When cinema plays healer

Three independent films bring home the enormity of the tragedy of Kashmir’s half-widows and their children

Saibal Chatterjee

A character in Widow of Silence, an award-winning feature-length narrative film made by independent producer-writer-director Praveen Morchhale, says: “Living in heaven and hell at the same time is very difficult.” The reference here is to Kashmir, a paradise trapped in an unending cycle of violence. But can anything be harder than dangling between hope and despair as the half-widows of Kashmir do? 

Three recent films, including the yet-to-be-released Widow of Silence, bring out with remarkable acuity and empathy, the plight of families torn asunder by the long-running conflict in the Valley. Men have disappeared without a trace, unmarked graves are strewn across the state, and women and children wait for their fortunes to turn in a climate of fear and distrust.

In Aijaz Khan’s Hamid, Ravinder Randhawa’s screenplay has a scene of a demonstration by relatives of men who have never returned home after being picked up by the army on the suspicion of being militants. One half-widow, played with subtle power by Rasika Dugal, breaks down. The other demonstrators admonish her for showing signs of weakness. 

Life goes on for these people in the shadow of the military trucks and bayonets. But it easy to see that this existence is worse than death. For the female protagonist of Widow of Silence, played by theatre actress Shilpi Marwaha, life has been reduced to regular trips across a difficult terrain to the office of a slimy bureaucrat, who holds the power of issuing a death certificate for her missing husband. The woman’s future hinges on that piece of paper.

Morchhale, who made Barefoot to Goa and Walking with the Wind, before turning his spotlight on Kashmir, is prepping for another film in the Valley, which will take a look at life and death in the strife-torn region from the perspective of a gravedigger. “I’ve already done the first recce,” says the filmmaker. “I met a gravedigger who said he gives dignity to the dead.” The dignity of those living under the shadow of the gun and the plight of the families of men who have disappeared are at the heart of Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers in Kashmir as well. The story is about men and women seeking to forget the past and move on. But can they erase the effects of the tragedy of losing a dear one?

In tone and spirit, the three films are different. Widow of Silence, about a half-widow who works as a trainee nurse in a hospital, raises a fatherless daughter and looks after an ailing mother, is steadfastly low-key. It uses wide angles, long takes, steady shots and silent passages to convey an air of despondency. 

Hamid, which tells the story of a young boy who believes he is making a phone call to Allah but reaches a CRPF soldier instead, views the turmoil in the Valley through the eyes of a character who barely understands how grave the situation is. It is a gentle and quiet film that celebrates the survival of humanity against all odds and marked by a degree of optimism.

No Fathers in Kashmir, in contrast, is a somewhat angrier, politically inflected film.This despite the fact that it is essentially a tender, heart-breaking love story about a British Kashmiri girl who travels to the Valley in search of her father and bonds with a boy who, too, has no idea where his dad has vanished after being hauled up for questioning by the Army.

Ashvin Kumar deals with multiple layers. The girl’s mother has returned to Kashmir to get her ageing in-laws to sign the document that will declare her absent husband dead and allow her to marry an Indian Foreign Service officer posted in London. The boy’s mother, on the other hand, makes shawls for a living but has to succumb to exploitation, simply in order to supply.

These profoundly moving stories bring to the fore the human cost of political unrest. Both Hamid and No Fathers in Kashmir emphasise the fact the soldiers deployed to keep peace in the Valley are themselves under great duress. In Hamid, the soldier who pretends to be God so as not break the boy’s faith, is a man who hasn’t seen his newborn child because his application for leave has been kept in abeyance for months. 

In No Fathers in Kashmir, one soldier, who grills the Kashmir-born British girl after she and her friend have been caught in a sensitive border area, gives her a packet of biscuits when he leaves the bunker where she is in captivity. The uniform, and the power that flows from it, hasn’t dulled his soul.

But Kashmir is a conflict zone and when trouble erupts, it is the innocents who pay the price. When filmmakers use their craft to articulate the anguish of the voiceless, they enrich the medium and reinforce cinema’s power to see rays of light amid dense darkness.

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