Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Movie – The World Unseen (2007)

The World Unseen is a drama set in Cape Town, South Africa in the 1950s.  While the ban on interracial relationships certainly plays a part in this film, that’s not the primary focus.  Instead it is the story of two women, one an unconventional one who runs her own restaurant and another who is a traditional housewife with a husband and three kids.  Neither woman is white or black, though; both belong to the Indian minority that settled in Africa following the troubles in their home region before, during, and after WWII.  Writer/director Shamim Sharif based the film on her own 2001 novel of the same name.  Even though she was born in England, she is of Indian and South African heritage.  While I know little of what South Africa was like in the 1950s this movie felt very authentic to me.  South Africans must have agreed because this film won 11 of the 15 SAFTAs (South African Film and Television Awards) in 2008, including Best Director and Best Ensemble Cast.

Sharif had to spend some time trying to cast her two leads.  Since the film touches on the possibility of a love forming between the two women, that ruled out most of the typical Bollywood actresses, who are in a more conservative film industry.  Instead she cast American Sheetal Sheth as Amina, the woman who runs her own restaurant, and Canadian Lisa Ray as Miriam, the housewife and mother.  Ray had dipped a toe into Bollywood early in her career, but by and large she has been in North American productions. Sheth’s career has mostly been in the U.S., but she made a strong debut in 1999’s ABCD playing a first generation Indian-American teen.  The “ABCD” stood for “American Born Confused Desi”.

The World Unseen introduces us to Amina as she is up a ladder, working on the outside of her restaurant.  She wears trousers and a floppy hat.  The police arrive and hassle her for serving both blacks and whites in the same place.  Amina secretly co-owns the place with Jacob (David Dennis), a black man who normally keeps his head down whenever the white authorities show up.  In this case, though, he doesn’t stand for it when they threaten Madeleine (Grethe Fox), a white postmistress who is eating there.  Might the film explore a possible relationship between these two?

In the meantime, Miriam is married to Omar (Parvis Dabas), has two children with a third on the way, and they are all living with another married couple, Sadru (Rajesh Gopie) and his wife Farah (Natalie Becker).  Farah just exudes sex from every pore and it’s not a great situation for her and Omar to be in close proximity.  He moves Miriam and his kids out to a run down place outside the city.  His plan is to open a shop there and sell goods.  The baby is soon born, though, so Farah arrives to help in the shop and Omar gives up trying to resist.

Before moving out of Cape Town, Miriam had happened to go to Amina’s restaurant.  The two locked eyes and there was an immediate connection there.  For Amina it’s obviously attraction, but for Miriam it’s more a fascination with this unconventional woman.  Amina gets hired to come build a garden at Miriam’s house and the two get to know each other better.  Amina also starts to teach Miriam how to drive.  A connection starts to form, a kiss is exchanged, but is Miriam too conservative to allow this to be part of her life?  Even if it does move forward, people looking for steamy girl on girl action will be disappointed by this film.  It’s about love and making connections.  There’s a lot of eye contact between the two and both actresses certainly have the eyes to catch and hold someone’s attention.
Sheetal Sheth

Lisa Ray
In the meantime, Omar and Farah have continued to carry on their secret affair.  Omar’s sister and her white husband have come back to South Africa to see the husband’s dying father.  They have to hide from the authorities, though, since their marriage is illegal in that country.  In addition, Jacob and Madeleine (the black restaurant co-owner and the white postmistress) have made a couple very tentative steps towards starting a relationship.  How will any of these situations turn out?

I have perhaps made this movie sound like a soap opera.  It’s not.  It might be a little heavy handed with how Omar dominates Miriam in their marriage, but that was not uncommon at the time.  Both Sheth and Ray handle their roles quite well.  They pleased director Sarif so much, in fact, that she cast both of them again in her next film, 2008’s semi-autobiographical I Can’t Think Straight.  In this latter film both play modern women and the roles are somewhat reversed from the kind of person they each played in the earlier film.  Sarif gave each of them a chance to show they had range. 

The World Unseen was already a change of pace for Lisa Ray.  She quite often played the sexy seductress or exotic woman in films, but in this one she convincingly plays the buttoned down, conservative housewife.  I’m sure Sheetal Sheth appreciated her casting in I Can’t Think Straight since she usually played the out of sync with the norm character, often as a rebellious next generation Indian woman wanting more than her conservative heritage allowed.

The World Unseen is a good drama about what life was like in 1950s South Africa for the Indian subculture and for people who did not fit the conventional mold.  Much has changed since then, but some things still remain the same.  Sarif has related the story of how when she submitted this film to a Dubai film festival she received it back with a note that simply read, “The subject matter does not exist.”  I’m here to say that it does exist and that it is handled quite well in this film.  If it sounds interesting to you then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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