It is no surprise that when Nina’s Heavenly Delights was first released in the UK in 2006 and the United States in 2007, the critics largely gave it negative reviews. The New York Times, for instance, said that it was ‘diluted by menu pornography and cringeworthy dance routines…” The menu, of course, consisted of dishes being cooked by an Indian lesbian. And the cringeworthy dance routines? They were being performed by an Indian queer man in a skirt.
The mainstream critics of the 2000s could apparently not see the value of such intersectional storytelling on screen. Or it could just be old-fashioned queerphobia since, despite this perceived dislike of the film, it won the Best Feature film award at the Paris Lesbian and Feminist Film Festival, the Wolfe Award for Best Feature Film at the Fresno Film Festival, and the Audience Award for the Best International Film at the Tampa LGBT Film Festival. I for one am glad that the LGBTQ+ streaming platform, GagaOOLala, has given this film a second chance to reach the masses because, believe it or not, the aforementioned “menu pornography” and dance routines were amongst my favourite parts of this film!
Filmmaking may largely be an audio-visual medium, but it is when cinema manages to make your other senses connect with the scenes that a film rises above the ordinary. Director and story writer Pratibha Parmar achieves this in the opening sequence itself, when a little Nina is being taught how to make curry by her father. The authenticity of the ingredients and the very Indian kitchen will immediately connect with any desi viewer, for the nostalgic lens through which this scene was shot made me feel like I could smell not just the curry being cooked on screen, but also the food from my mother’s kitchen. Asian culinary cultures are very closely tied to the identity of individuals, so this is an insightful introduction to a character whose arc will go on to revolve around her connection with her Indianness and family, and her need to be authentic to her queer self.
The grown-up Nina is played by Shelley Conn, who is warm and believable as the Indian daughter who wants to connect with her family but is afraid of being heartbroken because of them. We see Nina return after years to her home in Glasgow because her father passes away, and the food that connected her to him becomes the perfect symbol of her love for her heritage and family. It is when Nina meets Lisa, played by Laura Fraser, that the two women are forced to confront something that they are running away from. Though the themes of financial troubles, grief, and the threat of familial rejection and compliance run through the film, the tone remains light and warm and therefore it makes for a breezy watch. The supporting cast of the film is just as great as the leads, and Ronny Jhutti as Nina’s best friend, Bobbi, completely won my heart. Every time he walked into the shot with his fierce make-up and phenomenal outfits, I wanted to stand up and clap! Another reason that I loved this character was that his inclusion meant that the filmmakers understood that very often queer people have queer besties – and are not just the ‘token queer person’ in their circle, as cinema very often wants us to believe.
I loved the kitchen shots, I loved the idea of the two women falling in love while cooking (we love some WLW domesticity because there is so little representation of it), but most of all, I loved the soundtrack. Classic Bollywood songs like Eena Meena Deeka brought the story to life, and my favourite scene was when Nina’s mother is watching ‘Jab Pyaar Kiya toh Darna Kya’ in one room and Nina and Lisa finally make love to this timeless ballad of romance in the other. Talk about a Bollywood-loving-queer-desi’s dream come true!
The only thing that I did not like was a character being asked to prove their ‘love’ by kissing on national television. I mean, there can be a MILLION reasons why someone does not want their kiss to be telecasted, and their discomfort with PDA is not necessarily a statement about how they feel about you. I definitely felt that this part of the story should have been substituted for something else, because it was unnecessary and very problematic. What I did like was Nina’s mother not just being accepting of her queerness, but also admitting that she herself did not have the courage to pursue love. It was such a breath of fresh air to see a Desi parent immediately understand and love their queer child on screen. Let’s be honest: this is not a heavy film, but it makes a heavy statement just by existing and taking up space in the UK’s cinematic history. I would definitely be up for another helping of this food for the soul!