Widow of Silence, Review: Half-lives, half-wives
Since it is based on many true stories, it is easy to consider Widow of Silence as an amalgamated biopic. Though the central character and her plight may be an amalgam of several of her sisters living in the god-forsaken heaven on earth, rural Kashmir, it works as a personal story too, using the larger picture as a backdrop. Unfortunately, though, besides highlighting the suffering of women whose husbands have been picked-up and taken away, never to return, in some detail, the film offers little else in cinematic merit, except the occasional directorial touches. For the better part, the film deals in silences, taking its title quite literally (or it could be that the film was shot first and an apt title added later), and slowing down the pace to almost a crawl.
Aasia is a woman who lives in Pulwana, Kashmir, an area known for cross-border insurgency and terrorist infiltrations. Her husband was picked-up one day by the Indian military, ostensibly for questioning, and never came back. It has been seven years since, but there is no record of what happened to him. Half of Aasia wants to apply closure to the case, get a death certificate and re-marry her (platonic) lover, while the other half says that he might still come back alive. The second premise is impractical and foolish, for nobody, who was picked-up in similar fashion from any household, ever came back.
For four months, she visits the Registrar of Births and Deaths’ office almost daily, and requests that she be given a death certificate, but to no avail. The Registrar is as corrupt a bureaucrat as they come, and he spells out terms of ‘certification’, suggesting that she sell-off her small piece of land through him, with a 20% commission payable to him, and that she submit to his sexual advances. Meanwhile Aasia has other problems. Her mother-in-law has been under severe shock, ever since her son disappeared, and hasn’t spoken since, and her daughter has classmates teasing her about her parents. Her suitor will not wait any longer, and her night shifts at a hospital (she is a trainee nurse) are causing her great stress. Apparently stoic, Aasia is a broken woman within, with her life being a cycle of torment, with no light at the end of a tunnel. Can things get any worse?
Two of the unit members have essayed triple roles: Praveen Morchhale is producer-writer-director, while Ajay Chourey is associate director, executive producer and actor. So, between them, they have made the greatest contributions. Writing-wise, Morchhale employs all formulaic tropes. Everything possible that could go wrong for Aasia, does. The van/taxi driver is garrulous and his passengers are a motley lot, talking about poetry, the current scenario and the place of women in Islam. Language-wise, a dash of Hindi is used, which is out of context, since Kashmiris would either speak Kashmiri or Urdu. Hindi words and Hindi pronunciation of Urdu words needed to be avoided. For a film that is only 85 minutes long, it has long silences that take-up about half the length. Of the two deaths in the film, the first was expected, the second comes as a numbed surprise and is a decent piece of screenplay. Other than Aasia, the other character that is written in some detail is that of the Registrar, and, the performance apart, it is hackneyed, nevertheless.
To his credit, Praveen Morchhale grabs you with his very first shot, and the attention to detail in the first scene. This tendency, however, later, becomes a liability, what with Aasia waiting for the van, on several occasions; the van taking direction A to B turns, then B to A then again A to B turns; the check-post guards doing their routine checks on the van; and so on. His humour, the little there is, is so subtle that you wonder whether he really expected audiences to chuckle, or the apparently funny dialogue was just to further the narrative. Chores and routine are repetitive and overdone. Bringing in the lover late, after some references to him, was a good move. Using non-professional actors is fine when they play dumb characters like the grandmother, but it needed more competent artistes to play the passengers and set the tone right during those taxi-trips.
On my PC, the sound was barely audible, and, in any case, there is no music at all, so it is not right to comment on the work of Shalini Agarwal (location sound) and Sanal George (sound engineer). Most of the time, Aasia speaks in whispers, making it even more difficult to follow the sound-track. We read in the end credit roll that ‘Malie nev ho’ is the work of Habba Khatoon, the renowned 16th century poetess of Kashmir on whom the late Mehboob Khan was planning a film when he passed away. But it did not register in my copy at all. It is not the beauty of Kashmir that is on display here, nor the weather. In fact, in one tell-tale dialogue, a woman says that her weakly constructed house will collapse when it snows, rendering her homeless. Mohammad Raza Jahanpanah’s camerawork captures the mood of the film, which offers few close-ups, choosing, instead, to use distancing as a technique. We see dusty roads, and instead of orchards, we see the van driver offering one single fruit to the army check-post personnel. Of all the characters, the van driver remains the most optimistic and full of gaiety.
Shilpi Marwaha, who plays Aasia, is, most probably, a trained actor, but she is made to enact her role as uni-dimensional, with whispered dialogue, delivered in staccato phrases, employing little or no modulation. She gets only one real scene to perform, in which, expectedly, her daughter dozes off while she continues to talk about her future plans for child. Inaya is okay as the daughter, her best scene being one in which she has to sit near a stream and has nothing to say. Zaba Banoo is so natural as the dumbfounded grandmother that you could believe she is really mute. As the van driver, Bilal just stops short of slipping into caricature, with his groping, all-at-sea dialogue delivery. With only one scene, as the father, Habibulla passes muster. Ahsan Bismil does a fairly decent job as the lover. Described as the Government Officer in the cast, for reasons unknown, the Registrar is played by Ajay Chourey, and it is obvious that he knows his job. And it is not his fault if his role conforms to a stereotypical villain, who gloats in his vile ways.
Widow of Silence is a bleak film about a dark subject and a very complex problem, with not even half a solution in sight.
The film premiered on MUBI on 14 June.
Rating: ** ½