Half Lives of Half Widows

  • Majid Maqbool
  • Publish Date: Jan 1 2018 11:38AM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 1 2018 11:38AM
Half Lives of Half Widows

A new film spotlights their lives

Half Widow, a soon to be released feature film by a young Kashmiri Los Angeles based filmmaker, puts the spotlight on the difficult lives and struggles of half-widows of Kashmir. Shot entirely in the valley with local cast and crew, the film explores the journey of a Kashmiri woman, a half widow, who’s in search of her disappeared husband.

 

Half-widows are women who do not know if their husbands are dead or alive. “These women spend the rest of their lives waiting in hope that their spouses will return,” says filmmaker Danish Renzu who was born in Kashmir and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 18 to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering and Film Direction. “These women are mostly ignored, their voices unheard, and they live with decades-old pain.”

There are about 2500 half-widows in Kashmir, as per some estimates. Since the onset of militancy in the 1990, there have been about 8,000-10,000 cases of involuntary and enforced disappearances in Kashmir which created a sub group of widows who were called ‘Half widows,’ a term for women who did not know whether their husbands are dead or alive.

The exact number of half-widows in Kashmir remains unconfirmed, as does the number of enforced disappearances in the custody of government forces. Kashmir based rights group The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JCCS) puts the figure of half-widows at around 1,500, while others put the number between 2,000 and 2,500.

Renzu says the film critically examines the status of the overlooked and beleaguered population of half-widows in Kashmir. “The story spans several years of the turmoil and angst endured by the people of Kashmir along with the small wins and hopes that keep them alive despite the harsh realities they encounter on a daily basis,” he says, adding that in a place like Kashmir where almost everyone is a victim, the story of the protagonist in the film begins after tragedy strikes and she can no longer look outside for strength and validation.  

Renzu’s first independent short film In Search of America Inshallah was about a Pakistani woman in search of her disappeared husband. Shot in Los Angeles, it was received well and had a successful festival run for over two years, featuring in over 30 film festivals.  His second short film First Love was about a South Asian woman finding her muse. It premiered at prestigious New York Indian Film Festival in 2015 and was picked under Official Short Film Competition at London South Asian Film Festival. Half-widow is his first full feature film. He is currently filming another feature film titled The Illegal set in Los Angeles with Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma in the lead.

While filming in Kashmir from 2015-16, Renzu along with the crew felt that by giving a voice to the true protagonists of history—the people of Kashmir, and especially its women – they were “bringing back the possibility of innocence and faith to bloom back to life in the valley.”

Like other children, while growing up in Kashmir in the early 1990s, Rinzu’s childhood was also disrupted. “Frequent bombings, curfews, shutdowns and abuse of human rights in the valley kept me and my siblings usually fearful,” he recalls. He also witnessed his close friends and acquaintances die in the unending political upheaval in Kashmir.

“I also realized early in life that the true solution did not lie in people only protesting, or joining groups to fight the problem,” he says. “Perhaps it lies in moving forward and investing our energies toward personal development, education and community growth.”

As a filmmaker, through this film, he says he’s doing his part to contribute to these efforts by trying to bring to light “a very sensitive and overlooked issue” of Kashmir.

Renzu says the important aim of the film is to show the strength of a marginalized half widow in Kashmir who does find her voice in the end. “This film also seeks to challenge cultural and ethnic stereotypes assigned to women such as the protagonist of the film in mainstream media outlets,” he says.

Renzu finds the label “half-widow” disturbing, as there’s a stigma attached to it. “These women are not half; they are complete people with dreams and aspirations and they have the right to live their lives just like anyone else,” he says.  “They have the right to know what happened to their husbands so that they can try to move on with their lives.” Yet, he adds, these half widows remain stuck in limbo.

The 96-minute feature film stars local actors, Neelofar Hamid, who appeared in the Sundance Award-winning film Valley of Saints; Shahnawaz Bhat, who acted in Harud, and Mir Sarwar and Haseena Sofi.  Produced by Gaya Bhola and Danish Renzu, the film will soon have a World Premiere.