Pratibha Parmar the director and producer of Nina’s Heavenly Delights is just back from Hong Kong, where her film was selected to close this year’s Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Less than a month ago, it was screened at the sixth Indo-American Arts Council’s Film Festival. Here’s what she had to say about the film:
Maria: How did it go in Hong Kong?
Pratibha: Hong Kong was a fabulous experience. The film was received really well. I’ve now travelled with the film to the Chicago Film Festival, IAAC in NYC, and HK, and every city has been a very warm and enthusiastic response to the film and in each city there have been different kinds of audiences. So it’s good to see that all kinds of different people are responding to the film as a universal story. And also people like the upbeat feel of the movie and it makes them smile, which is a good thing in these times.
Maria: Tell me about the Bollywood number. How and why did you decide to include it? How do you feel about Hindi movies?
Pratibha: The character of Bobbi, the bollywood drag queen gave me a dramatic excuse to develop one of my passions, i.e dance. I have always used dance as a story telling device in my films, even in documentaries. I brought on board the choreographer Piers Gielgud who worked on Oliver Stone’s Alexander. I wanted to bring together diverse dance traditions and create a mix of Bollywood and Western contemporary dance. I love the dance numbers in many Bollywood films and I particularly like Farah Khan’s choreography, which ‘borrows’ from many different modern dance styles. The day we shot this dance finale was memorable. By the end of the day, every single person on the crew was singing Nazia Hassan’s Aap Jaise Khoi. It was the only day I had the whole cast with me on set so it was particularly special.
I love movies from India. I like the way there is a sea change in the kinds of films coming out of India right now. Films like Omkara are quite brave and actors like Saif Ali Khan are developing in interesting ways. I loved the dance number on top of the train in Dil Se with Shah Ruk Khan. I must have watched it a few too many times. And Aamir Khan in Lagaan was a real discovery. I enjoy the masala movies but I am more interested in watching some of the newer films like Rang de Basanti. I recently interviewed Kajol and Ajay Devgan on stage at the Birmingham Asian Mela at a BAFTA organised event, which was quite an experience, particularly with thousand of fans screaming for them.
Maria: How has your family and community been about your being gay and your choice of partner?
Pratibha: Lets just say, it’s not been easy sailing. It’s taken many years for them to accept my choice of partner and my sexuality. I think in the end my mum had to go with it because she could see that I was happy and that I was not going to miraculously turn around and get married to a man, even one of my own choosing. But having said that, she is also very fond of my partner of many years and has said that she is like a ‘third’ daughter to her. Which is all the acceptance I need. In fact there was a recent breakthrough moment when both my partner and I were invited to my nephew’s wedding as a couple.
Maria: Related to that, I ask because I wonder if Nina’s Heavenly Delights is either (1) your wish for lesbian & gay desi kids everywhere, that their Moms and families be as cool about it as this one was, or (2) your own reality, that everyone was totally with you, or (3) neither of those two and something else?
Pratibha: One of the reasons I love cinema is that it allows us to imagine different kinds of realities. So by creating a mother on screen who is a fully rounded person, one with her own desires and dreams makes it possible to show that there are other ways of being. Suman is a dignified woman whose life doesn’t end when her husband dies. All she wants is for Nina to be happy and if that means accepting her sexuality then that is what she does. And you know, it isn’t all pure fantasy. Few years ago I was invited to a film festival called Larzish in Mumbai which looked at films around sexuality. I met quite a few Indian lesbian and gay men who came to the screenings with their parents, who were accepting of their children’s sexuality. Things are changing and attitudes are shifting. Culture and tradition don’t stand still forever, thankfully.
Maria: Is it difficult to film food being cooked and make it look so yummy?
Pratibha: Creating the yummy looking food sequences was a big challenge and very time consuming. I wanted to capture the colours, the textures and the sensuality of Indian food on screen. I wanted people to leave the cinema and go to their nearest Indian restaurant for a curry. I did most of the food shots after the main shoot during editing. It felt as if I couldn’t have enough of these shots and I think I used up all my food shots. There was of course a lot of cheating. I found a chef in a Brick Lane Indian restaurant and he did most of the cooking but we shot it in a way that it looked as if Nina was cooking. I also worked with a food stylist to create the look of the dishes and my DOP was excellent in lighting the food to make it look so sensual.
Maria: Is there a large Scots-Indian community in Glasgow?
Pratibha: There is a significant Scottish Asian community. The majority is of Pakistani origin but there is also an Indian community. I decided on locating the film in Glasgow because many years ago I had gone there to do a documentary on the city. It was my first visit and I loved it. So I went back there with this film. I didn’t want to make a film that was representative in any sociological way about the Scots-Indian community. I wanted to have a family and characters who are real, three dimensional characters and not stereotypes.
Maria: Were any of your lead actors not gay, and was there any uncertainty about playing a gay character?
Pratibha: The two lead actresses who fall in love with each other are not gay but neither of them had any hesitation in playing a gay character. They in fact relished this opportunity and were totally in to it. In fact when it came to the kissing scenes they were offering to do more takes! And Ronny Jhutti who plays Bobbi is not gay either but he gives a stellar performance. I did quite a bit of rehearsals with him beforehand and he worked very hard on creating his character. It totally pays off because he does get some of the biggest laughs in the film and he is quite unique.
Maria: One thing that struck me in the film is how well everyone deals with being of Indian origin and born and raised in Scotland. It seems to me that a lot of our 2nd gen kids here go through more anguish, if you will, about identity, or if not anguish, at least grapple with it more. Do you sense less of that in the UK? If so, why do you think that is?
Pratibha: The difference maybe due to the fact that the South Asian community in the UK overall is much ‘older’ than that in the US. We are now moving into our 4th generation rather than the 2nd. This longevity helps to create more of a deep seated presence here. My generation, definitely had more angst and were much more confused about our identities, the whole caught between two cultures syndrome. Nowadays questions of identity are construed in quite different ways.
Maria: Did Bobbi’s bus exist already, and if so, who, how and why? And if not, who came up with the idea? And his wardrobe… does he normally dress along those lines, or was that the work of some fabulous wardrobe person?
Pratibha: A wonderful coincidence happened during pre-production. We found out that one of the Master truck artists from Pakistan was in Glasgow visiting for a few days. These incredible folk artists transform regular trucks into works of art using decorations and painting in elaborate designs. I had always envisaged Bobbi who runs a Bollywood video store to have a van decorated in the colorful style of Pakistani trucks. It would have been a challenge for the art department to duplicate, but to find the real artist, Ghulam Sarwar, amongst our midst was a heavenly gift.
As for Bobbi’s wardrobe, no he doesn’t normally dress like that. Once again the way he dressed was so much part of his characterisation that a lot of work with a couple of different wardrobe designers went into creating his quite specific but indeed quite outrageous dress sense. It was important to show that he wasn’t afraid of being who he is - a drag queen.
Maria: And finally, why didn’t anyone think of getting Art Malik into a kilt??
Pratibha: Oh, trust me, I tried, but he wasn’t having any of it!