Pratibha Parmar interview

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.   The movie will be released by Regent Releasing next year across the U.S.    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!

15 thoughts on “Pratibha Parmar interview

  1. Since you are in NY, getting Malayalam movies should not be a problem, there are lots and lots of Malayalees there. Try these stores for videos/DVDs:

    Maveli Super Store
    119 Nanuet Mall South
    Nanuet, NY 10954
    (914) 623 4091

    Maveli Food Market
    1785 Neried Ave
    Bronx, NY 10466
    (718) 994 4666

  2. Thanks for visiting, Sanjay.

    You know, I haven’t yet ventured into Malayalam movies. By me, we never get them in the cinema, only Hindi all the time and an occasional Telugu or (more rarely) Tamil film.

    I liked Mohanlal in “Company”.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve been meaning to see if Netflix carries anything beside Hindi and Tamil…

  3. I come here for work avoidance, but must say that I like it! 🙂 I am not a big fan of mainstream Bollywood, though I find their recent self-reflective spoof-goof trend interesting.

    I would like to hear your take on Malayalam movies (, particularly Mohanlal. Most of them are not subtitled, so I guess that would be a problem. You could look up some of the parallel ones, though, such as Piravi ( and some movies by Aravindan ( and Padmarajan ( I don’t like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, so wouldn’t recommend him.

  4. Hey BidiSmoker, I like your fire and desire to do something about all the bad art and representations of us — use that and write novels and filmscripts! Only people like you will make a difference. But take it easy on filmiholic, she doesnt mean ill and she writes a great blog on Hindi/Desi cinema and her perspective as a non brown is valuable! She’s very cool.

  5. That’s easy for a white person to say. I get that all the time. it isn’t really eloquent. The group on top wants all the people who actually experience prejudice to ignore and forgive. That’s the basis of colonialism. And it just sounds like another excuse for you to spout your narrow minded views of our community.

  6. Kush, thanks. I’m not fluent yet but have been studying Hindi, so I’m getting there. But I always find myself watching the subtitles anyway. I think Japanese would be quite a challenge!

    BS, I think at this point the most eloquent thing I can say to you has already been said by a man who wrote in to the NY Times during their series on class last year:

    “To the Editor:

    In our society, we have different classes, cultures, religions, races, sexes and ethnicities. We can celebrate these differences or we can use them as barriers to keep us apart.

    Some of us mix smoothly and some choose to segregate. At worst, we can respond to fear, or at best, we can grow and learn together. The choice is ours.

    Jerry Frankel
    Plano, Tex., May 19, 2005”

  7. I only take exception when I think that people speak authoritatively about things they don’t understand. I never said that Indian-Americans were free of identity issues. All people have identity issues. I took exception to the statement that we were “anguished” when this does not seem reflected in the hundreds of Indian American people I know.

    I like to take bold stands because boldness is conspiculously lacking from the portrayal of Indian-americans in the media. Not just on screen, but on blogs like Sepia Mutiny and this one, where all the commentators tend to be 30 plus model minority types, or else white people. The problem is that most of the articulate, intelligent Indian-American leaders have better things to do than inhabit the blogosphere, so our representation is left to the types at Sepia Mutiny and here. As a student at Cornell Kush, I’m sure you remember how many brilliant, intelligent and dynamic young desis you met there. Those are the kind of people that define our community. They spend their time as business leaders, legal sharks and physicians. They mainly focus on the technical fields. Because of that, any Indian that enters the world of arts or letters is assumed to be not of the same intellectual quality. This isn’t fair, but unfortunately often it is true. Notice the job status of the Mutineers. None of them does anything that impressive. The same is true of me, but at least I am only 23 and have a ways to go.

    I am not a proponent of the model minority myth, but neither will I buy into all the cultural baggage that people tend to bring over from the motherland. Indians in American are a distinct cultural group, and a largely succesful one at that. Every mention of this group on this site has been somehow in a negative context. My point is not that outside critique is wrong, but what purpose does it serve? If I spent an entire blog examining African-American film and drew my truths based on that, what would I end up with? A thoroughly unbalanced, cliched and almost racist view of African-Americans. That is what I think we have here.

    If you don’t want my comments, let me know and I will refrain. I am not trying to harass you. But my point of view is valid, if not popular with the white folk and their desi friends eager to please.

  8. BidiSmoker,

    I understand your irritation, and through Sepia Mutiny know that you like to take bold stands. That is noteworthy but you sometimes tend to sway on the other extreme of pendulum. I also appreciate you being contrarian on SM from time to time.

    However, filmiholic is not off the mark. Just read comments on Sepia Mutiny for 2 days or click the links of the commenters, you can easily sense the litany/ anguish/ grapple, and what not in significant number of cases. Some of it is **universal sons/ daughters of immigrant experience**, and some of it being of darker skinned or not being anglo-saxon (no denying about that) and some of it uniquely Indian/Pakistani with its 200 years of baggage carried to Amreeka. Moreover, it is day and night cultural difference from their parents (Urban India of today is not that different from USA but that is very recent happening) and them, the 2nd genners.

    Please note that I think J. Lahiri is over playing her card, till now has been playing one tune, and it becomes tiresome but she is on something too.

    Now to my main point. I do always believe that everyone should be able to comment on everyone, make observations, and critique. In addition, an observer not vested is a more sharp viewer. So bidi, criticize the critique, not their freedom.

    PS: I am not a 2nd genner even though I lived longer in US than in India, and part of my early childhood was in States too. Since, my teenage years were in India, I never had identity issues. Some of it I can understand, some of it as I said *uniquely transferred from Indian subcontinent through genes*

    PPS: Flimiholic, I do enjoy your film reviews. Do you understand Hindi or enjoy mostly Bollywood movies through sub-titles? I am a big fan of Japanese movies but I do not understand a word of it.

  9. Thanka, Maja. I was going to reply to your comment under the review, telling you that I’d b posting this interview and the comments on the van, but it got a bit hectic suddenly and I didn’t have a chance.

  10. Ah dearest BS, it’s always a pleasure when you drop by.

    I added the word “grapple” afterward because I thought that was more appropriate than “anguish”.

    In many parts of the world, the U.S. included, anyone with an ability to observe is free to comment on what they see, and that’s what I’m doing.

    As for my particular circle of friends and acquaintances, I actually do know people who either themselves or their kids juggle the various aspects of who they are (Indian, British, American, African etc.). If you think it’s not an issue at all in the US, then how do you explain a lot of the discussion that goes on at Sepia Mutiny, and how do you explain all the ABCD mini-genre of films that came out here in the past 6 years?

    Why do you connect someone who may be holding multiple passports and straddling several continents with oppression? I never suggested anything like that. It’s one thing to be able to navigate between various nationalities with varying degrees of success; it’s a whole other thing to be oppressed.

    And I say “our second generation” because I am referring to 2nd genners in the United States. Like it or not, if a child of Indian parents is born in this country, he or she is one of “ours”, just one of the various “ours” to which he or she belongs. I was born here to two immigrant parents, and am one of the many hyphenated people that comprise this country.

  11. 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?

    Again I just don’t get where you think you have the cultural authority to speak for an entire community that you aren’t part of. Didn’t you tell me in an earlier post that your friends were not “oppressed” or anything similar by their indian background? Then what is this legion of “anguished” youth that you are talking about? I don’t find my South Asian friends to be “anguished” by their identity in the least bit; it’s merely media sensation driven by pandering artists like Lahiri and Chadha.

    And the way you say “our second generation” makes it sound like you are one of us. But you aren’t desi are you? So how is it “your” second generation?

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