At Hiding Divya's official website (http://www.HidingDivya.com), director Rehana Mirza comments, "Films are often made to reflect the world, but what we tend to forget is that they have the power to change the world." Hiding Divya is Mirza's attempt to shed light on the devastating effects of mental illness, and what happens to a family when its members all too often exist in different, isolating realities.
After the death of her stepfather "Uncle John", Palini "Linny" Shah (played by beautiful Pooja Kumar) is home after years of estrangement from her family and the close-knit South Asian community of Edison, New Jersey. Though Linny now has a sixteen-year-old daughter (Jia, played by Madelaine Massey) of her own, she slips back easily into her adolescent persona--rebellious and resentful of her mother (the title character Divya, memorably played by Madhur Jaffrey), and outwardly flippant about her turbulent teenage years and her dubious status in the community. "Ma, no one would marry me in this town because I was a big slut," Linny says matter-of-factly at one point in the movie. At another, in response to a neighbor's warnings to keep her daughter virgin, she snaps that she's taken care of that problem...with Saran wrap.
In flashbacks, we learn how and why Linny developed this defensive attitude: she grew up learning how to hide and hide from her mother's mental illness. Divya's affliction is not named, but its effects are all too clearly and heartbreakingly defined. Mental illness is especially terrible because the victim is often unrecognizable as well as unreachable. We first meet Divya when she is deftly holding her own in any verbal exchange with her sarcastic daughter, and bonding with her grand-daughter over old photo albums and Gandhi quotes. In one priceless scene in a sari shop, an owner insults Jia, and Divya disdainfully puts him in his place with the air and aplomb of a queen. Minutes later, we see this same poised woman slip into uncontrollable, irrational hysteria, triggered by nothing more or less than an embarassing encounter with some judgmental neighborhood ladies.
Hiding Divya is unsentimental, unflinching, and unbelievably powerful. Madhur Jaffrey's portrait of Divya's anguish is so raw, her lapses into a different, darker world so poignant, that I almost could not bear to watch. Linny's denial and Jia's helpless confusion are all too realistic, as they watch Divya fall into states where she sees and hears nothing, not even her loved ones. We see in a flashback that Uncle John used to refer to these catatonic states as Divya "hiding". The movie effectively demonstrates that it isn't just Divya that has something to hide. It is only that her secret is becoming more difficult to hide than what Jia wears under her wristbands, or the guilt Linny carries under her brazen exterior.
The film does have its faltering moments. The scenes of Linny's childhood seem a trifle forced--the acting is sweet and earnest, but melodramatic. Yet perhaps they only seem weak in comparison to the strong and natural performances of the other cast members. Jaffrey, Kumar, and Massey are so convincing in their roles that you have to remind yourself that the actresses are not actually related to each other. Another noteworthy performance is Linny's childhood friend, Dr. Ravi Das (Deep Katare), whose (slightly clumsy) romantic pursuit one can't help but root for. The dialogue is strong and intelligent, and has plenty of humor to balance the more tragic scenes. Characterization is fair and human. This is not a movie about villains and victims, but genuine and flawed people with real, conflicted connections to each other. One beauty of Hiding Divya is the detail in which these conflicts are shown. For example, Divya, lost in her bereavement, calls her husband's cell phone repeatedly. Linny, finding the relentlessly ringing phone, is confronted with the usual screen, suddenly charged with a double meaning and a challenge: "Divya's Cell Phone--Accept or Reject?"
After John's funeral, the house is crowded with mourners. When the guests are gone, Linny is arguing with Ravi and snaps with a teenager's defiance, "This community sucks."
"Does it, Linny?" Ravi asks, and throws open the refrigerator door. Inside are stacks of food carefully packed in containers, each one labelled with the name of a different neighbor or family friend.
It would be too easy to vilify society as narrow-minded and hopeless. As director Mirza explains, "Mental illness is often treated as a failure or shortcoming rather than a treatable disease. South Asian families coping with it find themselves the subject of bias and humiliation within their communities." The community did gossip about Linny, whisper about Jia's illegitimacy, and fail to understand Divya. All of these had destructive consequences, some of them permanent. But humanity is more complex than that, which Hiding Divya is sensitive enough to recognize.
This is as true and nuanced and perceptive a portrayal of mental illness, family, and community as you will find anywhere. In that sense, Hiding Divya is not only a great movie, but an important one.