Sweet and Salty

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At one point in the winning new romantic comedy "Chutney Popcorn," Meenu (played by Madhur Jaffrey), the not-so-understanding mother of two squabbling sisters in an Indian-American family, points to the Statue of Liberty and observes "Look — even she's wearing a sari." And that's the way this film sees contemporary life: all dressed up in a warmly comic, multicultural wardrobe. It's more than a fashion statement, it's a declaration of a new America.

The movie's main focus is Reena (played by director/co-screenwriter Nisha Ganatra), a young Indian-American lesbian who works as a photographer and a henna tattoo artist. Both Reena and her sister Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey) are struggling to live their lives independently of their often-intrusive mother Meenu; the situation becomes even more complex when Sarita decides she wants to have a baby.

At its best, "Chutney Popcorn" has some of the sensuality and comic smarts of Mira Nair's 1991 movie "Mississippi Masala‚" and, evoking Deepa Mehta's 1996 drama‚ "Fire," it offers up an intelligent look at lesbian life and the Indian community. Although "Chutney Popcorn‚" in its brief 92-minute running time, deals with as many issues as a week of afternoon talk shows — lesbianism, multiculturalism, having-a-babyism — it does so not to spark a debate about those topics, but to explore them from a deeply personal standpoint. This film isn't looking to argue, it's looking to chat.

When mainstream Hollywood films explore hot topics they tend to do so in capital letters: INTERRACIAL SEX, THE DEATH PENALTY, LESBIANS. The characters become symbols, the plot grinds along, and, at some point, Joan Allen gets to deliver a speech — with swelling strings in the background — that can be neatly clipped and shown again on Oscar night. "Chutney Popcorn," an independent, low-budget affair, presents real people experiencing hot-button issues and not speechifying about them.

The movie may not be constructed of Oscar-night clips, but there are a number of engaging performances: Jill Hennessy ("Law & Order") plays Reena's girlfriend Lisa with sweetly nuanced exasperation; also, both the Jeffreys (who are a mother-daughter pair in real life) bring emotional depth to their comic performances. The only actor who doesn't quite come through is Ganatra. She's clearly a good writer and a promising director. But she should take a few lessons from director/actor Spike Lee: when he appeared in "Malcolm X," he had the good sense not to cast himself as Malcolm X. Ganatra would have been more effective in a supporting role.

Nonetheless, "Chutney Popcorn" is a film well worth seeing. During the course of the picture, there's a scene in which Reena and Lisa adorn each other with henna tattoos before making love. It's a sequence that could have be played for pure titillation — and probably guaranteed the film a place among the lesbian-obsessed soft-focus/softcore late-night offerings on Showtime, Cinemax and HBO. Instead, the scene is sweet, a bit humorous, and more about intimacy than carnality. "Chutney Popcorn" is a low-budget movie that never goes for cheap thrills.