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In Conversation With Pratibha Parmar

Ranjani Saigal

Pratibha Parmar was born in Nairobi, Kenya and came with her family to live in England in 1967. Before she began to make films, she was a youth and community worker working in the Asian community with young women.
She studied at Bradford University for her B.A. Hons degree and did postgraduate studies at the Cultural Studies Centre at Birmingham University. She travelled to India in 1975 and worked as volunteer in rural development projects around India. During this time she spent 3 months working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa.

She worked in the feminist publishing collective, Sheba Feminist Press in the mid 1980s, where she was responsible for editing and publishing writings by Asian and African-Caribbean women ,including the British publication of The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde. She gave the Keynote address to the OUTWRITE conference in Boston in February 1999 and was invited to be a Regents Lecturer at the University of San Diego in Spring 1999.
 The New Festival in New York did a tribute to Pratibha Parmar in June 1999. Pratibha is a Board member of Women in Film and Television (UK) and The Directors Guild of Great Britain.

Pratibha Parmar was the recipient of the Frameline Award in 1993. Frameline organise the world's largest lesbian and gay film festival every year in San Francisco. This award is presented to an individual who has made a significant and outstanding contribution to lesbian and gay media. She was invited to be a Grand Marshal for the Pride Parade in San Francisco in June 1995.

She was presented The Pink Peacock Award in 1995 by Trikone in Recognition of Exemplary Service to the South Asian Queer Community.
 WARRIOR MARKS Winner of the Public Prize at the 11th International Womens Film Festival in Madrid, November 1994 Winner of the Audience Award at the 3rd Womens Film Festival in Paris, October 1994

KHUSH Winner of the Public Prize for Best Foreign Film at the 14th Creteil Womens Film Festival, Paris April 1992 Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary Short at the Frameline Film and Video Festival in San Francisco, June 1991 Winner of the Public Prize at the 7th International Womens Film Festival in Madrid, November 1991

Her recent film Nina’s Heavenly Delight was recently screened at the MFA and has been receiving rave reviews.  She spoke to Lokvani about the making of Nina’s heavenly delights.

What motivated you to become a film maker?

I am the child of immigrants who moved from Nairobi to England.  I was very inspired by my mother who like many immigrant women worked in a sweatshop and made a lot of choices so that their children could have a better life.  Since I had worked a lot with the immigrant community I was asked by a television channel (Channel 4) to serve as a researcher  for a series they were doing on South Asian communities in Lester and South Hall.  At that time I had the opportunity to see the whole production process and I was really taken with the power of mass communication.  That really motivated me to become a film maker.

Do you use your films to entertain or to give a message?

Films always must entertain. But the topics I choose for my films should be something I am passionate about.  So I think it is a bit of both. My art is part of my activism.

What was the inspiration for the story on Nina’s heavenly delight?

The inspiration for the story came from my own experiences and in some ways its’ autobiographical. I wanted to write a love story where a young woman falls in love with another woman in a surprising way, when they least expect it. I wanted to set it in an Indian restaurant because my partner grew up in her family owned Pakistani restaurant in London and we had fallen in love when making a curry for a group of mutual friends. The title of the film actually comes from my sister, Nina who once owned a catering company called, Nina’s Heavenly Delights. So that’s how those different personal elements came together. Ultimately it’s a film about family, food and love, all themes that I am interested in. 

Was it easy to find financing for the film?

Financing for films is not easy to find especially for unusual themes. Many financiers loved the story and told me that if the story was about a man and a woman falling in love they would fund it. I had to be true to my story and decided not to make any compromises.  Which is why it took me a long time to make.

Why did you set the story in Glasgow and did you enjoy working there?

I loved working in Glasgow. I fell in love with the city on my first visit there many years ago when I was making a documentary for Channel 4. I remember going to an Indian restaurant and being greeted by Indian waiters in kilts and turbans. The way they spoke in a lilting Scottish-Asian accent made me smile. I also loved the charming mixture of Scottish and Indian cultures. At the time I decided that one day I wanted to come back and shoot a feature film in Scotland and so when I wrote the story, I decided to set it in Glasgow.  It seemed a natural fit. Creatively for me, it was great to find so many fantastic locations and we were also very lucky to find many of them close together, which helped enormously on a practical level.

Can you talk about the writing of the screenplay?

I was keen to bring on board a Scottish writer who could write real characters who were not clichés but multi faceted and layered. I had read Andrea Gibb’s early draft of Dear Frankie and really liked her characterizations and attention to detail and her acting background gave her an edge in writing sparkling dialogue. I commissioned her through my company, Kali Films to write the first draft.

Over the years our process was very collaborative and it was great that Andrea was so open to working closely with me. She hadn’t worked on a screenplay, which she hadn’t originated before so this was new for both of us.  
The director, John Boorman once said that ‘all serious directors write … you can’t separate the shaping of the script to the writing of it.” And after going through the process of working on NHD, I agree with him. I think its’ an essential part of directing to sit down with the writer and shape the script in detail and give it structure, especially when its such a personal story. I was fortunate to have Andrea as my collaborator.

And you know the writing continues even when you are editing. The opening title sequence was a pickup we did while in post. It became clear that what we needed was a sense of the magic of the relationship between Nina and her father, so I wrote in this back-story with Little Nina and her father and shot it while we were editing. And sometimes it is only when you are shaping the film during the edit that you discover which emotional beats are needed or what tone you need to emphasize.

How is the film being received?

I am delighted with the response all over the world. I was in New Delhi recently where the film was screened and so many members of the audience congratulated me on the work. That was wonderful.

The South Asian community has many budding filmmakers who are struggling for opportunities. Do you have any suggestions for them?

Financing is hard to find. I wish the wealthy NRIs would support film making in their communities so that we South Asian can tell our stories.
In your story the mother character is very accepting of the unusual relationship of her daughter. Is it not far from the truth in South Asian communities?

I have come across parents in the South Asian community who are very accepting of their childrens' choice. Unfortunately they are not as many as I would like. But the beauty of fiction is that we could present characters as we would like them to be.

Thanks so much for your time.

Thank you.

(This interview was made possible by The Massachusetts South Asian Lamda Association (MASALA) which is a Boston-based organization that seeks to provide a safe and supportive social environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning New England area South Asians, as well as their families and friends. MASALA hosts monthly potlucks, discussions, outdoor events, and an annual entertainment night called "MASALA Mela", which is attended by well over 175 members and their allies. The MASALA website is currently in development, but  interested individuals can join the MASALA listserv (for discussions and event information) by writing to: BostonMASALA-subscribe@yahoogroups.com)

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