July 17, 2020
by Carla Hay
Urdu with subtitles
Directed by Praveen Morchhale
Culture Representation: Taking place in Kashmir, the dramatic film “Widow of Silence” has a predominately Kashmirian cast (with some Indians) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A woman whose husband has disappeared several years ago must fight against prejudice, financial pressures and sexual harassment for being in an ambiguous marital status known as “half-widow.”
Culture Audience: “Widow of Silence” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in independent arthouse films about South Asian cultures.
When a woman’s husband goes missing in Kashmir, her life can turn into a living hell of uncertainty and being targeted by predators. The harrowing drama “Widow of Silence” (written and directed by Praveen Morchhale) portrays with emotional urgency how having a vague marital status in this part of the world can ruin the lives of women and children whose household patriarchs have disappeared.
India’s and Pakistan’s decades-long brutal conflict over the republic of Kashmir has resulted in certain types of casualties that are rarely covered in mainstream media. These casualties are the marriages and identities of the countless wives whose husbands have disappeared, usually after the men were taken into custody by military or government officials. If these missing men are married, their wives who are left behind become “half-widows,” because it’s unknown if their husbands or alive or dead.
This uncertain marital status leaves the wives in precarious situations that make them vulnerable to con artists, corrupt government officials and members of society who will shun them. Even though “Widow of Silence” is a fictional drama, writer/director Morchhale based the story on what many real-life “half-widows” go through in Kashmir.
In “Widow of Silence,” Aasia Jilani (played by Shilpi Marwaha) is a law-abiding nursing attendant at a local hospital. She lives with her 11-year-old daughter named Inaya (played by Noorjahan Mohammad Younus) and mother-in-law (played by Zaba Banoo). But there’s a major void in their lives: Aasia’s devoted husband Mustaq Ahmad has been missing for seven years, after he was mysteriously taken into custody by Indian police, who claimed they needed to interrogate him.
Aasia refuses to believe that Mustaq is dead, but in Kashmirian society, having a missing husband means that Aasia is an outcast to many people. She can’t have legal claim to her husband’s property unless she files papers to officially declare him dead. That’s not an option for Aasia, since she believes that there’s a possibility that her husband is alive and will come back to her. She doesn’t want to divorce him because, in many Kashmirian communities, being a divorcée is an even bigger stigma than being a widow.
Because she is the only income earner in her household, Aasia is teetering on the brink of poverty and financial ruin. She and many other “half-widows” in the area are suffering through the same fate, as they deal with a government bureaucracy that is slow to respond to their needs. Appointments with government officials (who are almost always men) can take months to get. And when they do get an appointment with a government official, he could be corrupt and demand sexual favors.
That’s what happens to Aasia when she gets a long-awaited appointment with a smarmy government official (played by Ajay Chourey), who’s in charge of the local registrar that declares births and deaths. It should be noted that “Widow of Silence” writer/director made an interesting choice to give names to only two characters in this movie: Aasia and Inaya. It’s perhaps symbolic, because they are the only people who speak up and stand up for themselves when they are being harassed and bullied.
The government official starts his predatory sexual harassment by seeming to be concerned enough about Aasia’s situation that he wants to discuss options with her. He asks Aasia to tell him about her husband, and she says that Mustaq was an engineering graduate but unemployed at the time he disappeared. The government official’s questions become more probing: Was Aasia’s husband a military or political activist? Does she have plans to remarry?
Aasia says that Mustaq was not involved in any activism and that he was just a husband and father. Mustaq owns land totaling one-third of an acre, and Aasia wants ownership of the land transferred to her name. She says that she went through this same procedure four months ago and was already asked the same questions.
In this meeting, the government official recommends that Aasia take a half-widow’s pension. If she wants to get her husband’s property in her name, she would have to declare him dead. And if he’s declared dead, she would only be entitled to one-eighth of her husband’s savings. The rest of the money would go to his side of the family.
The government official tells her that government bureaucracy can be slow. But what he really means (and what he makes clear when he sexually harasses her later in a separate meeting) is that he can make things go quicker if she gives him the kind of attention that he wants. He suggests that she sell the property to someone he knows who’s willing to buy the land. And the government official wants a “commission” for this sale. Aasia balks at that idea.
And in a separate meeting that happens later in the movie, he tries to manipulate Aasia with money again, by telling her that government officials like him need extra funds to help take care of their own families. It’s an obvious request for a bribe, but Aasia doesn’t take the bait, and she tells him that she’s practically broke.
He then starts complimenting her effusively: “You are young and beautiful and should have some fun.” He reminds her again that bureaucracy can be slow, but he can find the time to help “young and beautiful ladies like you.” He places his hand on her shoulder and suggests that they meet at a hotel to further discuss how he can help Aasia get her husband’s death certificate.
Aasia knows exactly what’s going on, so she pushes his hand off of her, quickly gets up and leaves—making it clear that she’s not going to give in to this sexual harassment. She also doesn’t let him down easy, as she expresses her disgusted with the harassment and she’s not going to change her mind. And later, when he still persists, she slaps him in the face. But when someone this corrupt gets rejected in this manner, what does that mean for Aasia?
Meanwhile, Aasia is dealing with some big issues with the family members who live with her. Her ailing mother-in-law has become mute, ever since her son disappeared. Aasia’s daughter Inaya is being bullied at school by other students because Inaya is living with the stigma of having a missing father. Inaya has been getting in fights at school to defend herself, and she might get expelled for it if this fighting continues.
Although Inaya and the mother-in-law are not central characters in the story, “Widow of Silence” shows, in a heartbreaking manner, the emotional devastation that they also feel because of Mustaq’s disappearance. Inaya keeps asking her grandmother, “Grandma, was my father a bad person?”
Aasia chastises Inaya for asking this question when she knows that the grandmother has not spoken in seven years. Inaya’s response is chilling when she says that Aasia doesn’t really talk to Inaya either. It’s an example of how the disappearance has caused a rift between the mother and daughter.
Meanwhile, there are some other supporting characters whom Aasia is in regular contact with, and they give further context to the story. Aasia has a nurse co-worker (played by Tahmida Akter), who scolds Aasia (usually when they’re in the break room together) for not declaring her missing husband dead and moving on with her life.
Because Aasia doesn’t drive, she relies on shared rides and public transportation to get around town. One of the rideshare drivers who takes care of her transportation needs on a regular basis is a truck driver (played by Bilal Ahmed), whose friendly demeanor and sense of humor bring some light-hearted moments to this serious drama. (Ahmed is a real-life car driver in Kashmir. According the production notes for “Widow of Silence,” all of the movie’s cast members, except Marwaha and Chourey, are non-professional actors, because writer/director Morchalla wanted real-life Kashmir people in the movie.)
And just because Aasia’s marital status is in limbo doesn’t mean that she’s given up on love. She has a boyfriend (played by Ahsan Bismil), and they’ve been semi-secretly dating for three years. He wants to marry her, but she’s very reluctant to take the necessary steps to declare that her marriage to Mustaq is over. In Kashmir, a “half-widow” can get married to someone else if her missing husband remains missing after four years.
And then there’s Aasia’s father (played by Habibulla), who tells her that she should get married to her suitor. Aasia’s father offers to raise Inaya with Aasia’s mother, because he believes that most men don’t want to marry a widow with children. Aasia still clings to the idea that her husband could be found alive.
When Aasia tells her father that she’s gotten a tip from someone that Mustaq is likely being held in a prison, her father scolds her for being gullible. He reminds her that she’s already checked hospitals and prisons multiple times and is probably being put on a wild goose chase from someone trying to con money out of her: “Why do you trust these informants?” he asks Aasia. “They have made it a business.”
“Widow of Silence” portrays with emotionally wrenching detail how difficult it is for someone in Aasia’s situation to hold her life together while trying to search for a missing husband and dealing with the relentless problems that come from being a “half-widow” in a society that treats women and children as second-class citizens. Her emotional isolation is palpable when she says at one point: “Life is suffocating, but I’m alive.”
As the emotionally torn Aasia, Marwaha gives a powerfully understated performance as someone whose resolve and sanity are constantly questioned and tested as she goes through this ordeal. This isn’t a weepy or hysterical melodrama, because “Widow of Silence” accurately portrays how women in this culture, more so than in Western cultures, are often told to keep their misery to themselves.
As the title of the movie implies, half-widows are expected to suffer in silence. There are no counselors or therapists for women like Aasia. There are no attorneys rushing to help her. In telling this impactful story, writer/director Morchhale gives a brutally honest depiction of what countless half-widows endure when their husbands are taken away by the government, and what can happen when that pain is allowed to fester and is pushed to the brink.
Oration Films released “Widow of Silence” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 10, 2020.