What do you get when you combine interracial romance, Indian traditions (not to mention cuisine), Bollywood glitz and the coming-out process? Openly lesbian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar‘s happy-go-lucky lesbian love story, Nina’s Heavenly Delights.
The film, which opened in the United Kingdom this past September and screened in New York last month (talks are underway to secure U.S. distribution), centers on Nina Shah (Shelley Conn), a young Indian-Scottish woman. Nina has been estranged from her family and is living in London when she receives the unexpected news that her father has died. She rushes home, only to find she is too late for the funeral and stuck in the middle of a family crisis.
As her family berates her for leaving them in the lurch, Nina discovers that, in her absence, her father bet half-ownership of the family restaurant, the New Taj, on a horse race. Now it is half-owned by Lisa Mackinlay (Laura Fraser), who — in conjunction with Nina’s mother (Veena Sood) — is looking to sell the restaurant to a local rival.
This news breaks Nina’s heart; she grew up in the restaurant, learning to cook “from the heart” from her father, an award-winning chef. When she discovers that he had secretly entered the New Taj into Glasgow’s upcoming Best of the West curry competition, Nina grabs her chance to save the restaurant and keep the family dream alive.
But of course it’s not that simple. Nina must teach Lisa how to cook Indian food properly, which is no easy feat given the fact that Lisa thinks generic Indian takeaway is fantastically delicious. Adding to the conflict, Nina, a closeted lesbian, finds herself falling in love with Lisa, who happens to be dating Nina’s brother, Kary (Atta Yaqub).
In its most basic sense, Nina’s Heavenly Delights is like a lot of lesbian romantic comedies: One girl must win the other’s heart while dealing with a confrontational family and coming out of the closet. We’ve seen it many times before, from But I’m A Cheerleader to Imagine Me & You.
But Nina’s Heavenly Delights succeeds with this archetype, and the film personifies its catchphrase in many ways: “Ingredients don’t matter. It’s all about the heart.”
The story line unfolds in a rather predictable fashion (warning: moderate spoilers to follow). Lisa and Nina eventually begin to date, though Nina’s phobia about coming out to her conservative, Indian family almost ruins the whole relationship. (Thankfully this isn’t Lost and Delirious: No lesbians were harmed in the making of this film.)
Nina and Lisa’s relationship is very central to the story, and this is reflected in the finished movie: Once their happy ending arrives, the movie ends somewhat abruptly. While this may leave some viewers wishing for a more screen time, either to learn more about Nina’s past or her future with Lisa, those who are watching to see a lesbian relationship likely won’t be disappointed.
There are, however, several developments in the plot that seem too hasty and contrived.
In one pivotal scene set in a nightclub, Lisa is dancing with her boyfriend, Kary, when a mysterious redheaded woman inexplicably jumps in to accost — and kiss — Kary. Immediately afterward, we learn that Kary is secretly married and has been using Lisa as a fake girlfriend in order to avert suspicion.
While the scene itself is shocking, it also stands out as being overly convenient. Suddenly there are no barriers between Nina and Lisa — who may not be as straight she originally seemed — and the central love story can commence thanks to Kary’s deus ex machina wife.
Similarly, Nina’s mother’s sudden acceptance of her daughter’s homosexuality seems contrived. Throughout the film, Nina’s mother is adamant about marrying for function rather than love (even professing to have done so with Nina’s father), and her traditional Indian values are very apparent. But when Nina comes out at last, her mother is the picture of happiness and acceptance — another all-too-tidy wrap-up.
One thing that Nina’s Heavenly Delights does do well is deal with interracial lesbian relationships, an issue rarely addressed in any films. In fact, Nina and Lisa are one of three interracial couples in the film — Kary and his wife, and Nina’s friend Bobbi and his boyfriend are the other two. Delights is able to easily walk the line between treating Nina and Lisa’s relationship normally while still mentioning the Shah family’s conservative feelings.
For a romantic comedy that seeks to avoid too much angst, this subject is handled very well. Race is a minor issue for the characters involved, but not to the extent that it dominates the story.
In the end, showcasing a positive lesbian relationship while avoiding some of the typical queer film catch traps is where Nina’s Heavenly Delights succeeds. Though sometimes overly theatrical and unbelievable, the movie offers lesbian viewers a chance to cheer for a spicy Scottish couple whose relationship develops through a love and devotion to food and family.
If we’re measuring ingredients by heart, this one is just right.