In the last few years, the situation in Kashmir has very much slipped from the international radar. Kashmir. Since the portioning of India in 1947, Kashmir has been the site of a series of territorial disputes between India and Pakistan. Human rights abuses in Kashmir is an ongoing issue. The allegations range from mass killings, torture, rape and sexual abuse to political repression and suppression of freedom of speech. Kashmir is not an oft-utilised film location but for his third feature following Barefoot to Go (2015) and Walking in the Wind (2017), Praveen Morchhale focuses on this complex region via the life of a young woman.
Widow of Silence follows young widow Aasiya (Shilpi Marwaha) whose husband ‘disappeared’ over 6 years earlier leaving her with a young daughter to raise on her own. We learn that Aasiya has visited all the prisons, hospitals and morgues in Kashmir in the hope of finding her missing husband but has had no success in either finding him alive or confirming his death. As a result, she lives limbo as a “half-widow,” unable to marry and unable to get on with her life. When she goes to the local courthouse to try to finally gain a death certificate for her husband she encounters a corrupt official who specialised in praying on desperate women such as Aasiya. As he notes, he works very hard so surely young women like Aasiya need to offer him ‘comfort’ as a method to make his work easier. Thus, the films plot is set up as we watch Aasiya consider her increasingly limited options.
The comparison with Iranian New Wave is hard to avoid and Widow of Silence has a strong resonance with Jafar Panâhi’s The Circle. The use of non-professional actors and a nuanced and subtle approach to conflict is seen in both films. The Circle (2000) is another film where we see women negotiate a social space that refuses to allow them freedom and legal protection. Aasiya’s life is defined by the everyday challenges which she faces: from her dementia ridden mother-in-law (who she has to tie to a chair when she leaves for work); her worries about caring for her daughter who is bullied at school; and the poorly paid work she does at a local clinic. She has a new suitor who wants to marry her, but she is fearful that if she just remarries without the official death certificate she is risking future conflict if her husband does return.
We see women framed against a harsh social code which restrict their choices and actions. The state offers nothing but unseen violence and abuse. In Widow of Silence we hear the repeated stories of men and boys vanishing after a visit from the military and the endless checkpoints speak to a region traversed by conflict. Marwaha is extremely strong as Aasiya and whilst some of the non-professional actors are a little stilted in parts it all contributes to give the film a sense of realism. The taxi driver, who is the main method for people to move between their villages, offers a buoyancy and zest for life which is a much-needed tonic. He loves Kashmir and as he notes to his passengers and the checkpoint guards, why would anyone choose not to live here? This love of Kashmir, despite all the hardships and brutality is duplicated in the visuals. The hills and road of Kashmir are presented to us in loving detail and as the taxi traverses the landscape, we see many demonstrations of human kindness amidst the hardship. People move to allow other room on the taxi for others, they sing for each other and when Aasiya loses her job due to the machination of the corrupt official, we see her friend quietly slip a roll of banknotes into Aasiya’s handbag as a gift.
This very quiet film offers a powerful, if tragic, ending and it will be interesting to see how Morchhale’s work develops from here. Widow of Silence has garnered him more international attention and I will keep an eye out for his next feature film.
Kate Taylor-Jones is Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies in the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. Whilst her academic work explores various topics including the cinema of colonial Japan and girlhood in East Asian cinema, her guilty pleasure is any film that promises to give her advice on how to survive the apocalypse.