Set in South Africa during the 1950s when apartheid first took hold, The World Unseen sees acclaimed writer Shamim Sarif adapt her award-winning debut novel for the big screen. Free-spirited Amina (Sheetal Sheth) causes gossip amongst the Indian community by wearing men’s clothes and running a café with Jacob (David Dennis), her African business partner. When she meets Miriam (model-turned-actress Lisa Ray), a young “traditional” housewife and mother, their unexpected attraction pushes Miriam to question the rules that bind her. Amina shelters Miriam’s sister-in-law from the police, while Miriam’s own acts of kindness and bravery, such as helping an injured black youth, see her confidence grow. But amidst the oppressive atmosphere of apartheid, what chance is there for a forbidden love to survive?
Conceived, produced and financed entirely by women, The World Unseen is clearly an impassioned project for all involved. It boldly combines an old fashioned, Fifties-style “women against all odds” picture with social issues and a lesbian romance. Sarif draws interesting and quite provocative parallels between Indian bourgeois conservative values and the monstrousness of apartheid. Omar (Parvin Dabas) is unfaithful and abusive to Miriam, but his hypocrisy goes beyond their marriage. He considers himself a cut above those blacks who toil in his shop, an attitude echoed by several Indian characters throughout the film.
Afro-Asian prejudice is an important subject, rarely tackled in cinema. While not centralized here, it bravely isn’t ignored. Amina herself is crucial. Her grandmother was raped by an African, then beaten and abandoned by her Indian family. Similarities between such inequalities and cruelties to women and the apartheid regime are impossible to ignore. Sarif evokes this shameful period on a more intimate scale than say, Cry Freedom (1987), with petty racism and police brutality. Especially touching is Jacob’s doomed, almost-romance with a white bank teller (Grethe Fox), greatly enhanced by Dennis’ quietly dignified performance.
A well paced film overall, Sarif’s direction occasionally falls listless and fails to propel scenes with enough verve. Excellent performances from Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray more than compensate. Ray was a striking presence in Deepa Mehta’s Water (2006), but delivers a weightier, outstanding performance as Miriam; conflicted, compassionate and with brittle resilience. Sheth is a little too glam to make a fully convincing tomboy, but ably shoulders the drama. Her charisma makes Amina a vivacious and admirably principled heroine. Though both leads are undeniably beautiful, the film does not pander to male fantasies and portrays their physical relationship with sensitivity, emphasising the emotional fulfilment brought by intimacy. The nature of its setting means any conclusion is going to seem unsatisfying. It is the Fifties, apartheid isn’t going away anytime soon. Mandela’s imprisonment, Biko’s murder and mass riots all loom on the horizon. However, the personal story concludes satisfactorily on a note of fragile optimism. This is a hymn to feminine virtues: resilience, thoughtfulness and quiet resolve.