Three generations of women in one family must deal with the isolation, fear, and heartache wrought by mental illness in Hiding Divya, the first feature film from director Rehana Mirza, who also wrote the screenplay.
As the film opens, we meet Linny (Pooja Kumar), a young single mother, and her teenage daughter Jia (Madelaine Massey). Linny and Jia are returning home to the suburbs of New Jersey for the funeral of Linny’s “Uncle” John, her mother’s partner and Linny’s surrogate father. It’s clear that Linny is uncomfortable about being home; she hasn’t been back in a very long time and doesn’t intend to stay any longer than necessary.
Linny and Jia take up temporary residence at the home of Linny’s mother, Divya (Madhur Jaffrey). At first, things seem relatively normal behind the facade of Divya’s well-kept suburban house, except for the palpable tension between Linny and her mother. As the day of John’s funeral draws near, Divya begins to unravel, at first understandably — she is, after all, grieving — and then frighteningly, as she becomes delusional and then catatonic.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Divya suffers from bipolar disorder that has gone untreated. Abandoned as a young mother by her husband because of her illness, she was left to raise Linny on her own until she met John. Linny was bewildered by her mother’s episodic illness, a situation that remained largely unexplained to her and unspoken; Uncle John became Linny’s buffer against Divya’s erratic behavior. As a teenager, Linny rebelled against her family situation and what she felt were the suffocatingly close confines (and judgments) of their Indian-American community; she became pregnant, and left home in disgrace.
As Divya’s mental condition deteriorates, Linny struggles to contain the situation and arrange John’s funeral. Meanwhile, Jia is forming a friendship, and perhaps a budding romance, with a young neighbor named Daniel (Kunal Sharma). Daniel discovers that Jia is hiding scars, literally and figuratively, of her own. As she has learned to do with Divya her whole life, Linny’s way of dealing with Jia’s problems is to deny their existence. Helping Linny to bridge the gap between her own isolation and her family and community is Ravi Das (Deep Katdare), a young doctor and family friend who once had unrequited feelings for Linny. The ramifications of this family’s long history of denial provide the framework on which the remainder of the story hangs.
There is a great deal to like about Hiding Divya. The setting is so familiar and believable that it will strike a chord with most viewers (one of the great assets of small-budget independent films lies in their use of “real”—and so by definition non-Hollywood—settings). This could be your neighborhood, and these people could be your neighbors, or your family. In contrast to this realism, Mirza depicts Divya’s recollections of her life in a cinematic, dreamlike style; these scenes are like little mini-movies within the film and are even accompanied by Bollywood-style musical numbers.
The acting is wonderful, especially from the three female leads — and most notably from Madhur Jaffrey. Her portrayal of Divya is brilliant and heart-wrenching. While I’ve known for quite some time that Jaffrey is an actress, I was first acquainted with her as a prolific and talented proponent of Indian cuisine and writer of cookbooks; her performance in this film was a revelation to me. She captures the extremes of Divya—from critical but otherwise normal suburban mother and grandmother to the unreachable depths of depression—beautifully. Even when Divya is so withdrawn as to be unresponsive, Jaffrey manages to convey both the depth of her suffering and the resilience that lies within.
Mirza says that her inspiration for the film was drawn from the experiences of close friends whose parents suffered from mental illnesses. Her intention was to highlight what she considers the tendency for South Asian communities to hide or ignore mental illness, but in truth this story could have taken place in any ethnic community, or indeed right in the mainstream of American society. The sad fact is that shame and stigmatization as it applies to mental illness is not limited to any one ethnic subculture; there is much to take away from this story regardless of where you or your ancestors hail from.
Hiding Divya opens on August 20 in very limited release. Check the official website for dates and locations. If you live in any of these areas, I highly recommend that you make the effort to see this film.