[Guest Author : Saakshi O. Juneja]
In form Nina’s Heavenly Delights follows the storyline of the quintessential diasporic dilemma. Nina Shah, a young Indian-Scottish woman runs away on the day of her arranged marriage, unable to reconcile her family’s expectations with her apparent lack of choice. Three years later, she returns to attend her father’s funeral, and finds herself in the middle of a family crisis. As she sets about restoring her family pride, she reconnects with her past and manages to finally uncover an identity no longer fraught or confused.
When she returns, Nina discovers that her father, who had a gambling problem, bet half the ownership of his restaurant, the New Taj, on the races. After her father’s death, The New Taj (now also owned by Mr. Mackinlay whose daughter Lisa looks after it on his behalf) loses much of the clientele loyal to Shah’s cooking. As a result, Lisa and Nina’s mother decide to sell it off.
Nina, who has been schooled by her father to follow her heart, at least in matters pertaining to cooking, isn’t too happy with their decision. She learns that her father had entered the New Taj into a Best of the West curry competition. She decides to set things right by winning the contest and hopes that by doing so, she’ll not only restore her family name, but also assuage her guilt of abandoning her family. Lisa, of course, is only too keen to help. While teaching Lisa how to cook a proper Indian cuisine, Nina, a closet lesbian, finds herself falling in love with her. The only problem is Lisa is also dating Nina’s brother Kary.
Besides the recipes of Indian delicacies, family secrets too begin to come out into the open, but Nina’s sexuality remains the very last to leave the closet.
Director and writer Pratibha Parmar’s debut film comes across as a bit over the top with its theatrics and at times conveniently-wrought plot. Nina’s drag-queen pal Bobby is either inspired by Bollywood, or is meant to mock it – either ways, she’s outlandish. Much could have been done to flesh out Bobby’s character and address questions of identity and sexual difference with sensitivity, instead of limiting her role to provide comic relief.
What has been done well though is the film’s central partnership of Nina and Lisa. Beautifully enacted by the two leading actresses, Shelley Conn and Laura Fraser, you can’t help but marvel at the chemistry of the leading pair. The food metaphors have been imaginatively employed by Parmer, especially while expressing Nina’s coming to terms with her own identity. The film also scores in handling interracial relationships; an issue that seems to either get neglected or overly highlighted in other films, with just the right amount of sensitivity.
All in all, the film makes for a light romantic comedy that, while making a serious point about family pressures and alternate sexuality, does so with good humor. None of the typical prove-a-point fare, this movie is not quite like other queer acts such as Fire and Chutney Popcorn, which probably explains why critics on both sides of the Atlantic thrashed it.