British India was partitioned in 1947 into two independent states, India and Pakistan, a decision presumably intended to bring peace to the region. The reality was something else again, and the northern region of Kashmir, ownership of which is disputed among Pakistan, India, and China, remains in open conflict today.
That potted history lesson is useful as a background to what’s going on in Widow of Silence, a feature film written and directed by Praveen Morchhale that centers on the plight of a Muslim “half-widow” named Aasia (Shilpi Marwaha). She’s called a half-widow because her husband has been missing for seven years, most likely the victim of Indian security forces in the region, but she can’t prove that he’s dead because his corpse has not turned up.
So she’s stuck in the worst sort of limbo, with none of the benefits of having a living husband, yet unable to obtain a death certificate so she can take control of the family’s property in the absence of said husband. And Aasia is not just responsible for herself—there’s also her aging mother-in-law (Zaba Banoo) and eleven-year-old daughter Inaya (Noorjahan Mohmmad Younus) to think of, plus she has a suitor (Ahsan Bismul) more than ready to marry her.
Aasia’s situation is not unprecedented—in fact, it’s so common in Kashmir that there’s a special “half-widow allowance” to cover cases like hers—but she’s not willing to remain in suspended animation for the rest of her life. So, she makes daily trips to the government office that handles such matters (transported by a cheerful van driver, played by Bilal Ahmad, who adds some lightness to the film), stating her case as clearly as she can.
Unfortunately, bureaucracy is accompanied by corruption in this particular case, and in order to get the necessary government certificate, she must make it worth the while of the registrar (Ajay Courey) who has the power to grant her request. His first idea is that she should sell her family’s land to a friend of his, with him taking a 20 percent cut. When that doesn’t fly, he offers a second path to the same result—instead of selling her land, she should just sleep with him, and then he’ll issue the death certificate she needs. His office sports pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, suggesting the story takes place in India and/or the official is Hindu, and Aasia’s status as a Muslim women may also be working against her.
Widow of Silence is all about power—who has it, who doesn’t—and what some people will do when they feel sure they will get away with it. Besides overt abuses—the need for bribes to get anything done, lewd propositions made freely because there will be no consequences—there’s also the systemic disempowerment of women, including their exclusion from any economic power. Aasia works as a trainee nurse, but it doesn’t pay enough to support three people, and her daughter is bullied at school, both because of her missing father, and because her school fees have not been paid.
The slow pace of Widow of Silence helps you enter into the world of the characters, while Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah’s location cinematography captures both the beauty and the harshness of the Kashmir region. The buildings may be grey stone and concrete, but they’re enlivened with paint in surprising colors, and the beauty of the women’s garments stand out all the more given so plain a backdrop. Similarly, while life is hard, human relationships are that much stronger as a result, and even those apparently lacking in power can sometimes find a way to win. | Sarah Boslaugh
Widow of Silence is distributed digitally by Oration Films.