The Kashmir tragedy – decades-old, and still evolving – has frequently been articulated in films and documentaries through suffering women. Fictional features as varied as Santosh Sivan’s Tahaan (2008), Aamir Bashir’s Harud (2010), Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir (2019) and Aijaz Khan’s Hamid (2019) feature female characters whose husbands, fathers and brothers have been whisked away by the security forces, never to return. The title of Danish Renzu’s drama is inspired by one such “half widow”, who is told by a relative on the eve of her wedding that even when you lose a loved one, love lasts for eternity. A piece of womanly advice or a note of caution in a society where normalcy has no meaning anymore?
Half Widow was completed in 2017 and is being released in cinemas for a limited run between January 6 and 9. Renzu’s directorial debut, which he has also co-written and co-produced along with Gaya Bhola, is a valuable addition to the small set of films about Kashmir that star local talent. Its shortcomings are evened out by its significance – perhaps no amount of films on the forced disappearances in Kashmir can ever be enough.
The story begins in the late 1990s. The marriage between the lovely and tender-hearted Neela (Neelofar Hamid) and the handsome and romantic papier mache artist Khalid (Mir Sarwar) is as sweet as it is short. Khalid is swept up in a raid and bundled into a jeep, never to return, and Neela finds herself leaning on her younger brother Zakir (Shahnawaz Bhat) for support.
The months and years pass by. There are more weddings. People die. Children are born. Neela appears to be coping at times. Then there is the night where she howls out Khalid’s name into the darkness. Should she hold on or let go?
Neelofar Hamid’s sensitive and affecting portrayal accommodates the spectrum of Neela’s emotional experiences, from loneliness to comfort in family and community, and from despair to hope. Neela’s dilemma, articulated through a voiceover by dialogue writer Sunayna Kachroo, moves away from politics towards the direction of poetics. There is immense poignancy and wistfulness in Neela’s ruminations. The seasons change, but no season brought you back, Neela says to herself as she remembers Khalid.
Does the answer lie in activism, represented by the demonstrations organised by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons? The movie’s apolitical approach and disinterest in the roots of the Kashmir question make Neela’s journey a personal one. Her psychological portrait would have been even more rounded had her relationship with her brother been better explored. The bond between Neela and Zakir starts out interestingly but evolves clumsily, and doesn’t quite have the power of Neela’s attempts to somehow forge ahead, heartbroken but nevertheless resolute. The movie loses its focus even as we get closer to Neela’s moment of epiphany, but the core of feeling remains strong and intact.