A young British-Indian woman faces a moral crisis while filming a BBC documentary, in Lalwani’s follow-up to Gifted (2007).
Ray, 27, has received a plum assignment for a relative rookie: She will direct a television documentary about a noble experiment in Indian corrections—Ashwer, a prison camp in the form of a small village where the convicts live with their families and work for a living, either at day jobs on the outside or in cottage industries of their own devising. Ray’s crew—Serena, a seasoned producer, and Nathan, a parolee who did time in a conventional English prison—are difficult to manage: They have their own ideas about the direction of the film, although they grudgingly depend on Ray, a Hindi speaker, to act as interpreter and mediator for the villagers. All of the people sentenced to Ashwer are murderers whose crimes were committed under extenuating circumstances, such as self-defense against spouse abuse. After a marijuana-fueled late-night seduction attempt foiled largely by Ray’s determined virginity, Nathan gives up on her and turns to Serena. Their alliance thus strengthened, the crew rebels against Ray’s ethical scruples and attempts (with some prompting from the home office) to inject sensational elements into the film. They insist on arranging and filming an encounter between an inmate, Nandini, and her ex-husband, who had starved her while pregnant and tried to burn her. (She killed his mother while trying to escape.) Then there is the segment in which another inmate, in front of his wife, is given an instant-read HIV test on camera. Fearing that she has betrayed the trust that she has built up with the villagers, Ray must make a painful choice. The language, gorgeous and evocative, occasionally waxes florid, as overheated as the tropical atmosphere it describes. Extraneous detail about the technical aspects of TV production slows the action. And Ray, a passive character who acts impulsively if at all, lacks the courage of the author’s convictions.
A flawed gem.