Pratibha Parmar Makes Change

By the late 1980s, Parmar was working with Channel 4, one of Britain's mainstay television networks. At the time they were producing a weekly lesbian and gay TV news magazine, which gave Parmar a chance to showcase her works to a wider audience. She concentrated on issues related to race, sexuality and gender, all of which were very personal topics for her. As a result of this personal touch, her audiences began to connect with the stories she was telling.

In 1991, Parmar's filmmaking career turned a critical corner. She made two films, Khush and A Place of Rage, that were widely acclaimed by the independent and queer film communities.

Khush, in particular, was a landmark film for Parmar because it was the first documentary film to depict the South Asian gay and lesbian community. Using first-person testimonials, the short feature became a cult favorite among queer people of color and was a springboard for the rest of Parmar's documentary career.

In 1993, Parmar took on a much more controversial topic with the help of famed author Alice Walker, whom she met while filming A Place of Rage, a documentary about African-American feminism. Walker approached Parmar about doing a film called Warrior Marks to document female genital mutilation rituals in Africa, a subject that had been extremely taboo and underrepresented up until that point. The film, originally meant to be a small yet intense project, quickly gained international notoriety for its thoughtful reinterpretation of what had once been a closeted cultural issue.

Though Parmar calls Warrior Marks the toughest project she's worked on to date, its impact was also deeply inspirational. "It was amazing," she said. "It was a small film that we were doing and we thought it would be seen by a few people, but actually it really sparked off a whole international debate. It's been really gratifying because I've literally seen how a film can trigger social change and change attitudes in people."

After the successes of Khush, A Place of Rage and Warrior Marks, Parmar continued to document minority issues, including lesbians and gay men with disabilities (Double the Trouble, Twice the Fun), lesbian cybersex (Wavelengths), and even a film detailing the impact of Jodie Foster's accomplishments on the lesbian community (Jodie: An Icon), which Parmar describes as "a valentine to Jodie."

Now settled in London with her partner of 15 years, Pratibha Parmar has recently turned to feature film to reach a mainstream audience. Her latest movie, Nina's Heavenly Delights, took six years to make, and the process of bringing it to the big screen underscored the difficulties of depicting lesbians and South Asian culture in a mainstream feature.

Parmar struggled to gain funding — even from the diversity-themed U.K. Film Council, who told her lesbians had reached their "sell by" date — and she was asked several times to make one of the characters a man rather than a woman. But Parmar embraced the challenge.

"In my own life I have a very happy, full relationship with my partner," she said. "I've had that for many years and I know many other lesbians who do, so why do we always have to be portrayed as psychos or dysfunctional women? Why not just like anyone else? We fall in love and yeah, we go through our struggles, but also we have a potential to live happily ever after."

Parmar also had to battle public perceptions of South Asian culture with Nina's Heavenly Delights, which is one of the main reasons she believes the film has not been a critical success, though it has received popular acclaim.

"British Asian films are only allowed to be a certain kind of film," she explained. "[Critics approve] as long as the Asians are portrayed in stereotypical ways or they bring their cultural baggage with them. If it had been a real kind of misery-fest with Nina slashing her wrists because she's in love with a woman, the critics would have loved it."

But Parmar's experiences growing up in the South Asian community have been surprisingly different from the common perception. She has met many Indian families at film festivals and screenings who are supportive of homosexuality — a testament, she says, to the idea that cultures and attitudes can change.

"In Western liberal ideology, there is this assumption that Western cultures are so much more accepting of different sexualities and of homosexuality, and that other cultures are much more traditional and backward about that," she said. "I think what my film has done is really knock that on the head."

She continued: "I actually think things have changed more within the South Asian community than they have in the mainstream white culture. I've seen the reaction to my film from within the South Asian community, which has been really positive, [compared] to the mainstream white hetero community, which has actually been much more negative."

After more than two decades behind the camera as a documentary filmmaker, it is these kinds of observations that Pratibha Parmar trusts. Whether she is documenting traditions of torture in Africa or giving South Asian lesbians a stereotype-free voice in mainstream cinema, Parmar is able to take what seems to be the narrowest minority issue and give it a fresh perspective.

Above all else, Pratibha Parmar believes that cultural change is possible. She's seen it for herself.

Last summer, Parmar and her partner attended a civil partnership ceremony for a lesbian couple they know. "The two women were both Indian, and they'd had their outfits made and embroidered in India," she recalled. "Both their families were there, their uncles and their aunts and their mums and dads and their nephews, kids running around. … It was like a typical Indian wedding except that there were two brides.

"Now that is progress. That is change. So my film isn't just complete fantasy; things like that do happen."

Watch the trailer for Nina’s Heavenly Delights here:

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