Spotlight Movies

'Half Widow' does not fall into the Bollywood trap of the formula Kashmir film

A still from ‘Half Widow’.

A still from ‘Half Widow’.  


Danish Renzu’s film had a limited theatre release in India on January 6

Set in 1999, a few years into the violence and the heavy militarisation of the Valley, Danish Renzu’s Half Widow is the story of Neela, a young, newly-wed Kashmiri woman whose husband, Khalid, is picked up from their home one night during dinner by men dressed in Indian army uniforms.

Films about Kashmir are not new but a film made by a Kashmiri filmmaker, shot entirely in Kashmir, with an entirely Kashmiri cast and in the Urdu-Kashmiri language, sets it apart. Romance, tragedy, melodrama — it has it all and yet, it does not proclaim love on a dancing shikara as in Kashmir ki Kali or splatter blood all over the snow as in Haider; it does not give terror a heavy soundtrack as in Mission Kashmir. It even stands apart from the very authentic Laila Majnu, because it doesn’t fall into the trap of the formulaic ‘Bollywoodisation’ of Kashmir. Half Widow, which had a limited theatre release in India on January 6, joins the league of independent films such as Musa Syed’s Valley of Saints, Aamir Bashir’s Harud, and Aijaz Khan’s Hamid — where Kashmiri actors portray Kashmiri protagonists.

The first image in Half Widow is of a Kashmiri woman sitting by a desk, penning the story of her life. It is a part-musical, as the bard Noor Mohammad is present at every stage of her life, narrating the goings-on through songs much like the writer herself. In the past few years, we’ve seen many strong Kashmiri women in the public space, but on screen, the Kashmiri woman with a voice and a story to tell remains an exception. Here, the Kashmiri woman rejects the media and decides to be the narrator of her story.

Human beings

A still from Valley of Saints.

A still from Valley of Saints.  

The Srinagar and Kashmir that exist in the film’s universe are the Srinagar and Kashmir that exist in my memory as well. Renzu takes us into the hearts and homes of Kashmiris through this film. We walk the restless streets with Neela. And Neela is not an idealised Kashmiri beauty — she is a human being first. She is played by Neelofar Hamid, who started her career with local television and is known for Valley of Saints, and has emerged as an exceptional performer.

It would have been easy to fall into the trap of victimhood, but Neela rises and takes steps to reclaim her freedom in her own way. She goes to police stations, prints flyers and joins the weekly protests. When she loses her brother Zakir (Shahnawaz Bhat) to the same forces, she first decides to drown herself, then prays, then steals into the jail in the middle of the night to find her brother. She also gets jealous of the woman in Zakir’s life.

At first, it is strange that the only two women in the house (Neela and Zakir’s wife Zynab) don’t speak a word to each other for most part of the film; but when they do get talking, it is a turning point in both their lives and they speak of being family for each other.

Lost Kashmiriyat

A still from Hamid.

A still from Hamid.  

Bhat, who plays Zakir shines in his vulnerability. Known for playing Rafiq in Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2009), he plays a Kashmiri boy again but this time, he transforms from a helpless boy into a pillar of strength. Bhat has matured tremendously as an actor.

Mir Sarwar, who plays Neela’s husband Khalid, portrays a papier-mache artist and embodies a quiet patience. The chemistry between Khalid and Neela is a defining moment in the film. The feelings are expressed without words. The romance plays out across the landscape and seasons of the Valley, quietly, as if they are trying to hide their happiness from the world. The beauty of this film is that even though it is shot through Renzu’s eyes, the words and poetry are by Sunayana Kachroo, a Kashmiri Pandit poet.

Renzu and Kachroo’s friendship — leading to this collaboration — is a testament to the lost Kashmiriyat. The Kashmiri songs, the poems, the Lal Ded verses used in the narration, beloved by Kashmiris who grew up listening to them, add an element of Sufism, which is reflective of the Kashmiri storytelling tradition. The film does more than show the tragic lives of the Valley’s half-widows. It shows a way for them to reclaim their lives and forge new destinies.

The writer is a cinema studies scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 6:55:27 PM |

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