(English and Hindi dialogue)
Documentary director Dev Benegal’s sophomore feature, after the 1994 “English August,” attempts to expose the seamy underside of Indian sexual hypocrisy in “Split Wide Open.” Some of Benegal’s revelations appear startling when seen in the Indian context; but there’s also the suspicion that this slickly packaged pic is rather enjoying the depiction of sexual perversion and misconduct it so boldly exposes.
Title is the name of a hugely popular TV talkshow in which, on a hideously designed set, participants, their identities concealed by shadowy lighting, reveal their most intimate secrets to attractive host Nandita (Laila Rouass), an English-educated beauty who encourages her guests to tell all.
Appearing at different times on the show are a widow who likes having sex with her son-in-law, a man angered by the fact that his two wives met and became lovers, a couple of girls who have slept around but have had false hymens inserted to fool their bridegrooms, a man who has sex with a married couple, and a woman who entered an arranged marriage only to discover her husband was impotent and she was expected to submit to her father-in-law. These and more stories, which are briefly visualized, give some indication of why the show is a hit.
Kut Price, known as KP (Rahul Bose), is a hustler who zips around the streets of Bombay on a moped, forever talking on his mobile phone. KP works for the “water Mafia” — tank water is sold to the poor, bottles of Evian to the rich. But when KP falls foul of his bosses, he’s badly beaten and his adopted sister, 10-year-old Didi (Farida Haider Mulla), who sells flowers on the street, disappears.
Correctly surmising she’s the victim of a pedophile, KP is distraught. Her kidnaper is Shiv (Shivaji Satham), an immensely wealthy businessman whose daughter, Leela (Ayesha Dharker), returns from New York to discover his dreadful secret. Meanwhile, KP has met Nandita and they’ve begun an affair, and it’s through her show that he discovers his sister’s whereabouts.
The women in the film are particularly outspoken regarding the inadequacies of men, and even KP, the nominal hero, seems a bit of a wimp. From the days of Cecil B. DeMille, filmmakers have relished depicting the awful sins they condemn , and “Split Wide Open” is no exception.
The activities of the water Mafia are forgotten after the initial setup, though a closing title notes that in March of this year the inhabitants of northern Bombay were denied water for a week and that riots resulted.
Pic is given glossy treatment, with fine use of city locations shot for the ‘Scope screen and an attractive cast. Acting is a little uneven, but the brisk pacing and lush images help carry the film, most of which is spoken in English.