In Kashmiri film ‘Half Widow’, the journey from disappearance to death to hope

Inspired by activist Parveena Ahanger, ‘Half Widow’ looks at the Kashmir conflict through a woman whose husband has disappeared.

Danish Renzu’s Kashmiri film Half Widow tells the story of Neela, whose husband disappears after being picked up by armed men from their home in Srinagar in 1999. Neela (Neelofar Hameed) spends years searching for her husband (Mir Sarwar), finds out that he is dead and wants to tell her story. But she doesn’t know how to write. In all the years of searching for her husband, Neela has lost her own self. She goes in search of a hopeful future, one in which a Kashmiri woman tries to carve out her own identity.

Half Widow joins Harud and Valley of Saints as one of a handful of feature films from the Valley. Sunayana Kachroo, who has written the film’s dialogue, wrote on The W Voice about the need to tell the stories of Kashmiri women: “While men in conflict zones are celebrated, decorated, and revered for their heroism, women and children are often just referred to as the bystanders of the discord... The first and the last victims of war are always the women and the children and, due to this, they are also the torchbearers of change and progress.”

Danish Renzu returned to Kashmir in 2016 after more than a decade to make a short film, but ended up making a full-fledged feature. Set to release in October, Half Widow has been inspired by the life of activist Parveena Ahanger. Born and raised in Kashmir, Renzu left Srinagar for the United States of America when he was 17. He was studying electrical engineering at the University of California but switched to filmmaking after working in the telecom industry for around five years. He finally took the risk of chasing his passion because of his childhood hobby of watching films during curfews and lockdowns. In an interview with Scroll.in, Renzu talks about exploring Srinagar, making a film about Kashmiri women, and reviving film culture in Kashmir.

How did you arrive at the idea of ‘Half Widow’?
Being a Kashmiri, I understand the pain of the people who continue to be affected by the conflict. We know the politics of the region. It is a conflict zone, it has been like that for ages, but the local people are the ones who are affected significantly.

My father was an officer and we had a different lifestyle. Yet, I grew up knowing the situation of people in Srinagar. These people have seen the real Kashmir that I didn’t get a chance to experience. So this film actually helped me in understanding more about Kashmir and Kashmiris.

Half Widow (2017). Image credit: Renzu Films.

How did Parveena Ahanger inspire your story?
I was inspired to work on half widows after meeting Parveena Ahanger. She continues to support half widows through her organisation, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. When I met her in person, she talked about her plight, how her son was taken away 25 years ago and after all these years, she doesn’t know anything of his whereabouts. She still has the hope that he is alive, but the thing that impressed me was the fact that she chose to raise her voice for other women who were similarly affected.

I attended some of the APDP protests. It was really heart-wrenching and sad because nothing’s been happening for the women all these years. There isn’t a solution because what’s gone is gone, right?

That’s when this whole idea of writing fiction from the perspective of a woman occurred: a Kashmiri woman who loved her husband, the one who disappears for no reason. How is she going to live the rest of her life? She does become a half widow but what’s next after that? There has to be a resolution for these women not just from society’s perspective, from their loved ones’ perspective, but also how these women find satisfaction – their motivation to live life. This is not from a political perspective and we are not victimising the women.

Rather than victimising ourselves and merely complaining about it, we need to internally find peace and justice. I think that is the motivation of this character which Neelofar Hamid has beautifully portrayed.

The movie helped you rediscover Srinagar.
Yes. Because I never lived in downtown Srinagar, we went to these areas to shoot different parts of the film. We shot not only how people were living their lives through curfews and hartals, but also Kashmiri art, architecture and the music. The film gave me the opportunity to explore the city in a way that I didn’t get to due to militancy, because we would always be indoors.

Half Widow. Image credit: Renzu Films.
Half Widow. Image credit: Renzu Films.

How has the music shaped the film?
The featured singer in the film is actually a street performer, Noor Mohammad, who always carries a rabab with him. I saw him at a wedding. His voice has a lot of soul in it and he is not even trained.

We recreated some beautiful and well-known Kashmiri songs from the 13th century. He is shown as the character singing those songs. It is an important part of the narrative as these songs reflect Neela’s inner voice.

Why did you choose Urdu as the language for the film?
It is in Urdu with a bit of Kashmiri. I wanted it to be Kashmiri. I regret it now. But Kashmiris do speak Urdu significantly and rest of the country does understand Urdu as well. Even though it is a regional film, I think the language also gives us a bigger audience.

Coming to regionalism, how does ‘Half Widow’ help in capturing the local filmmaking scene?
First of all, everyone featured in the film, from the actors to the crew, is Kashmiri. Our cinematographer Antonio Cisneros and co-producer Gaya Bhola are from Los Angeles. But the whole idea was to get Kashmiris involved. All the actors [Shanawaz Bhatt, Neelofar Hamid and Mir Sarwar, among others] are Kashmiri. They are not formally trained, which is very important for this story as it lends authenticity to the narrative.

I opened my own production company in Srinagar and have hired Kashmiris to be a part of it. This is what Iranian filmmakers has done. They focus on the storytelling. It doesn’t always have to be about the conflict.

There is so much in Kashmir that is yet to be explored. and I think I will continue to do that. My next film in Kashmir is about a singer. It is inspired by the story of Raj Begum, a Padma Shri winning singer from Kashmir. Neelofar will be playing her. It is about a singer who is not allowed to sing anymore because of the conflict in Kashmir, but this is all she knows how to do. So how does she keep her dream alive? It will be in the Kashmiri language and is my passion project.

Half Widow. Image credit: Renzu Films.
Half Widow. Image credit: Renzu Films.

Tell me about your collaboration with poet Sunayana Kachroo.
Sunayana is a Kashmiri Pandit. She is an amazing poet and a writer. I met her in LA. It was after the screening of my first short film, In Search of America. She wrote a beautiful poem for it in Urdu. Since then, she is involved in every project I do. In the Raj Begum film, she will be playing a significant role in writing the poetry and love songs.

We have never felt the religious differences between us. There are a lot of people who ask us, what is going on, you are a Muslim, she is a Pandit. But for us, it was never about that. In the end we are all Kashmiris. That’s what matters. Religion only divides and that’s what it has done successfully in Kashmir and other parts of the world.

We don’t discuss religion. That’s something we are strict about. We talk about our mutual love for Kashmir. We have our own stories and different perspectives as a Pandit and as a Muslim which we bring together to create human stories.

In Search of America (2014).
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.