Aasia (Shilp Marhawa) is the ‘widow of silence’

This year I managed to catch three of the films from the London Indian Film Festival on tour as the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’. The first up was this remarkable film set in Jammu and Kashmir and screened at Square Chapel in Halifax. I was also able to chat with the charming and very interesting writer-director Praveen Morchhale who was there to take part in a Q&A.

The film’s title refers to the fate of women in Kashmir who have had their husbands taken from them, either by insurgents/terrorists or by Indian security forces. The men taken are invariably then seen as ‘disappeared’ and very few are heard from again. There is a long and sad tradition of ‘disappearances’ like this in many parts of the world and especially in Latin America where films feature this element regularly. The difference in Kashmir, where the widows are known as ‘half-widows’, is that the local customs make daily life for these women very difficult. The script does eventually offer us the information that Muslim women whose husbands have been missing for more than four years are allowed to re-marry under Islamic law, but by that stage they may have suffered from forms of ostracisation as well as lack of income.

Mother-in-law is tied to a chair by the window
Aasia waits outside her house for her lift to work

The film narrative introduces to Aasia (Shilpi Marwaha), a half-widow with an 11 year-old daughter and a sick mother-in-law. The trio live in a crude house in a small settlement and Aasia works as a trainee nurse in a hospital in the nearest large town. She travels to work in a form of communal taxi – a pick-up driven by a cheerful would-be poet. She leaves behind her mother-in-law tied to a chair by the window while the girl is at school. Aasia can’t improve her life unless she can negotiate Indian bureaucracy and get a copy of her husband’s death certificate. Without it she cannot sell the small piece of land owned by the family which they are unable to work. The local registrar is corrupt and attempts to co-erce Aasia into behaviour which she knows would be harmful to herself and her family but from which he could derive different forms of reward. In the meantime, her daughter is bullied at school and her mother-in-law’s health deteriorates. This starting point is quite enough to develop the spare narrative into a compelling drama.

The beauty of the mountains as the pick-up makes its way to the town

Praveen Morchhale had previously made two films, both of which were well-received and Widow of Silence has been shown at major international festivals such as Busan and Rotterdam and at leading Indian international festivals such as Kerala and Kolkata. He started as a theatre director and then began to make his own very personal films. He told us theat he didn’t go to film school and that he hasn’t seen that many films. What is clear, however, is that he has a strong sense of what he wants to put on screen and how he wants it to look. Kashmir is a very dangerous region (the film was shot only 17kms from the ‘Line of Control’ separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir) but it is also extremely beautiful. Even if Praveen hadn’t told us before the screening that his cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah was Iranian and that he himself was an admirer of Abbas Kiarostami, I think I would would have guessed from the images of the pick-up driving along the mountain roads in long shot. I was immediately struck by memories of Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran 1999) and a film shot in a similar style in similar terrain, Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (China 1999).

Aasia’s daughter is persecuted at school and she knows something about her mother’s misery

The entire production team was just 10 people and the film was shot in October when the light was most favourable. The print we watched was presented in 2.35:1 and the long shots of the landscape were complemented by a mainly static camera focusing on the intensity of the interior scenes. Apart from Shilpi Marwaha, the Delhi-based theatre actor in the central role, most of the rest of the small cast are local people without acting experience. The film is a concise 85 minutes. The story is simple but powerful. I won’t spoil what happens except to comment that it is in some ways a logical outcome, but with a neat twist. The narrative derives its power from the conflict between the strength of the widow, the harshness of her treatment by the local community (with a couple of notable exceptions) and the corruption of the bureaucracy. Perhaps the film is a dark satire on the state of Kashmir? I was reminded of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat (Cuba 1966), another narrative about a widow frustrated by bureaucracy in her attempts to claim her legal rights. There isn’t a great deal of complex dialogue in Widow of Silence (at least not via the subtitles) so one line stood out when Aasia’s work colleague says to her: “You cannot afford your own thoughts”. That’s a chilling indictment of the world in which Aasia finds herself.

Praveen Morchhale told us that he financed the film himself. He didn’t tell us the production budget but it is reasonable to assume that it was not large and that not a rupee was wasted. Interestingly, he told me that although it would be difficult to show the film commercially in India, he didn’t think Netflix and other streaming services were the answer to the distribution of Indian independent films – a different response to the same question posed to Rajat Kapoor when he discussed his own independent film Ankhon Dekhi (India 2013) at HOME a couple of years ago. Praveen Morchhale felt that he was happy with the exposure his films were getting in festivals. I was very impressed by Widow of Silence and I’ll now look out for his earlier films, Barefoot to Goa (2015) and Walking With the Wind (2017).