Kashmir has time and again been explored in cinema. In fact, just last month there was Salman Khan’s Nitin Kakkar-directed Notebook – a romantic commercial entertainer set in Kashmir and simultaneously there was Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir that took a raw and hard look at the situation there post the insurgency. What was common in both the films was the stunning beauty of Kashmir being captured and presented as a priced highlight. Well, that’s where Danish Renzu’s Half Widow differs. In fact, not just from these two films, but also from every other film that’s either been made, based, set or shot in Kashmir!
As the name suggests, Renzu’s film addresses the trauma of that marginalised section of women in Kashmir, whose husbands have gone missing in the Valley or as they would say have been taken away from them. The lives of these women becomes an unending tale of wait which they do even as they question if their husbands are even alive… and whether they should consider themselves married or widows – hence Half Widow! The term is a reality of the Valley, just as true as the paradisical beauty of Kashmir is.
However, Renzu’s film while set in Kashmir focuses on the plight of these Kashmiri half widows and the place’s beauty becomes an incidental element. So, while Kashmir is explored as a natural setting, not a single frame is shot that would forcibly exploit its beauty. The shikaras, the snow, pathways covered with chinar-leaves… everything is a backdrop never the highlight. The film has Kashmir at its heart, but its protagonist Neela as the soul.
What Half Widow is all about? The film begins with Neela (Neelofar Hamid) penning her thoughts, as she writes that every age has its own dream. With this we step back in time and into her world. Neela is an orphan and she and her younger brother Zakir (Shahnawaz Bhat) have been brought up by their loving Khala (Haseena Sofi). When she’s of marriageable age, like any other young woman, Neela dreams of a happy married life. She even finds a loving husband in the kind-hearted Khalid (Mir Sarwar), who is an artisan by profession and runs a small business of making paper mache handicrafts. On their marriage day, Khalid realises the strong and loving bond Neela shares with her brother Zakir and he immediately takes him under his care too. Neela is soon pregnant and everything is perfect in her little loving world, even while the Kargil war is on. However, one fateful night her life takes a drastic turn when Khalid gets picked up from their home for interrogation by the paramilitary forces. A violent fall during the arrest results in Neela having a miscarriage. As she overcomes her grief of having lost her unborn child, she sets out to search for her husband.
Suddenly having to face a married woman’s worst nightmares, she is heart-broken but refuses to give up her search or wait. All of Neela’s attempts and pleas are futile as she is unable to trace him down at the police station in the days to come. Khalid becomes just another missing face from the Valley, likes hordes of other locals. Neela is relentless in her search, as she attends rallies and prays in dargahs, visits graveyards and gets thrown out of police stations, oscillating between helplessness, prayers, hope and the stark reality of the situation. The trauma of checking dead bodies and not knowing whether to be happy or sad at the bodies turning out to be someone else’s, Neela battles these heart-breaking situations and more, almost daily.
But the wait is endless as days turn to months and months to years. Inspite of laws permitting half widows to remarry and her aunt also coaxing her to consider remarriage, Neela refuses to even give it a second thought. Derived of all sense of being, she ceases to have an identity. With her like a shadow all through this time is her younger brother Zakir, who is her strongest support. As time elapses, their aunt passes away, Zakir gets married to a local girl Zyeda (Yasmeena Wani) and they even have a son Faizan (Ayaan Sikandar). Does Khalid finally return? What happens along Neela’s wait is the heart-breaking story told in one-and-half hour of the film’s runtime.
Yay: Half Widow is story-telling at its best. The heart-aching simplicity with which the story is told to Neela’s understanding of life as she deals with pain, longing and the emotional trauma of a hollowness left by her beloved’s absence, every aspect is soul-stirring. The film belongs to these three: Renzu’s vision and direction, Neelofar Hamid’s performance as Neela and the show-stealer: the soulful dialogues and lyrics written by Sunayana Kachroo. Whether it is to convey Neela’s angst and anger as she lashes out at journalists saying how Kashmir is only news for the media who just want to sell the grief of the victims and not empathise with them – or then to portray her hurt when called illiterate, as she says, “Zakhmon ki sirf ek zubaan hoti hai… dard ki!” Without relying on upheaved dramatics, every dialogue still strikes at your heart and stays there long after.
Renzu instead of indulging in politics blame-game, reaches out and taps deep into the emotions of the women who live torn lives in a dilemma, whether to move on and remarry or continue waiting for their missing husbands. Their reluctance to move on also reflects the judgmental attitude of the society that the women find themselves facing in case of choosing to remarry. When one such woman expresses her fears and doubts, Neela says, “Everyone should do what’s best for them!” A simple yet strong statement, it resonates with women across the world. Also, Zakir as the protective brother, taking a stand when he refuses to let his sister go to Half Widow’s shelter home at his marriage is commendable.
Neela, between helplessness and pain, struggles to make peace with her forced and unfortunate circumstances. While there is just no news of her missing husband, time seems to have stopped for her, while the world around her moves on. Consumed by grief of missing her husband, she even contemplates suicide. But inspite of what seems like fighting a losing battle and succumbing to disappointment, she finds hope and an optimism to carry on and find a larger purpose in life while the wait continues. Her heartwarming interactions with her aunt, an aged shepherd, and a street singer drop along some beautiful nuggets on life and some even ignite in her a desire to find meaning and a sense of fulfillment.
Renzu has strictly cast local talent and all actors fit into their characters effortlessly. The three leads Neelofar, Mir and Shahnawaz do a marvelous job. Neelofar brings alive Neela’s pain and struggle and her performance will move you – first to tears and then also make you smile through them. A particular scene where she sees another wedding with tears rolling down her face is heart-wrenching. The cinematography (Antonio Cisneros) retains the strong flavour of Kashmir in the subtleties of everyday life, yet doesn’t let the beauty empower the story-telling. The story in itself is told beautifully and executed equally well. The music fits in perfectly well. The art department, the editing, sound and the costume department ace it too.
Nay: The fact that the film has not yet got a theatrical release! Well, we could say that the language should’ve been Hindi throughout and that the subtitles are a distraction, but to be honest, it truly isn’t!
CineBlitz Verdict: Danish Renzu’s film is a master-piece! A heart-wrenching poignant tale addressing the stark reality of Half Widows, the film moves you and raises many questions. But what it truly about is finding the real purpose of life and celebrating the triumph of human spirit over everything else! Half Widow is an endearing tale tapping into the emotional hollowness that Neela bears while her circumstances force her to embark on a harrowing journey of self-discovery. Soul-stirring and deeply moving, this heart-breaking tale of love, longing and loss is a must-watch for the brilliant story-telling.
Star Rating: 4 Stars