Worthy intentions are drowned by schematic scripting and only OK direction in “Silent Waters,” an achingly PC drama on how Islamic fundamentalism wrecks families and oppresses women. Attractively lensed in Pakistan and given a degree of dignity by veteran Indian actress Kirron Kher, pic will doubtless travel the fest circuit (and play specialized webs) with its impeccable human rights credentials, but theatrical biz will remain scarce. To the amazement of most observers, film nabbed the top Golden Leopard award at Locarno against much more accomplished competition.
Story is set in 1979 in the village of Charkhi, Pakistani Punjab, after President Zia-ul-Haq has declared martial law and the country is on its way to officially becoming an Islamic state. Middle-aged widow Ayesha (Kher) gets by on her late husband’s pension and by teaching the Quran to young girls. Her 18-year-old son, Saleem (Aamir Malik), is a handsome, sunny loafer who scoots off for secret rendezvous with his sweetheart, Zubeida (Shilpa Shukla), a teen from a much richer family.
Nagged by Zubeida to get a job, Saleem drifts into the circle of some Islamic fundamentalists. In a far too sudden conversion, he joins their cause, and is soon harassing Sikhs who’ve been given permission to enter the country as pilgrims. (Before Pakistan’s Partition in 1947 from India, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lived side by side in the region.)
Saleem’s fundamentalist buddies hear that his mother, Ayesha, still has Sikh sympathies, and they pressure him to get her to publicly re-state her faith in Islam.
However, as occasional, yellow-tinted flashbacks to the violent Partition hint, Ayesha is hiding a secret even Saleem doesn’t know. And among the Sikh pilgrims is Jaswant (Navtej Johar), who’s looking for a sister he left behind in 1947.
Despite its sensitive theme, pic doesn’t play as an angry slice of crusading cinema. More’s the pity, as genuine political passion might have helped flavor the cutouts who parade as characters.
Saleem’s fundamentalist pals are all cut from the same sneering, sloganeering cloth, while the Sikhs are, to a man, gentle and oppressed. Other characters suffer from the same cardboard approach: Zubeida comes over as a spoilt teen, and her romantic interludes with Saleem seem to have been pasted in from a conventional melodrama.
Playing Ayesha in naturalistic style, Kher (“Bariwali,” “Devdas”), who co-won the actress award at Locarno, provides the pic with a more solid center but is too often hemmed in by the didactic dialogue.
Karachi-born, New York-trained helmer Sabiha Sumar, who has previously made femme-issue docus for U.K. and German TV, directs in a technically competent way, with a largely German crew, helped by fine, crisp lensing by Ralph Netzer.