Danish Renzu’s Kashmiri film Half Widow tells the story of Neela, whose husband disappears after being picked up by armed men from their home in Srinagar in 1999. Neela (Neelofar Hameed) spends years searching for her husband (Mir Sarwar), finds out that he is dead and wants to tell her story. But she doesn’t know how to write. In all the years of searching for her husband, Neela has lost her own self. She goes in search of a hopeful future, one in which a Kashmiri woman tries to carve out her own identity.
Half Widow joins Harud and Valley of Saints as one of a handful of feature films from the Valley. Sunayana Kachroo, who has written the film’s dialogue, wrote on The W Voice about the need to tell the stories of Kashmiri women: “While men in conflict zones are celebrated, decorated, and revered for their heroism, women and children are often just referred to as the bystanders of the discord... The first and the last victims of war are always the women and the children and, due to this, they are also the torchbearers of change and progress.”
Danish Renzu returned to Kashmir in 2016 after more than a decade to make a short film, but ended up making a full-fledged feature. Set to release in October, Half Widow has been inspired by the life of activist Parveena Ahanger. Born and raised in Kashmir, Renzu left Srinagar for the United States of America when he was 17. He was studying electrical engineering at the University of California but switched to filmmaking after working in the telecom industry for around five years. He finally took the risk of chasing his passion because of his childhood hobby of watching films during curfews and lockdowns. In an interview with Scroll.in, Renzu talks about exploring Srinagar, making a film about Kashmiri women, and reviving film culture in Kashmir.
How did you arrive at the idea of ‘Half Widow’?
Being a Kashmiri, I understand the pain of the people who continue to be affected by the conflict. We know the politics of the region. It is a conflict zone, it has been like that for ages, but the local people are the ones who are affected significantly.
My father was an officer and we had a different lifestyle. Yet, I grew up knowing the situation of people in Srinagar. These people have seen the real Kashmir that I didn’t get a chance to experience. So this film actually helped me in understanding more about Kashmir and Kashmiris.
How did Parveena Ahanger inspire your story?
I was inspired to work on half widows after meeting Parveena Ahanger. She continues to support half widows through her organisation, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. When I met her in person, she talked about her plight, how her son was taken away 25 years ago and after all these years, she doesn’t know anything of his whereabouts. She still has the hope that he is alive, but the thing that impressed me was the fact that she chose to raise her voice for other women who were similarly affected.
I attended some of the APDP protests. It was really heart-wrenching and sad because nothing’s been happening for the women all these years. There isn’t a solution because what’s gone is gone, right?
That’s when this whole idea of writing fiction from the perspective of a woman occurred: a Kashmiri woman who loved her husband, the one who disappears for no reason. How is she going to live the rest of her life? She does become a half widow but what’s next after that? There has to be a resolution for these women not just from society’s perspective, from their loved ones’ perspective, but also how these women find satisfaction – their motivation to live life. This is not from a political perspective and we are not victimising the women.
Rather than victimising ourselves and merely complaining about it, we need to internally find peace and justice. I think that is the motivation of this character which Neelofar Hamid has beautifully portrayed.
The movie helped you rediscover Srinagar.
Yes. Because I never lived in downtown Srinagar, we went to these areas to shoot different parts of the film. We shot not only how people were living their lives through curfews and hartals, but also Kashmiri art, architecture and the music. The film gave me the opportunity to explore the city in a way that I didn’t get to due to militancy, because we would always be indoors.
How has the music shaped the film?
The featured singer in the film is actually a street performer, Noor Mohammad, who always carries a rabab with him. I saw him at a wedding. His voice has a lot of soul in it and he is not even trained.
We recreated some beautiful and well-known Kashmiri songs from the 13th century. He is shown as the character singing those songs. It is an important part of the narrative as these songs reflect Neela’s inner voice.
Why did you choose Urdu as the language for the film?
It is in Urdu with a bit of Kashmiri. I wanted it to be Kashmiri. I regret it now. But Kashmiris do speak Urdu significantly and rest of the country does understand Urdu as well. Even though it is a regional film, I think the language also gives us a bigger audience.
Coming to regionalism, how does ‘Half Widow’ help in capturing the local filmmaking scene?
First of all, everyone featured in the film, from the actors to the crew, is Kashmiri. Our cinematographer Antonio Cisneros and co-producer Gaya Bhola are from Los Angeles. But the whole idea was to get Kashmiris involved. All the actors [Shanawaz Bhatt, Neelofar Hamid and Mir Sarwar, among others] are Kashmiri. They are not formally trained, which is very important for this story as it lends authenticity to the narrative.
I opened my own production company in Srinagar and have hired Kashmiris to be a part of it. This is what Iranian filmmakers has done. They focus on the storytelling. It doesn’t always have to be about the conflict.
There is so much in Kashmir that is yet to be explored. and I think I will continue to do that. My next film in Kashmir is about a singer. It is inspired by the story of Raj Begum, a Padma Shri winning singer from Kashmir. Neelofar will be playing her. It is about a singer who is not allowed to sing anymore because of the conflict in Kashmir, but this is all she knows how to do. So how does she keep her dream alive? It will be in the Kashmiri language and is my passion project.
Tell me about your collaboration with poet Sunayana Kachroo.
Sunayana is a Kashmiri Pandit. She is an amazing poet and a writer. I met her in LA. It was after the screening of my first short film, In Search of America. She wrote a beautiful poem for it in Urdu. Since then, she is involved in every project I do. In the Raj Begum film, she will be playing a significant role in writing the poetry and love songs.
We have never felt the religious differences between us. There are a lot of people who ask us, what is going on, you are a Muslim, she is a Pandit. But for us, it was never about that. In the end we are all Kashmiris. That’s what matters. Religion only divides and that’s what it has done successfully in Kashmir and other parts of the world.
We don’t discuss religion. That’s something we are strict about. We talk about our mutual love for Kashmir. We have our own stories and different perspectives as a Pandit and as a Muslim which we bring together to create human stories.