There are two kinds of Kashmir that Bollywood usually presents: the beautiful Kashmir with the snow-capped Himalayas and the Pir Panjal range in the background; the emerald colored lakes, the valley of flowers, the paradise on earth where lovers romance. Then there is the militarised Kashmir: the army, the bombs, the curfews, the land torn apart by “terrorists” and the Indian Army. Danish Renzu’s Half Widow, with its story of immense mental and physical violence amidst the backdrop of the mountains and the pine trees, explores both sides.
Kashmir, the northern most state of India, has been the site of unrest and rampant human rights violations since the country gained independence in 1947, or even before, as many social scientists and historians may claim. Presently, the state is embroiled in an armed conflict between the Indian State and a faction of Kashmiris who demand political autonomy. In 1990, the Indian government established the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act which allows the Army to take over the running of the state and, until recently, allowed the Army complete immunity to carry on whatever operations it pleased, often at the cost of constitutional freedoms and rights. It is common to have curfews implemented by the Army, during which people of the Kashmir valley are randomly searched, asked to provide identification and, just as randomly, arrested on “suspected” anti-social affiliations. These arrests are often unofficial, and the arrested men often “disappear” with no trace, often for good, leaving their wives and families behind. “Half widow” is the name given to the wives of the men who disappear and remain missing through the years of conflict.
In a time when neighbourhoods sound with cries of women whose husbands have disappeared, love blossoms in Half Widow, as the protagonist, Neela (Neelofar Hamid), marries Khalid (Mir Sarwar) — a man she only met once before marrying. Amidst the looming presence of the army, they walk around hand-in-hand and eat their meals together while the cassette player plays their favorite song; their love represents a defiance of the hate all around. With the imposition of a sudden curfew, police barge into their house and arrest Khalid, in the middle of the family’s dinner, leaving behind Neela, who is pregnant with their first child.
Suffering a miscarriage, Neela runs from police station to help groups, with her brother in tow, trying to locate Khalid. The police officers — who are sympathetic at first — turn apathetic and then downright abusive when they manhandle Neela and throw her out of the police station, calling her names and denying her victimhood. In an almost Antigone-like defiance of the law, Neela jumps into the prison campus and frees her brother from his arrest. Joining other half-widows in a support group, she rallies, demands an inquiry into her husband’s disappearance and talks to the press.
We often like to talk about political theories, incorporate them into our conversations, name drop theorists and talk of social change in a vacuum. Half Widow makes an intervention and tells the story of Neela and hundreds of women like her, who can barely speak or read in English, who become activists quite reluctantly and organically. For a girl who wanted to get married, who liked cooking lamb for her husband and a dessert for her brother, Neela never really ever dreamt of becoming an activist. The film relates how the State continually creates such women and their activism, as it critiques the press and the society that wants to monetise this activism and feed it to the masses as catchy headlines.
Renzu points his fingers at both the creators of these headlines and the consumers, who don’t quite realize the depth of women that have a whole life beyond being victims on the front pages. When nothing comes out of her activism, Neela almost gives up on life but decides to trust her faith in a promised destiny instead.
Within the narrative of men guarding borders and the men who are pelting stones at the army officers and allegedly bombing town squares, there are thousands of silent narratives of the women who are dedicatedly waiting for their husbands, their brothers, their lovers and answers. Renzu gives a face to the thousands of women featured in the papers, disturbingly called “half widows” — not just defined by the lack of a husband, but also by this “half,” not full, not a complete status of being. Neela is the face and body of the headlines — the full person behind this half status. As the narrative draws to a close, the film highlights the slow uncovering of this fullness; the fullness of a woman who loves ice cream, laughs aloud, takes boat rides and wants to learn English.
Women like Neela get talked about all the time in India; the liberals show their sympathies, make these support groups and try helping them out, while the more conservative and fundamentalist people think they house terrorists which makes it alright for the Army and the State to claim and abuse their bodies and psyches. Within these different stories of diplomacy, human rights violations and State-sponsored genocide, we never really hear their own stories. This is their story, this is Neela’s story; the story of how it took her years to come out of her half-ness, to come into a fullness that is not defined by the presence or absence of a man. It’s a story of her going out to search for something that always lay inside of her, the story of her finding the words to write her own story and the story of her drawing a line of feminine legacy with the likes of the Lal Ded, the Kashmiri mystic poet from the 1300s.
This is the story of a woman who takes small steps into becoming as limitless and boundless as her name and favourite color.
This article is the second in a series about films being shown at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York City.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.