‘Widow of Silence’ – an angry film about the half-widows of Kashmir

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‘As long as I have anger and stories to tell, I will keep making films’ says filmmaker

By Firdaus Ali

Praveen Morchhale belongs to the new-wave generation of filmmakers, who use poetic dialogue and allegorical storytelling to unveil political and social injustices. His  films depict an unusual mixture of simplicity and complexity and his observations make heroes of everyday people.

His third feature film “Widow of Silence,” which premiers virtually across select theatres in North America, is an unusual mixture of simplicity and ambiguity. It’s an angry film made with a calm lens and tells collective stories of the half-widows of Kashmir who must contend with history and culture that has forgotten them. The film opens a window to the lives of these women facing harassment, poverty, sexual exploitation, and humiliation and whose only weapon is their indomitable spirit.

The film is based on many true stories in Kashmir, using a visual style that is calm and meditative yet Kaafkuhesk (nightmarish and haunting). The film has stunning cinematography and powerful acclaimed drama. The vast terrains appear peaceful but have an uneasy calm about them. The film transports audiences to a world of breath-taking beauty and anarchic bureaucracy

The filmmaker whose films mirror his simplistic soul, makes films to express himself and his anger towards society and systemic oppression. “As long as I have anger within me and stories to tell, I will continue to make films,” says Mumbai-based director Praveen Morchhale while speaking to Firdaus Ali. An excerpt from the interview.

How did you think of making “Widow of Silence”?

I want to create awareness through my films on issues that have become invisible or swept under the carpet for political or vested gains. A few years ago I was reading a newspaper article on the half-widows of Kashmir. Half-widows are those women whose husbands have disappeared but are not yet declared dead. I had heard the term for the first time. After researching a bit, I set off for Srinagar. Upon finding and speaking to a few half-widows, they asked me why I wanted to make a film on them when nobody even thinks they are alive. This made my resolve even stronger and I knew I just had to tell their forgotten stories to the world.

It is very rare for Indian filmmakers to take on the Kashmiri cause in such an emphatic and problem-focused manner. What compelled you to make the film?

Many Indians believe that Kashmir is heaven on earth, the home of God. Somewhere beneath the beauty and majestic mountains, there is an uneasiness that has been brought on by three decades of conflict. The people of Kashmir and kind, humble and extremely generous, despite their shattered lives. The film is a collective reality of many women’s experiences and depicts the present-day reality in Kashmir but can be true of any country ravaged by war. Be it Syria or Afghanistan.

(Pakistan-backed terrorists and infiltrators have created havoc in the Kashmir Valley – in their bid to spark a civil war and mayhem throughout India. To this end, tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits – the original inhabitants of the valley – were driven out of the state and live in refugee camps in New Delhi and elsewhere. Thousands were killed, their women raped and homes appropriated by Pakistan-trained terrorists, all under the cover of semi-autonomy granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. This has now been revoked and the state is currently a Union Territory and Pakistani infiltrators are being hunted down and killed by Indian forces. But the infiltration and provocations from across the border continue…) – Editor

“Widow of Silence” brings into focus the fate of the most vulnerable and helpless victims of conflict zones around the world: woman and children. Half widows are found in certain districts of Kashmir which have seen militancy and conflict for more than three decades. these half widows are living a painful, hellish life which would make any heart melt.

There are  many women who lost their husbands and their children’s fathers. So, once the husband disappears, half widows are exposed to all kinds of social, emotional, financial, physical and psychological exploitation and their family suffers at many levels. Despite a few efforts by NGOs, not much has been done for these women. I hope to bring out their pain, struggles, resilience and indomitable spirit through my film, but more importantly their desperate quest for freedom and dignity.

Through the plight of the half-widows, the film depicts the shameless bureaucracy that is a big part of India. A death certificate not issued to someone who has gone missing for seven years and then issued to a live person in an instant. It reminds me of the story I read about a farmer who spent 25 years of his life knocking on the doors of the judiciary, trying to prove that he was still alive.

Women have very powerful stories and cinema has the potential to change their lives forever.

Once you’ve zeroed in on a subject, how do you go about planning and making the film?

Once I find a compelling subject, I travel to potential locations where I can set the story. It’s there that I travel and research more about the film I am about to make. I stay with local people and spend a lot of time understanding them, their culture, their issues.  If I meet someone interesting, I create the character for him or her in the film.

In “Widow of Silence” the lead female character hardly has dialogue in the film, and I was inclined to cast someone who has a very expressive face and eyes who could depict the pain and inner suffering without words. So I short-listed Shilpi Marwaha, a theatre artist from Delhi. In fact I just saw one video clip of her performance and decided to meet her personally to know more about her. There was no audition. We just had a chat over a cup of coffee. That is the way I decide the artists in my films.

All other actors were selected in a similar way. The taxi driver role done by Bilal Ahmad is a taxi driver in real life. He drives tourists all around Kashmir. We met while he was dropping us to the location from Srinagar airport in his minibus. I liked his mannerisms and very funny way of talking and requested that he act. He has seen Kashmir turn from heaven to hell and his satire and sadness add to the film’s poignancy.

Replicating real-life stories into the screenplay and then adding and adapting the screenplay, based on the characters that I find interesting in the film’s location. Non-actors are refreshing and add to the film’s realism. The audience gets to see their struggles, pain and dilemmas through their eyes.

Your three feature films and earlier short film focus on women and children? Why?

I strongly believe that women are being discriminated against everywhere in the world, even in the most developed countries. Women still don’t have the kind of rights and status that they rightfully deserve. Many are illiterate, caught in the shackles of war and conflict, unable to escape their fate. Men sometimes get to migrate and leave the situation behind. Women, though sensitive, artistic, resourceful and emotional suffer the most and are left behind to pick up all the pieces.

Women have more powerful stories to tell and filmmakers have a strong responsibility in bringing forward women’s stories of struggle and triumph through their cinema.

What kind of films have inspired you?

I can’t call myself as a cinema buff as I have watched only 74-odd films in my lifetime, many of which were regional films shown on Doordarshan. Filmmakers like Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal have contributed to meaningful cinema and films like Ankur, Piravi, Nishant and Mandi come to mind. I have been compared to Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who was known for telling his stories through child protagonists using a documentary style narrative. However, I don’t want to be influenced by any style of filmmaking as this would kill the soul of my films.

I feel life is far more interesting than films. So many stories, each waiting to be told. Simple, uncomplicated stories that unravel the political and social landscape of the region. There are so many stories from rural India that have great cinematic value and need to be told.

“Widow of Silence” depicts violence and conflict without showing any blood bath with a certain eerie silence and stillness. Is this intentional?

We have enough pain, conflict, violence and struggle in our daily lives. People are disturbed and negativity awaits us at every corner. Although, my films are simple, they speak of complex, multi-layered issues. I don’t have to show bullets and blood to depict violence and turmoil. I feel this would be exploiting the situation even more. I want to show the impact of the violence but more importantly hope and human will to overcome it all. Cinema may not be able to change the world, but it can certainly create awareness. Awareness can lead to action and eventually the desired change.

Having shot a film in Kashmir, what do you think of the Kashmir situation and its people?

Kashmir is known as the ‘heaven on earth’ and here I was depicting the ‘the hell that Kashmir has become’ for the people who live there. Today, nobody is happy in Kashmir and we have lost grip of what we are doing with Kashmir and its people. In my several visits to Kashmir, I have found Kashmiris to be humble, simple, artistic and proud people. You cannot bend them with authority and power, but you can win them over with love and sensitivity.

Nobody knows what is happening in Kashmir today, even the experts don’t have answers anymore. Bullets don’t discriminate and the tragedy of a three-decade conflict have far-reaching implications, especially on women and children. Article 370 being revoked within few months of my film’s completion, made “Widow of Silence” even more relevant than ever before.

Did you receive any formal training in filmmaking?

I don’t belong to any filmmaking institution, but I have done some meaningful theatre. Stage gives you the confidence and teaches you the nuances of cinema as well. Plays like ”Bakri” and ones by Mohan Rakesh are rooted in Indian stories, ethos and culture. However, I found theatre a bit too loud for my liking and turned to making my first short film, “The Tree That Told the Stories.” The film was about a young girl child from the city who goes to a village and does not want to return to city life as she has fallen in love with a tree.

I believe in the human aspect of cinema, which is universal and can be seen and understood by anyone in the world. Good cinema crosses generations and genders.  Every frame and character have multi-layered connotations. Since I haven’t watched a lot of filmmakers and don’t mimic any style of filmmaking, I keep breaking the rules of cinema, while remaining honest to the story and how I want to say it.

Was it easy to make your first film? Can you walk us through your journey?

Many filmmakers are fighting for the same space, resources and audience attention. If you’re going to tell human stories your way, you can only do so being an independent filmmaker. However, being an independent filmmaker is a lonely journey and you must be prepared to walk alone.

Originally from Hoshangabad, a small town in Madhya Pradesh on the banks of Narmada river, I have a master’s degree in rural management from the Institute of Rural Management Anand, Gujarat. IRMA, founded by the famous Verghese Kurien, engrained in me the IRMA philosophy, “you are the best in the world.” I believe in this even today and that helps me tell my stories with honesty and candour.

Independent filmmakers who want to tell unique stories aren’t cash cows for money-spinning producers. Often, we must be innovative to raise funds for our own films. I have used crowd funding in the past to get families and friends to co-produce a film with me.

Nepotism is a hot word today. What are your thoughts on nepotism in Indian cinema?

While, it’s true that star kids have it easy and get an earlier and ready break compared to actors coming from small towns with mere talent and lots of hope. These newcomers face tremendous financial and emotional stress and are unable to go back home during the days of struggle. However, I still feel 90% of Indian cinema is still democratic with technical hands being hired and getting work based on talent and skills only. This should also hold true for actors. If producers started investing in new talent, it will give newcomers confidence and bring good cinema back into our lives.

Your debut award-winning feature film “Barefoot in Goa” received a lot of critical acclaim. It is described as a bright film on sadness. How did the film come about?

“Barefoot in Goa” talks deals with inter-generational issues and how children migrating to cities often abandon their parents in villages, on the pretext of space and monetary constraints. The film deals with the indulgent relationship between grandparents and grandchildren and is a bitter-sweet tale of two children from Mumbai who travel to Goa in search of their ‘abandoned’ grandma. I had to venture into a crowdfunding campaign to release the film. The film was unique in a way, that it was co-produced by 238 people who invested in the film,

Your second film “Walking with the Wind” bagged three national awards and the UNESCO Gandhi medal. What made you want to make the film and tell Tsering’s story?

“Walking with the Wind” explores the beautiful but treacherous terrains of Himalayas revealing a poignant story as seen through the eyes of a child. It’s a simple story of 10-year-old Tsering, who travels 7-10 km on a donkey to school every day. One day he accidentally breaks his friend’s school chair and goes through even greater hardship to bring the chair back to repair it. Here, I have used a chair is the metaphor for the awakening journey and quest for inner truth and reality, which people aspire to find in the adult world. It sends a message to people to start taking responsibility for their own actions and play their part in improving our society.

What’s next in the pipeline?

With “Widow of Silence” behind me, I would like to make a humane film on coalminers and perhaps another on migrant workers who walked thousands of miles from cities to their villages during the pandemic.

There are many such stories that tug your heart every day. You just need to find a way to tell them!

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