In the dead of the night, a Kashmiri woman’s husband is picked up by Army officers. He never returns, but seven years on, the government is unwilling to declare him dead. His wife, Aasiya, struggles to get a death certificate, but the government is non-committal with her, as it is with Kashmir’s many half widows – women whose husbands were victims of alleged enforced disappearances during the armed struggle of the 1990s.
Aasiya, who lives with her 11-year-old daughter and a mother-in-law who has stopped speaking since her son went missing, also has to deal with dwindling finances and the unwelcome attention of villagers. Her undying hope against these odds forms the crux of Praveen Morchhale’s Urdu-language feature Widow of Silence, which will be premiered at the 24th Kolkata International Film Festival on November 12 after debuting at the Busan International Film Festival last month.
Hope is a running theme in Morchhale’s films. His debut Barefoot to Goa (2013) was centred on two siblings and their quest to bring their alienated grandmother home. His second feature, Walking with the Wind (2017), which bagged three National Film Awards, followed a boy’s seven-km journey through the Himalayas to fix his friend’s broken chair.
“In our country, a person does a nine-to-five job, beating traffic and under all kinds of social and family pressures,” Morchhale told Scroll.in. “But he does all this to come back to his family at the end of the day, and what drives him in the process is hope, which has the power to move mountains.”
In Widow of Silence, Aasiya’s hope leads to a jarring poetic justice. “The end signifies not just the end of the villain but also of the system,” Morchhale said.
For his third feature, Morchhale met several half widows in Kashmir, including a woman whose husband had died in an accident. Her resilience in the face of social alienation inspired the quiet strength of Aasiya’s character, played by Shilpi Marwaha, a Delhi theatre veteran who was also seen in Aanand L Rai’s Raanjhanaa (2013).
Marwaha’s Aasiya speaks softly but assertively, a quiet strength that comes from her long and solitary fight. “When I had written Aasiya, I needed a woman who would look like a Kashmiri but whose face and eyes would convey both sadness and strength,” Morchhale said. “Shilpi fit the bill.”
The rest of the cast comprises local non-professional actors. Morchhale’s associate director, Ajay Chourey, plays a rogue government official. Financed by Morchhale, the film was made on a budget of close to Rs 50 lakhs and was completed in 17 days. It was largely shot in Kashmir’s Dras region.
To help his non-actors along, Morchhale writes short screenplays with sketches of scenes and limited dialogue. “Since I mostly work with non-actors, if I hand them out a screenplay with dialogue, they may become conscious trying to recreate it, and after a few unsuccessful takes, if they fumble, they lose confidence,” he explained.
The film’s most colourful performance comes from a Kashmiri van driver, played by real-life bus driver Bilal. The unnamed character provides poetic commentary on life in Kashmir. When a soldier stops his van at a check point and pokes at the bags of flowers inside with his rifle, the driver says, “Don’t touch the flowers with your gun or the flowers may start loving it.” In another scene, the driver offers some fruit to a soldier saying, “Eat it soon, for in this weather, our fruits and our youth quickly get sour.”
The driver’s buoyant personality was an extension of Bilal’s nature, the filmmaker said. “The local casting was based on how the people really behaved around me.”
The non-melodramatic tone of Widow of Silence, its long shots, and naturalistic dialogue are reminiscent of Iranian films – the film’s cinematographer, Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah, is from Iran too.
“I want the camera to disappear in my films,” Morchhale said. “And I prefer stories of rural life more than cities, perhaps, on account of growing up and staying in Madhya Pradesh for a really long time. I am fascinated by stories of people living on the edge in far-flung areas, who are not spoken about in cities.”
Morchhale takes this fascination for the unknown forward in his next film, which is based on the life of a gravedigger he met in Kashmir. “Imagine, the gravedigger’s daughter cannot tell what her father does at school,” Morchhale said. “He does work which no one can ever think of doing, and yet he lives in the shadows. From washing and cleaning up the dead to burying him, he does everything. And he said one thing which stayed with me and is really the crux of my film. When I asked what his job means to him, he said, I give dignity to the dead.”