Race, gender, tradition, politics and sexuality get thrown together into a bright but bland masala mix in Shamim Sarif’s debut feature, The World Unseen. Sarif adapts from her own novel about the simmering attraction that develops between two Indian women in 1950s South Africa. One of these women is demure, compliant Miriam (Lisa Ray), mother of three and housewife to a dull prick of a man, Omar (Parvin Dabas), who runs a grocery business outside Capetown. Like most Indian immigrant settlers in South Africa at the time, Omar marches lockstep to the drum of a ruthlessly racist society, and while he keeps Miriam under his thumb, he carries on an affair with his sister-in-law Farah (Natalie Becker). Slowly yet surely, the emotionally neglected Miriam begins to fancy someone else, but her defiance of the norm is far more taboo-breaking than her husband’s, because the object of her adoration is the carefree Amina (Sheetal Sheth), the owner of a local café, and a woman. Not only is Amina unmarried, she also works for a living, and wears trousers and shirts without apology, all unthinkable transgressions in the orthodox Indian community.
Everyone’s breaking barriers and causing trouble in this film, or least yearning to. For the first time in his life, Amina’s black business partner, Jacob (David Dennis), dignified and soft-spoken, takes tentative steps toward romancing a white postmistress, meeting shame and persecution from white society along the way. Interracial commingling is strictly forbidden in apartheid South Africa, so when officials catch wind of the mixed marriage between Omar’s sister Rehmat (Nandana Sen) and a white European, they threaten, badger and barge into everyone’s lives. That doesn’t keep Amina from sticking to her guns, and offering the fugitive couple safe harbor at her café.
Sarif’s feminist saga, however, is less about Amina’s girl power, or state-police crackdowns, and more about Miriam’s blossoming sense of self—sexual, personal and otherwise. Amina and Miriam share intimate conversations, including one in which Amina reminisces about her resilient grandmother’s rape and ostracism—providing Amina with nifty and convenient psychological backstory. And Sarif gives her lovely lead characters a chance to caress one another in one scene, but, alas, only with the kind of prudish restraint that would make World Unseen a perfect carryover to the Lifetime network’s programming slate in the near future.
The women’s budding sexual attraction is, for the better part, consummated metaphorically in the form of driving lessons: Amina offers to teach Miriam how to drive if she’ll, in turn, agree to cook at the café. When Miriam demonstrates that she knows her way around a clutch, a brake and a gas pedal, Amina asks suggestively, “Do you know the gears too?” Not subtle stuff exactly, but it’s about as much heat as this tale generates.
From the production to the script to the performances, World Unseen is too well-behaved, and too precious to make an impression. The generally flat staging (scenes largely consist of talking heads in generic interiors), on-the-nose dialogue and uneven quality of the performances make obvious that film is not Sarif’s primary medium. Dabas is rather charmless as Miriam’s doltish husband, while Natalie Baker sneers and snarks through a performance that cribs every bitchy-paramour cliché there is. And with her thick, raven-dark hair and winning smile, Sheth exudes a movie-star aura, and for that alone she’s deserving of a better, bolder film. Instead, she’s stuck quoting feminist-heroine drivel better suited to a harlequin romance for lesbians.
Only Lisa Ray comes close to overcoming the script’s defects; her Miriam goes from a subordinate to an empowered woman with slowly distilled grace and sincerity. It’s not far removed from her work in Deepa Mehta’s excellent, Oscar-nominated Water. Speaking of Mehta, if it’s a story about Indian lesbians you’re after, check out Mehta’s own Fire from 1996. It’s got more sparks, heartbreak and backbone than anything on offer in Sarif’s well-intentioned but all too safe effort.