In the last few years, Chutney Popcorn‘s Nisha Ganatra has worked more often behind the camera, but she returns to the screen in Amber Sharp’s new ensemble dramedy Don’t Go, a lesbian television pilot premiering next month at Outfest in Los Angeles. Ganatra plays Shanti, a young woman who moves into the Los Angeles-area fourplex where Don’t Go is focused, to get some time away from her traditional Indian family and their constant preoccupation with finding her a husband.
"Shanti’s character is on the road that I could have taken if I hadn’t found myself," Ganatra said to AfterEllen.com. "She is living with her parents, sort of trapped, doing all of the things that her parents want her to do, and she feels anger about it, but I don’t think she’s very in touch with where that anger is coming from or why she’s feeling so sort of dead-ended."
In the Don’t Go pilot, Shanti meets her neighbor Cindy (Janora McDuffie) and "starts having feelings for women for the first time," Ganatra explained. "Her [story] arc is coming out: coming out to herself and then coming out to her very traditional family."
Nisha Ganatra enjoyed the return to acting, her first love. Earlier in her career, she took acting classes but became discouraged by the slim chances of finding rewarding work. "It was a time where women like Meryl Streep and Glenn Close were on the covers of magazines saying that it’s so hard for women in the industry, and there are no roles for women, and I was looking at that and going, ‘Oh my God, what am I thinking?’ These are, you know, white women who are in incredible movies, and they’re talking about how there’s no future for them."
She was also discouraged by casting directors who would look at her and remark, "Oh, you’re Indian, and you could be any ethnicity."
"It just never felt right," Ganatra said. So she began taking screenwriting classes at UCLA and later earned a graduate film degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she directed the acclaimed short Junky Punky Girlz (1996), which won the PBS Grand Prize for Most Outstanding Short Film of the year, among other honors.
The lack of good roles for actresses as well as an absence of representation of queer Indian women on film were among Ganatra’s inspirations to write, direct and produce 1999′s Chutney Popcorn. "I had an inspiration to write meatier roles for actresses and to direct a movie with actresses that could do these parts," she said. "I also had a sort of selfish [reason], never seeing any sort of representation of myself or my life or my friends’ lives on film. You know, it’s such a powerful medium, and the first step is visibility, right?
"I wanted to put something on the screen that felt real to me and my group of friends, and it was great because it came about in a very sort of community way. I wrote the script with Susan Carnival — we were at film school together — and then we just had groups of lesbians come to a park and do readings, kept trying to fix it and put their input in and make it better.
"Also we wanted to make a lesbian movie that wasn’t about coming out, where everybody just kinda knew that one of the characters was gay. She didn’t have a problem with the fact that she was gay; her family didn’t have a problem with the fact that she was gay. The problem was that her sister couldn’t have a baby, and she was going to have a baby for her."
Chutney Popcorn is the story of motorcycle-riding photographer Reena, an Indian-American lesbian in a relationship with a commitment-phobic white woman named Lisa (Jill Hennessy of Law & Order and Crossing Jordan). When Reena’s sister, Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey), discovers she can’t conceive a baby, Reena volunteers to act as a surrogate. Their mother, Meenu (Madhur Jaffrey in a wonderful performance), hopes this pregnancy will "cure" Reena’s lesbianism; it does, in fact, prompt a schism in Reena’s relationship with Lisa.
Watch the trailer for Chutney Popcorn here:
The New York Times called Chutney Popcorn "unusually well-acted" in their review, and it was the darling of the film festival circuit in 1999, winning audience awards at Outfest in Los Angeles, the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the Paris Lesbian Film Festival and the Newport International Film Festival.
Some viewers found the ending disappointing due to its lack of resolution, but Ganatra explains that the ambiguity was intentional. "All of the endings we tried to come up with when we were writing were all so pat," she explained. "Nothing seemed realistic. So, I think we kind of chose for the ending to be more — you know the baby’s going to be OK, and you know the family’s going to work it out; you don’t necessarily know exactly how, but everybody loves each other — and that’s all that mattered. So, I kind of purposely left it open-ended."
She also received criticism about how all of Reena’s lesbian friends were white. "That wasn’t done just blindly," she insisted. "Like that was actually specific that her group of friends were all white, because for me it always felt like I had to choose between being ‘white and gay’ or ‘straight and Indian.’
"I didn’t know any people of color who were gay, and at that time there weren’t any at any of the gay groups; they weren’t diverse. So, it was absolutely done on purpose to show that [Reena's] gay world is very white, and her family world is very straight. You know it was absolutely a point I was trying to make but just not hit people over the head with."