THE INDIAN women of "Bhaji on the Beach," living as minorities in Great Britain, are "struggling between the double yoke of racism and sexism," one of them says. The older women cling to the culture of their homeland and the past; the younger women know only the present.
The Conneelly family of Ireland, exiled from its island home in "The Secret of Roan Inish," is also suspended between the past and the present, and, as one describes it, "caught between earth and water."
In both these gentle dramas, the stories turn on the characters' sense of place, being in it and not being of it. They are looking for a "belonging," a fitting in.
These are perfect movies to watch on video. You sacrifice the panoramic vistas and effects of the moody cinematography, which in the case of "Roan Inish" particularly is quite a loss. But you gain the chance to pause, rewind, rehear and savor a) the parts you'll love, and b) the parts you didn't understand the first time because of the British and Irish accents. There will be more "a's" than "b's" in both pictures.
"Bhaji on the Beach" begins in a flurry of activity in an Indian neighborhood in London. In small shops and crowded apartments, families and friends are reaching more crisis points than you can count, and because these are not actors likely to be familiar to American audiences, it's hard to keep them straight for a while.
But within a half-hour you want to know them all better.
The word "bhaji," according to the movie notes, refers to an Indian treat, sweet or spicy. The treat on the beach takes off when members of an Asian women's club head to the seaside for a day of fun away from their troubles. However, there are some companions they just can't shake.
The older women carry prejudices and fears from another culture. One middle-aged women finds herself so confused by the influences on her life that she keeps losing track of whatever reality is being imposed on her at the moment. The young women face problems their mothers never imagined -- an unexpected pregnancy, an abusive husband, an interracial (and therefore unacceptable) romance, and even complications from spontaneous flirtations.
This is a woman's movie from the first frames, which catalog the wares of small open-air groceries. Unlike too many women's movies, it is not about bonding and sisterhood and the power of tears. These women's Indian heritage has already bonded them. Now is the time to find their independence and break free from expectations they cannot or will not meet.
The boardwalk, fountains, sandy beaches and a carnival atmosphere electrify and intensify the emotions of the day. By the end, you don't know if everything will be all right, but you have no doubt that everything will be different.
If you look for this movie at the video store, be advised that the video's jacket shows a long-haired beauty in a low-cut sleeveless dress leaning seductively over a hot sunset scene. What she has to do with this movie is anyone's guess. The only characters who reveal nearly that much are the male dancers in a "ladies only" nightclub when the day-long holiday concludes. If you want a film about interesting people, they aren't on the box. If you want a film about cleavage, it's not on this tape.
"The Secret of Roan Inish" is more faithful to its advertising. The video box shows a little girl walking in shallow water on a beach, a seal and a boy sailing on what looks like an oddly shaped boat.
"Roan Inish" translates to "Island of the Seals," and it for generations was home to the Conneelly family. By the end of World War II, however, they had been forced to abandon the island. The evacuation did not go smoothly. Everyone was aboard the boat to take them to Ireland proper except the youngest Conneelly, baby Jamie, who was in his cradle on the beach. A few men gathered the last household items, and then Jamie was gone.
How the cradle got into the water, and how the storm came up so quickly to carry him away, was beyond anyone's reasoning. But the loss of little Jamie became the heartache of the family.
And the fate of little Jamie became a legend itself.
Director John Sayles based this mystic fantasy on the novella "The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry." It tells of the selkies, seal-like creatures who can shed their fur and live as humans. In the Conneelly family, selkies are more than the stuff of myth. They are part of the unspoken-of family history.
Young Fiona Conneelly, older sister of wee Jamie and nearly fearless, is inspired by the legend and finds herself drawn back to Roan Inish. Her mother has died, her father has gone to the city to find work and now she lives with her grandparents, within sight of the island that calls to her. Little Jeni Courtney plays Fiona with such determination that the legend itself becomes real in our minds as she lives it out.
Sayles respects the Irish storytelling tradition. People in this movie love to talk of the past, as they live their rough lives in and out of plain but cozy cottages. Children who see "Roan Inish" will enjoy a glimpse of another way of life far different from their own, more different, in fact, than what they find in animated stories of Pocahontas or lions who speak and think just like they do.
In postwar Ireland, life was not like late-20th century America, and nobody talks like it is. Fiona's life is one of far fewer options, but, somehow, of more possibilities. She is not like anyone you have known before.
"Roan Inish" is a beautiful tale of a lovely legend, of love and seals and, instead of giving up your hopes, of giving them a chance to come true.