LIFF 2019 Special Review: Widow of Silence

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“You cannot afford your own thoughts,” Aasia’s hospital co-worker tells her. Aasia does, indeed, have thoughts about her situation, her husband missing for the past seven years as a result of the conflicts in Kashmir. Branded a “half-widow” – a name given to Kashmiri women whose husbands have disappeared without any idea of whether they are dead or still alive somewhere — she hasn’t given up on the idea that her husband may still be alive, and she continues to search for him. But, at the same time, she understands she needs to move on, to build a life for herself and her daughter, so she decides to have him declared dead and have the land in his name transferred to hers. For four months she makes the trek – several times a week, sometimes daily – to see the government official who can provide her with the death certificate she needs. The official? Well, he has thoughts about Aasia’s situation too, thoughts that involve her selling the land to someone he knows (and of course he’ll get a cut of the sale to line his own pockets), and thoughts about having her meet him at a hotel.

Aasia’s parents have thoughts about her situation as well. They want her to stop trying to search for her husband, to accept that he’s probably dead, and get remarried to a teacher who is interested in her – though not in having her daughter join them. Instead, she will have to live with her maternal grandparents. Aasia’s mother-in-law does not seem to have any thoughts at all, having retreated into silence. Aasia’s daughter’s thoughts circle around one persistent question: was her father a bad man?

Writer/director Praveen Morchale gives us a decidedly unsentimental look at the conflict in Kashmir and the toll it takes on the everyday lives of people. The mere act of getting anywhere involves a van ride through checkpoints. The van’s driver keeps up a constant cheerful chatter with those in his vehicle, acting as a counterpoint to the news on the radio, which is always about the conflicts. Aasia is not the only half-widow at the mercy of the distasteful government official, but even his job and the “perks” he seeks have evolved out of the broken lives the conflicts have created. Aasia could easily give in, selling her land. Certainly, it would make her life easier. But what Aasia wants is not for things to be easier: she wants what she sees as her rights, and in the midst of everything, what she wants is some dignity for herself and her family.

At the core of this film is Aasia herself, and Delhi theatre actor Shilpi Marwaha infuses the character with strength and dignity. Marwaha shows us Aasia’s quiet determination, as well as the exhausting toll the constant turning in circles takes on her. And Aasia’s story is not the only one of its kind. As her co-worker points out: every village has stories like these, of men disappeared, of women and families left in a kind of limbo that leaves them exhausted, discouraged, depressed, and powerless, open to being preyed upon and taken advantage of. It’s a legacy that Aasia is determined not to pass on to her daughter. As Aasia tells her daughter, there are many enemies in Kashmir, some visible, some not, and you need to know how to protect yourself and survive. “You should not care about what others say,” Aasia tells her daughter. “Only you know what is your truth. Others lies cannot become your truth.”

“Living in heaven and hell at the same time is very difficult,” the van driver tells Aasia, summing up perfectly the state of life in Kashmir for many of its residents. Widow of Silence drops us into that heaven, drags us through that hell. Aasia makes one very visible and powerful enemy who threatens her very existence – an enemy whose lies threaten to become her truth — and in the face of bureaucratic absurdity Aasia makes the only choice she feels she can to hang on to her own truth.

Widow of Silence screens in London on June 23rd and 24th. The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It starts on 20th June 2019 in London continues until 8th July 2019, at cinemas across the UK. For more on the festival, please visit: http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/

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