The historical-political melodrama Silent Waters begins with a subtle sense of loss, as Pakistani villagers flirt, joke, and sing while fretting over the changes sweeping their country and the world in 1979. General Zia-Ul-Haq has just seized control, buoyed by promises to follow a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. At the same time, Islamic fervor abroad is proving an effective counter to U.S. neo-colonialism and the kind of strategic domino-toppling practiced by the Soviet Union in its invasion of Afghanistan. But it still breaks the heart of widowed mother Kirron Kher—who lived through the wrenching 1947 partitioning of India and Pakistan—to see her grown son Aamir Malik embracing religious idealism at the expense of his natural joy and his budding romance with Shilpa Shukla.
Like Tareque Masud's recent The Clay Bird—which tells a similar story from a decade earlier in Bangladesh—Silent Waters converts relevant contemporary history into intimate personal drama. Also like The Clay Bird, Silent Waters ascribes complex emotions and motivations to its main characters, while leaving the face of religious extremism frustratingly blank. The moment a local barber cracks a joke about Zia-Ul-Haq in the presence of some of the general's supporters, it's obvious he's going to regret it, because this is the kind of movie where thugs can be counted on to behave thuggishly. But why someone as apparently sensitive as Malik would ally himself with the brutes remains unclear.
Sabiha Sumar's film doesn't possess Masud's unforced lyricism or infatuation with landscapes; there's not much distinctive about Sumar's filmmaking at all, beyond some rich color. Only her grasp of the story's meaning pulls Silent Waters up from movie-of-the-week humanism. An early-film musical number recalls lavish Bollywood entertainment, and positions the characters geographically, culturally, and emotionally. When Silent Waters works best, Sumar shows how religious divisiveness makes bitter enemies of people who'd be better off dancing.