Nina's Heavenly Delights, directed by Pratibha Parmar, is a slight romantic comedy with a thinly-cooked sauce of dysfunctional family drama drizzled on top. The romance is between two women, the family happens to be Indian and the setting is Glasgow, Scotland, but there's not much else to distinguish it from dozens of other sincere, feel-good films promoting the idea that if you would just follow your heart, everything would be alright.
The drama comes first. Twenty-something Nina Shah (Shelley Conn) returns to Glasgow from London, where she fled for a reason and for a period of time not initially explained. Her father, an award-winning chef at The New Taj, the family-owned restaurant, has just died. Nina is met warmly by her queenly friend Bobbi (Ronny Jhutti) and coolly by her mother (Veena Sood), brother Kary (Atta Yaqub) and teenage sister Priya (Zoe Henretty). Nina is dismayed to learn that her father gambled away a half-share of the restaurant, which is now controlled by old school chum Lisa (Laura Fraser), and balks at the decision to sell the restaurant to Raj (Art Malik), who owns a competing Indian restaurant in town. Lisa wants the money and Nina's family wants to move on, but Nina will not listen to reason.
She insists that her father would never want to sell The New Taj and backs up her claim with proof that he secretly entered a national cooking competition, intent on winning the trophy for "Best of the West Curry" for an unprecedented third time. She convinces Lisa that winning the competition will increase the value of the restaurant, thus securing a better deal from Raj. Nina embarks on a mission to touch up her cooking skills, learned at her father's side, and honor his memory in her own way. The romantic element is then added to the mix. Nina enlists Lisa as her cooking compadre, attempting to teach her how to cook as her father taught her. Lisa's eyes sparkled when they fixed on Nina in their first encounter, so it's clear she's attracted to her as more than a business partner, even though she is dating Nina's brother Kary. As the two women spend more time together, type-A Nina finds herself drawn to easygoing Lisa. It also becomes apparent that Lisa is not happy with Kary. On the surface, they seem to be a good match, though there is the ever-present undercurrent of sleazy unease whenever one sibling is about to steal another sibling's mate.
That's all resolved amicably, but Nina must still deal with the romantic fallout from her original, hasty departure from Glasgow. It's finally revealed that she was a runaway bride, leaving Ray's son Sanjay (Raji James) at the altar. She tells her mother that she felt like she was pushed into the marriage as a business merger; she had to leave to avoid feeling trapped. While Sanjay harbors feelings for Nina, she's curt and dismissive toward him.
Nina is beautiful and headstrong, but she's also arrogant, selfish and immature. One example: when she sees her mother clearing out her father's clothes from the closet, she cries out "No, Momma! I'm not ready yet," ignoring her mother's anguished expression: "No one ever asks me what I want." Everyone grieves in a different way, but Nina is remarkably insensitive to what others are feeling. Another example: she's the one who convinces Lisa to keep the restaurant open to win the competition, yet when Nina decides that her cooking is not up to snuff, she unilaterally decides that the restaurant should be sold, never consulting with Lisa. Nina's actions make it difficult to care about her short journey from prodigal daughter to romantic heroine.
The film also stumbles when it comes to storytelling. Why are so many plot points withheld for no apparent reason? Perhaps they're meant to be bombshell revelations, but it makes for a confusing viewing experience. We don't know how much time has elapsed between Nina's departure and return, and we don't know how much time remains before the climactic competition. (Why don't we ever see The New Taj in operation? Didn't anyone else work in the kitchen?) We don't know what Nina was doing in London: hiding out or pursuing her dreams? We don't learn much about the Indian community in Glasgow -- apparently they all own restaurants and stick to themselves.
As the story progresses, it's shown that each member of the Shah family has been harboring a secret. Without any evidence of community pressure being exerted, it must be assumed that the pressure to conform to tradition came from the family patriarch, yet his culpability is never addressed. Instead, it's all laid at the feet of poor mother Shah, who is firm but reasonable and loving. Still, she gets all the blame while her late husband begins to make ghostly appearances in the background as a benign, ever-beaming spirit. You'd think that at least one member of the family would rail against his heavy hand; Nina alludes to it at one point, but that's as far as it goes.
The relationship between Nina and Lisa is handled gingerly. Nina is shown to have had a girlhood crush on another classmate. Did she explore her sexual orientation while she was away in London? You would think so from the way she readily kisses Lisa. She tries to downplay her feelings after that, which is to be expected, but we never get to know Lisa, other than through Nina's eyes, which represents another lost opportunity to dig deeper into the characters.
To be sure, there are incidental pleasures to be enjoyed. Bobbi's competent but far from dazzling efforts to be a Bollywood drag queen are amusing, we're treated to many, many shots of food and spices, and the generally genial tone of the picture will ensure that those looking for lighter fare will not be disappointed.
Oddly enough, for a film set in a restaurant we learn very little about the preparation of food and see little evidence of the joy of cooking. If Nina truly listened to all the exhortations to "follow your heart," she'd probably do better managing the restaurant and leave the cooking to others.