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Secret Daughter review

Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s first novel My Secret Daughter, a story about motherhood and identity from two sides of the world, was one that came recommended to me.

The story begins with Kavita, in rural India, giving birth on her own to a baby girl. The baby, who unfortunately is born into a society that prefers males, is promptly taken away from her and is never seen again.  At the same time, on the other side of the world in San Francisco, Somer is at the hospital experiencing yet another emotionally gripping miscarriage.

Two women going through such emotional moments right at the beginning of a book? I knew at that moment, whether I liked the story or not, I was going to be hooked.

A short time later, Kavita gives birth to another baby girl but this time in an effort to save her newborn daughter’s life, she gives her away. It’s a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even after she has a son and moves into the big city.

In America, Somer and her husband Krishnan, after realizing they cannot have their own baby, decide to adopt one from a Mumbai orphanage.  It’s a difficult decision to make for Somer, adopting an Indian baby who is more like her husband than her, but the minute she sees the little girl, she falls in love.

The baby of course is the one Kavita gave away.

We follow the stories of the two mothers’ lives as time goes on and soon start to follow the daughter Asha’s story (or Usha as Kavita named her) as she goes to India to do an internship at the Times, to get to know her father’s Indian family, to find her real parents, and ultimately find herself.

Gowda tells the story with excellent detail and style and with some very interesting characters from very different walks of life. The story is ultimately an emotional journey and it’s those emotions that kept me hooked, from the American mother who feels left out to the poor Indian mother whose heart hurts at the struggles her family is going through to Asha’s maturity and realization about the mothers in her life.

As a woman, I was taken by the relationships that unfold between the different women from different cultures and generations.

But what interested me more was how the move from one village/country and culture to another for a “better life” affected the characters and the struggles and the difficulties they faced. I was intrigued by the hardship that came from leaving people behind, with trying to adapt to the new cultures and people without losing themselves, and trying to have other people understand who they really are. And ultimately, the hardship that came when they realized that they don’t entirely fit in either place anymore.

It really reminded me of two other stories I have enjoyed and that I recommend you see or read:

  • Dhobi Ghat. The independent movie I saw at TIFF last year, you can read my review here, that featured characters from different walks of life (poor, rich, American, Indian) and looked at the way their cultures both meshed and clashed together.  Of course this reminded me of The Secret Daughter as Shai, one of the main characters, is an Indian-born American who is in town to document and tell the story of the poor working in the city, as well as to learn more about herself. Pretty similar to Asha.
  • The Namesake. The book (better than the movie) follows a young man as he learns to understand what his parents went through to move to the US to give their family a better life. We follow along as he learns what it’s like to leave everything you know behind, to try to adapt to a culture that doesn’t understand your own, and watch your children grow up in a world so different from what you know.

This was a very long review, but I’d love to hear what you thought of The Secret Daughter or even Dhobi Ghat or The Namesake. Let me know in the comments below.

Rating: 4/5.

Two great movies: Bunraku and Dhobi Ghat

A long time ago, I said that I would post reviews of the movies I saw at TIFF 2010. I started that post but never finished it, and now one of the films I saw then is up for an Oscar for Best Picture tonight (Black Swan).

All six movies that I saw were great and each one was different, which made my festival experience varied and kept it interesting.  I started writing my reviews but never finished, and as this post has been collecting dust in my drafts for months now, I decided to at least post the reviews I did end up writing.

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)

Dhobi GhatDifferent from your standard Bollywood fare, Dhobi Ghat offers a glimpse into the lives of four very different people living in Mumbai, India. It’s a moving film, one that kept me riveted and offered up some great Indian filmmaking.

Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan stars as emotionally distant artist Arun who meets Shai, an American Indian-born photographer at one of his art showings. After spending the night together, Shai has a hard time letting go of Arun, who conversely has no problem shutting her out.

Shai, taking a sabbatical from her job in the States, is in Mumbai to document with photographs the often hidden side of the city: the work done by the city’s poor.  One of her subjects is Munna, who turns out to be the laundry boy for both Arun and Shai. Munna quickly falls for Shai while she photographs him, and becomes embarrassed and shy about the various jobs he has to take on to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, while Arun is doing his best to ignore Shai, he discovers a set of video tapes recorded by a woman who used to live in his apartment. Arun quickly becomes captivated by the mysterious woman and her story (composed of video letters she was creating for her brother).  This woman is new to the city, brought there by her new husband. We watch as she captures images of the city to share with her brother and as she becomes more isolated in the big city.

The movie revolves around these four characters and we get to see contrasting sides of the city as the movie plays out. Kiran Rao, the writer/director and Khan’s wife, did a good job of showing us the city through the lens of each character. And it just moved me. She was articulate during the Q&A session and I appreciated her thoughts on the movie and its main themes. As well, the newcomers Prateik Babbar and Monica Dogra were excellent and played their contrasting roles really well.

4/5 stars.


BunrakuI was really excited about seeing this movie and it didn’t disappoint. Part of the Midnight Madness selection, Bunraku takes place in a world where guns are outlawed and swords have returned as the weapon of choice.

In this world, a secretive crime boss named Nicola the Woodcutter rules the city with the help of nine assassins (each with their own fighting style) and the Red Gang. The assassins move up and down in authority by fighting each other. Nicola’s right-hand man is Killer #2, a suave, cold-hearted murderer who kills without remorse.  Together, they run the city using fear and violence to enforce their rules.

We soon meet an unnamed man, a stranger to the city and our cowboy-streetwise hero, who wants to kill Nicola. At a bar, he meets another stranger and our second hero, a samurai named Yoshi. Yoshi wants to avenge the death of his father by taking back a pendant Nicola stole from his clan. Together the two wildly different men set out on a journey to find Nicola.  It’s an entertaining movie with laughs, great fight scenes (with fighting styles that vary throughout the film) and cinematography that is a treat to your eyes. It’s a mash-up of the best of old-style Westerns, futuristic sci-fi and Samurai movies  In fact, the styling seemed to me like a mash-up of Sin City and Kill Bill.

Guy Moshe did an excellent job with this movie and it’s a delight to watch. The principal cast, including Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson, GACKT (a Japanese superstar apparently), Kevin McKidd, Ron Perlman and Demi Moore, all play their characters well.  I would definitely recommend watching this movie – it’s visually stunning, funny and just generally kick-ass.

4/5 stars.

The others:

The four other films I saw were all fantastic: Never Let Me Go (4/5 stars), Black Swan (5/5 stars), The Town (3.5/5 stars) and Peep World (3.5/5 stars).

Perhaps when I get a chance to watch each of these again, I’ll finally write those reviews.

Have you seen any of these movies? What did you think of them?