Short-term happiness followed by a lifelong grief: this is the tale of all the Kashmiri women now known to the world as ‘Half-widows’. Women whose husbands have ‘disappeared’ or were taken away, never to be returned back.
Waiting for their husbands, not knowing whether they are still married or have been widowed, the life of these women is grim. Such numerous stories inspired a Kashmiri filmmaker Danish Renzu, to make a film that documents love, loss and sufferings.
The film named ‘Half-Widow’, spans over several years of the turmoil and angst endured by the people of Kashmir, along with the small victories and hopes, that keep them alive despite the harsh realities that they encounter on the daily basis.
Filmmaker Renzu believes that in Kashmir, a place where everyone is a victim, the story of the protagonist begins after tragedy strikes her and she can longer look outside for strength and validation.
The film is a story of a woman Neela, who loses her husband. An important endeavour of the film, according to Renzu is to show the strength of a marginalised woman who does find her voice. This film also seeks to challenge cultural stereotypes assigned to women, such as the protagonist of the film, in mainstream media outlets.
“Stories like Neela’s need to be told, especially now, when so many people are experiencing loss and displacement in the world. In our film Half Widow, we critically examine the status of the overlooked and beleaguered population of half widows,” mentions Renzu in his Artistic statement that he shared with FreePressKashmir.
The 96 minute long film, starring Neelofar Hamid, Shahnawaz Bhat and Mir Sarwar, has been written by Gaya Bhola (story, screen writing), Sunaya Kachroo (Dialogues) and Danish Renzu (story, screenwriting).
Renzu shared that the team shot during various seasons in the valley and faced huge difficulty to film out last pending scenes in the valley last summer. In order to bring authenticity to the film, Renzu had selected a local cast for the film.
The crew also included professionals from Mumbai and cinematographer Antonio Cisneros from Los Angeles. The producer of the film Gaya Bhola, a California based artist and poet is also based in Los Angeles.
Over the email, Renzu told FPK that the film was shot entirely in Kashmir in 2-3 schedules sporadically, starting October 2015.
“It is a story of a woman, caught in history’s torments, who finds redemption through education. As we make this film come true I, along with the crew, feel that by giving a voice to the true protagonists of history: the people of Kashmir, and especially its women, we were bringing back the possibility of innocence, and faith to bloom, back to life in the valley,” he added.
Being a Kashmiri, Renzu has witnessed the first hand, the happenings in Kashmir people and that is what instigated the idea of this film.
“My childhood in Kashmir was not close to normal. Frequent bombings, curfews, shutdowns and abuse of human rights in the valley kept us (me and my siblings) usually fearful. I have witnessed my close friends and acquaintances die in the unending political upheaval in Kashmir. I realised early in life that the true solution did not lie in people protesting or joining groups to fight the problem. Perhaps it lies in moving forward and investing our energies toward personal development, education and community growth,” he had mentioned in the Artistic statement.
Renzu shared that as Kashmiri child, he didn’t get many opportunities to play outdoors and his lifelong passion for filmmaking began when he had taken up watching movies as his hobby.
“As a child, I took up the hobby of watching movies. Soon I was making a horror movie, starring my sisters and cousins. This hobby and a love for storytelling, turned into a lifelong passion,” he revealed.
Renzu moved to Los Angeles at the age of 18 to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering and Film Directing at UCLA.
“I also earned prestigious 2-year UCLA Writer’s Program in feature film writing with a distinction. I have worked as an Engineer in the field of Telecommunications for about five years in Los Angeles,” he wrote.
Renzu told FPK that his meeting with Chairperson of Association of Person of Disappeared Persons (APDP) Parveena Ahangar helped him understand the kind of story he wanted to tell.
“There are so many untold stories from Kashmir, and we were trying to see which one is the most realistic to shoot. We had 2-3 scripts that we were working on. The day I met Parveena Ahangar Ji, I realised this is the story I want to tell,” he replied in a question asked over the email.
“We have not only the suffering of the local people to offer, but have also introduced the landscape, culture, music, history, poetry etc to a worldwide audience. The loss of culture and music in Kashmir needs revival and this and many more films in the future will bring about that change,” he further wrote.
He also mentioned that in the three decades of the conflict, estimates of disappeared, arrested, and abducted men have reached as high as 8,000 and that merely on the basis of suspicion for conspiring against the authorities, people are picked up, never to return home. These people include young men, teenagers, children, many of whom have no part in the conflict.
“They are innocent but have become victims. They are not involved with any organisation or party. Yet, these are the many—sons, brothers, husbands, and dear ones—who never return,” believes Renzu.
“The label “half-widow” highly disturbs me, it is a stigma. These women are not half; they are complete people with dreams and aspirations, and the right to live their lives just like anyone else. They have the right to know what happened to their husbands so they can try to move on with their lives. From a legal standpoint, in the absence of a male figure whose existence is unknown, these women’s marital status also hinders them from seeking new relationships and possibilities,” Renzu points out.
He further wrote in the statement that the Human rights groups in Kashmir had told him that data regarding the half-widows is difficult to collect but estimates, according to him reveal that at least 2500 ‘half-widows’ live in the valley.
“With the state not acknowledging their disappearance, these women don’t figure anywhere in the Jammu and Kashmir government’s compensation scheme for people killed in the two-decade-long conflict,” wrote Renzu.
The film will be released internationally. The director is also planning a theatrical release of it in the Valley, and some states of India.
Renzu is firm to encourage Kashmiri people in the field of filmmaking. He has already opened an office here where he hires artists in Kashmir and trains them to utilize their skills for the making of this film.
“I will not need to hire crew from any other place but instead want to create talent myself in the valley. This will help me significantly lower the budget of the film. Encouraging youth to participate in film-making so they can choose and not forced to become someone else,” he pressed.
“As a filmmaker, through my film I am doing my part to contribute to these efforts by trying to bring to light a very sensitive and overlooked issue of Kashmir,” he believes.