Color it timely but inessen-tial: Writer/director Sabiha Sumar's Silent Waters decries the misogyny of Muslim fundamentalism, using Pakistan as ground zero for a cinematic protest vote whose obvious sincerity is undermined by a wandering focus and an overall storytelling torpor.
Set in 1979, the movie slowly, even lazily, traces the effect of the country's rightward turn on a previously apolitical mama's boy. Answering the call to jihad may seem out of character for Saleem (Aamir Malik), whose free-spiritedness manifests itself in a chuckly demeanor and a very modern desire to marry for love, not social obligation. Through a friend, Saleem is gradually recruited into the humorless, woman-hating ranks of those who wish to see Pakistan become "a true Islamic nation." The movie spends a good deal of time on this metamorphosis, yet still fails to find a more concrete reason for it than the fact that Saleem was raised without a father a snippet of character motivation fit for a Newsweek foreign-affairs story, perhaps, but not a feature-length drama.
As a writer and director, Sumar is better at explaining the deep bone-chill that Saleem's growing militancy brings to his mother, Ayesha (Kirron Kher), who is old enough to remember the brutal crimes against women that accompanied the country's founding in 1947. Fleeting flashbacks illustrate her memories of those awful times, but their context goes largely unexplained until the movie's cunning conclusion. If you don't know your Pakistani history, you'll be fighting to stay afloat as Sumar pads her plodding narrative with a handful of incongruous musical numbers yes, musical numbers and the inconsistent cast tries to sell the package with acting that's only marginally convincing. (Kher's purposeful hand-wringing in particular would be right at home in a silent movie.)
The themes that are up for discussion here have already been handled better elsewhere: For a significantly more compelling portrait of a parent losing a child to extremism, see 1997's My Son the Fanatic. Though Silent Waters improves considerably as its plot threads converge, its ultimate utility is still as a stimulus for further learning about the pivotal region in which it's set. As a moviegoing experience, it's a sadly slim proposition.
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