in the U.K., is finally screening in the United States at a number of film festivals. In the film, closeted Indian-Scottish lesbian Nina Shah returns home to Glasgow for her father’s funeral to discover that he lost half-ownership of it in a horse race, and the new owner wants to sell it. She enters a curry cook-off to save the business, and in the process, falls in love with a woman.
Parmar, who is of Indian descent, wanted to tell a lesbian love story that represented herself and her community. “This is why I wanted to come into doing film and TV,” she told AfterEllen.com. “I wanted access to mainstream media as a woman of color and as a lesbian, and to say, ‘I want to change the dominant representations that are out there.'”
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Parmar and her family immigrated to England when she was 11, during the first major influx of South Asian immigrants to the country. Although Indian culture has been assimilated into the British way of life — particularly through the British love for curry — there was a tremendous racial backlash towards South Asians at the time.
Though Parmar had more opportunities in Britain than in her homeland, things did not come easily for her. “Growing up in the U.K. wasn’t a hugely positive experience in the early years,” she admitted.
“There was a lot of racism and hostility towards people of Indian origin who had come to live in the U.K. We were a working-class, immigrant family. [My parents] worked really hard for us to get to college and to university because for them — as for many Indian parents and immigrant parents — education is a way out.”
Parmar was able to “get out,” first to Bradford University for her B.A. degree and later to Birmingham University for postgraduate work, but it was harder to escape the traditional expectations from her family and her culture.
She endured several failed attempts at traditional, arranged marriages before leaving home to figure things out on her own. “Growing up, it was always assumed that I would get married, but I knew deep down that that’s not what I wanted,” she said. “I did not want to be married. I did not want to be married to a man. I knew that, but I didn’t know what I wanted alternatively. I wanted to just be not tied down.”
At university, Parmar discovered feminism, and those experiences also exposed her to lesbianism. She fell in love with a woman for the first time and began to get involved in Britain’s feminist movement.
When she returned home to her family, she decided to treat her newfound sexuality as an “open secret.” “There was never a moment of, ‘Oh, mum and dad, I’m gay,'” Parmar recalled. “I never did that. Now it’s an open secret, as it were. I’ve been so out in my work, so they know and they accept it.”
Finally being out and confident in her sexuality allowed Parmar to begin her filmmaking career in earnest. She never attended film school, instead taking inspiration from queer filmmaker Derek Jarman, who told her to “just pick up a camera and start telling stories.”
Parmar began creating short documentary films about minority issues, choosing topics that she perceived to be unmentioned in popular culture, as a way of introducing those issues to the mainstream.