In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.
Lesbian director Nisha Ganatra has been a prolific presence in television since the early 2000s, directing episodes of several series including including reality gem The Real World: Back to New York, Transparent—for which she received a Golden Globe—Shameless, Better Things and more. But before all that, she made her feature debut with a little movie called Chutney Popcorn that is an absolute essential entry in lesbian film canon. It’s one of very, very few movies to center South Asian queer characters. I’ve hungered for narratives centering South Asian queer characters for most of my life, perhaps even before I could name that hunger.
And yet. I’d never seen Chutney Popcorn until now. It could be that, despite my best efforts, I still have many spots of oversight when it comes to queer films since my work tends to revolve more around television. It could be that the privileging of whiteness in queer pop culture spaces and conversations kept this movie just off my radar. Despite actively seeking art like this out. Despite watching it for the first time and feeling an instant familiarity, a level of intimacy that comes with watching the same movie over and over. For whatever reason, I’m an Indian-American lesbian who came to this movie about an Indian-American lesbian late. I’m an Indian-American lesbian who came to this movie about an Indian-American lesbian at the exact right time.
The first thing you should know about Chutney Popcorn is that it’s very funny. The second thing you should know is that it’s very queer. And those things also work hand-in-hand. Dyke jokes abound, from the general jokes about extensive emotional processing in queer relationships to hyper-specific ones (“No self-respecting dyke would be caught in socks that thin.”). It follows Reena (played by Ganatra), her girlfriend Lisa, and their group of queer weirdos, including self-sabotaging baby gay Becca, and loud UPS delivery dyke Janis. The crew likes to play Dyke Or Not with passerby. The crew likes to give each other shit.
While the friend group harnesses a lot of the distinctly dyke-centric humor of the movie, Chutney Popcorn is ultimately about family. Reena has the chosen family of her friends, but she has her mother and sister, too, and she’s very close with both even though it’s complicated. This isn’t a coming out movie at all; Reena is out from the start. But she still exists in a liminal space: Her mother knows she’s gay, but she actively ignores it, wonders when Reena might settle down with a husband, tries to set her up with a gross dude, refers to Lisa as her roommate. There’s obvious tension there, but Chutney Popcorn also doesn’t shy away from the nuances. Much of the movie takes place in these liminal spaces between cultures. Reena occupies many spaces at once, compelled to be a good sister and daughter and girlfriend and dyke and person and artist. In one of the early scenes, she watches her family dance after her sister Sarita’s wedding from behind the lens of her camera. She’s part of it, but she’s on the outside, too.
“What’s wrong with permanent?” Reena asks Lisa during the gorgeous opening scene. She’s applying henna on Lisa’s skin, an instantly intimate moment. She’s talking about tattoos, but it’s more than that of course. Reena wants something lasting with Lisa. She wants something that feels just out of reach.
Sarita wants something, too. Specifically, she wants to have a baby with her white husband Mitch. But she can’t get pregnant. Reena initially reacts to this news like it isn’t that big of a deal. She sees Sarita’s want as just fulfilling some sort of heteronormative script. Even Lisa thinks she’s selfish, more concerned about her own photography than with Sarita’s grief. And Chutney Popcorn bakes empathy and layers into its renderings of these characters’ wants. Yes, Reena is being a little selfish. But it’s also somewhat warranted. After all, her family refuses to see her photography as real art or work. Sarita feels pressure from every direction, too. Their mother wants a grandchild. And Mitch is the kind of know-it-all history buff white dude who thinks he knows more about Hinduism than she does. She feels like everyone is telling her how she needs to be. It’s something that the sisters, despite all their differences, have starkly in common.
Determined to prove she isn’t selfish and also perhaps determined to prove something to her mother (“I’m a lesbian; I’m not sterile,” she says when her mother laments that she wants grandchildren from her), Reena offers to be a surrogate for Sarita and Mitch. Sarita hesitantly agrees, and some funny sequences ensue involving Lisa inseminating Reena with Mitch’s spem with a literal turkey baster. But while the movie initially sets things up to be a sort of quirky but straightforward family comedy in which a lesbian carries a baby for her straight sister, Chutney Popcorn swings into a more surprising and complex direction in its second half.
Sarita realizes she doesn’t want a baby. Not if she isn’t the one giving birth to it. She realizes that it all might be for the better. Or it might not be the right time. But it’s too late. After several failed attempts, Reena gets pregnant. Sarita wants her to terminate the pregnancy, but something has shifted in Reena, too. She wants the baby for herself. She wants to do this with Lisa, who understandably has some reservations about the sudden shift in their lives. Reena ends up going through simultaneous breakups with her sister and her girlfriend, and Chutney Popcorn is deft in its handling of both and stays funny even when entangled in these real and messy relationship dynamics.
Reena realizes that not wanting to follow a heteronormative script and wanting a baby aren’t mutually exclusive desires. She realizes there are many ways to construct and reconstruct a family. Chutney Popcorn doesn’t linger too long on these contemplations, but it’s still a poignant look at familial obligations, self-discovery, and grappling with cultural expectations and contexts.
The intersections and bleeding together of cultures in this movie provide a beautiful backdrop for Reena’s journey. I never thought I’d see a movie where characters casually order paan and perform puja and then also say dyke every other line and make a Basic Instinct reference. The tradition of henna becomes sensual and queer in the hands of Ganatra. Chutney Popcorn is a romcom that plays with form and style in fun ways. It’s the South Asian dyke romcom I always wished Bend It Like Beckham had been.