Humanity amidst conflict

In between the political sabre-rattling over Kashmir, lost within this noise are stories of the Kashmiri people: the men, women, and children whose lives begin and end in the Valley.

They carve out an existence tending the land or weaving stunning carpets and shawls. They pursue acts of daily survival against the backdrop of an arresting landscape, belying, even if for a moment, the reality of conflict and military checkpoints that has existed for generations.

“Widow of Silence” (2018), directed by Praveen Morchhale and winner of this year’s Grand Jury Award for Best Feature Film at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), meditates on the ordinary lives of these extraordinary people. Morchhale’s work tells the story of Aasia (Shilpi Marwaha), a half-widow living in one of the more remote towns of the Kashmir Valley.

Half-widows are an unnerving reality of living as a woman in the Valley: although these women are technically still married, their husbands have disappeared without a trace during the ongoing conflict. Left to fend for themselves, each day they await husbands who may or may not return while also confronting political and religious systems that keep them in limbo.

Half-widows exist between a convoluted bureaucracy that recognizes neither the disappearance nor death of their husbands and an Islamic legal system undecided on whether half-widowed women can remarry. They also grapple with their own loyalty to their absent partners.  Enduring amidst institutions and emotions that they do not always understand, half-widows are a fitting metaphor for the Kashmiri people.

The plot follows Aasia in her attempt to get the government to formally recognize her husband’s disappearance, so that she can gain rightful ownership over her inherited land.

Morchhale’s storytelling delicately transports the viewer into the chaotic reality of Aasia’s life: her weekly visits to the local government office, her growing friendship with a colleague whose husband also disappeared during the conflict,  her reality as a single mother supporting a daughter getting bullied in school for being fatherless, and her meetings with an eager suitor in a chai shop.

Despite folding in several narrative arcs, Morchhale refuses to allow the viewer to forget the film’s core narrative: Aasia’s quest to gain sole ownership over her land. This theme is a poignant metaphor for the contemporary political situation in the Kashmir Valley. 

Yet, the film is not explicitly political. Instead, Morchhale tells a deeply human story of interactions between people. In one particularly symbolic scene, the driver of Aasia’s van gifts a Kashmiri apple to a soldier in charge of a checkpoint.  As the van disappears into the background, the soldier bites into the juicy apple.

In another, Aasia’s daughter studies at night as the sounds of mortar rounds and gunfire erupt in the background.  She ultimately turns her light off and curls up in a ball, falling asleep to the drone of military activities.

In yet another scene, a female passenger in Aasia’s van refuses to board the van until the men move aside and leave her space to sit on her own – it would be un-Islamic to be in such close contact with men.

Exasperated, the passengers disembark and rearrange their places so that their journey can continue. Morchhale’s keen attention to detail powerfully delivers a hopeful message:  the conflict in Kashmir may continue, but humanity will always prevail. 

This thread of humanity comes through the acting as well: although Shilpi Marwaha herself is a veteran of Delhi theatre, Morchhale intentionally cast several non-actors in other roles.

His casting decisions deliver a subtly documentary-like layer to the film and, in doing so, draw the viewer directly into the lives of the film’s characters. 

Ultimately, “Widow of Silence” is an incredibly moving and poignant portrayal of the life of a half-widow in Kashmir, carrying on daily tasks with strength, resilience, and determination.  For this masterpiece, Morchhale’s award for Best Feature Film at IFFLA is well-deserved.

Ramanujan Nadadur is a lawyer in public service in Los Angeles, CA.  He also serves as a freelance journalist and covers topics related to Indian politics and society.