Film Review: Hiding Divya

Intimate indie about a disaffected desi in Edison, N.J., who with her 16-year-old daughter must face her own mother's ever-more-evident mental illness.

Addressing a collective cultural turning-of-a-blind-eye in the Indian immigrant and first-generation (desi) community, this independent feature from a Pakistani/Filipino-American playwright and theatre producer carries an authenticity that helps gloss over its weaknesses. Hiding Divya should play well in the Indian-American market and in the cable aftermarket.

Shot in New Jersey in 2005 and completed in 2006, this modest feature centers on Palini "Linny" Shah (Pooja Kumar), a self-absorbed beauty with a smart and self-aware 16-year-old daughter, Jia (Madelaine Massey). For indeterminate reasons, Linny, who lives in New York City, is flat-broke, and when her unmarried mother's longtime companion—Linny's all-but-official stepfather—dies, Linny and Jia move back to Edison to live temporarily with Linny's mom, Divya (the great Indian actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, who with her husband Saeed Jaffrey introduced James Ivory to Ismail Merchant).

Linny, as Jia sneers to neighbor boy Daniel (Kunal Sharma), is "young for her age." Not surprisingly, Jia instantly takes to her grandmother, a thoroughly American suburbanite who still knows her way around the old country's cuisine and culture, and who is the polar opposite of the petulant, immature and needlessly nasty Linny, who has deliberately distanced herself from what she calls "this Indian crap."

Not helping Linny's mood is that the judgmental small town where she grew up is largely Indian-American, and the traditionalists of her mother's generation look down on her and, to a lesser extent, her mother—who has always acted a little odd, and now that she's widowed, is beginning to act out. Linny is at first disdainfully dismissive when Divya's black depression won't let Divya get out of bed—"It's just my mother, she's always been like this"—but after a while realizes she has to step up and grow up.

First-time feature filmmaker Rehana Mirza, who wrote and directed, and producer Rohi Mirza Pandya, her sister, who produced, catch suburban ambience just right. There's a strong sense of place, and the pace is admirably brisk.

Mirza isn't on quite as solid ground with her actors. Jaffrey is magnificent, a font of seemingly effortless grace notes from her very first scene. But Kumar—the St. Louis-born 1995 Miss India World, who's had a solid career as an Indian TV hostess and sometime actress—doesn't exhibit the depth to support her transformation nor the vulnerability to make Linny's brittleness palatable. And at 28 years old when this was filmed, the extraordinarily beautiful starlet looks too young to be 16-year-old Jia's mom. American Desi star Deep Katdare, playing Linny's nerdy high-school classmate turned medical doctor and would-be paramour, has some funny moments, but his big accusatory speech when even he's had enough of Linny just sounds like petulant whining.

That's probably nothing a couple more takes couldn't have fixed, and whatever shortcomings this professionally done feature may have stem from budget and time. Mirza seems a filmmaker in control, and it'll be interesting to see her work develop.