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June 5, 1999


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Don't Pigeonhole My Film: Nisha Ganatra

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

Nisha Ganatra Twenty-six-year-old Nisha Ganatra is living a life that most independent film-makers only can dream about. Her small, independently produced, first feature film Chutney Popcorn has become a "hit" in the film festival circuits in the US. It premiered in April at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Last week it was shown at the Seattle Film Festival -- one of top film events in the US. Later this month it travels to Newport, Rhode Island and then to San Francisco.

For its New York premiere, Ganatra and her co-writer/producer - Susan Carnival - both graduates of New York University's film school, are not going to take Chutney Popcorn, to the annual Asian-American Film Festival (a prestigious event held in July and August every year), since they do not want to "pigeon hole the movie."

Chutney Popcorn Speaking recently in an interview from her office in Manhattan, Ganatra said that "other people are going to slap labels on it (as an Asian-American film), so we are aiming for a higher tier film festival in New York, and then work our way through."

For the same reason, Ganatra decided not show the film at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (one of the lead characters in Chutney Popcorn is an Indian lesbian woman), which starts this weekend. This year's Indian entry at the gay and lesbian event is Kaizad Gustad's Bombay Boys.

To add to all this excitement, Daily Variety, the bible of the Hollywood film industry, gave Chutney Popcorn a highly favorable review referring to it as 'an extremely likable film that treats delicate topics with wit, sensitivity and humor.' The newspaper added that the film promises 'a rosy future for the precociously talented Ganatra.'

Ganatra got her first brush with fame a few years ago, when a short 12 minute film that she had directed for the NYU film school - Junky Punky Girlz, became a film festival favorite. The film dealt with three girls in New York -- an Indian, a Caucasian and an African-American who get their nose pierced.

At the New York Women's Film Festival, Ganatra's film received the prestigious Max Factor Film-maker Award. Suddenly, in the independent film world of New York City, people were approaching the young Indian-American film school student in her early twenties with proposals to produce and finance her future works.

Getting funding for Chutney Popcorn was a "relatively easy task" for Ganatra. Besides Carnival, the film's producers include Trina Wyatt of Tribeca Films, a Robert De Niro run outfit that encourages the development of independent films and Seneca Falls Productions.

Chutney Popcorn is the story of a traditional Indian mother in New York (played by Madhur Jaffrey) and her two daughters - the younger Reena (Ganatra herself in the role), a rebellious photographer and henna-tattoo artist, who lives with her American lesbian lover, and the older Sarita (Madhur's real-life daughter Sakina Jaffrey), who is married to an American man. Problems start when Sarita is unable to conceive and Reena volunteers to be the surrogate mother.

Ganatra said the title of the film was influenced by Hollywood popcorn movies - "the pure entertainment movies without deep messages."

"It was important to me that if we were going to make a movie dealing with mothers and daughters, and with Indian-American actors, that we should not be heavy handed," she added. "It was very important to keep it light and comical. The term 'chutney' was used to let the audience know that this was a popcorn movie, but with a little twist to it."

"Everyone in the film laughs at their own loss of culture, lack of culture, want for culture," she said. "It is like the way we manifest our Indianness here in the United States. All the characters in the film are trying to recreate and hold on to things."

Born in Vancouver, Canada, and raised in California, Ganatra was raised in a traditional household. Her father is an engineer, her mother a nurse. Her parents were the part of the first wave of Indian immigrants who arrived in North American in the sixties. Ganatra and her younger brother were expected "in typical Indian immigrant terms" to go to a medical or an engineering school. "It was almost revolutionary that I went to film school," she added.

She described the film as an autobiographical work in that "my mom can't wait for me to get married and have a baby. Definitely a lot of the movie was written because of the unsaid and sometimes blatantly said pressures to hurry up and have a child and a grandchild for her."

Ganatra and Carnival dedicate the movie to their mothers. The film is produced under the Mata Production, Inc label and the prefix for their official e-mail address is "MataFilms."

Ganatra said she expects Indian audiences to be more responsive to her film, especially after the success of "ground breaking" films like My Beautiful Launderette and Fire. However, she quickly pointed out that there were major thematic differences between Deepa Mehta's controversial film and Chutney Popcorn.

"That movie was making a commentary about the Indian situation, and was very much about two women falling in love," she said. "My film has a character, who is gay, but it is not about her being gay. It is a story about a mother and her two daughters, and the fact that one daughter is gay, further complicates things."

"But also it is important for our community to accept the fact that there are gay South Asians," Ganatra said, adding that she hoped that Indians will see the film, because "it (the reality of Reena being a lesbian) is not portrayed in a threatening manner and is not the central story line of the movie."

Ganatra was encouraged by a recent event. At the Los Angeles premiere, she was extremely nervous, since a group of "traditional looking Indians from a business group" showed up for the screening. But their reactions surprised her. They laughed through the movie, she said, and at the end of the evening, some members of the group walked up front and made a point of meeting her.

"One of them thanked me for the film, and even said 'you make us really proud,' " she said. "I was totally surprised by their reaction."

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