What was the inspiration for this story?
One day when I was going through the newspaper, I found an interesting and curious word "Half Widow" in an article about women whose husbands disappeared but had not been declared dead over 30 years of conflict in Kashmir. Immediately this prompted me to do some research and I found that these women are living in stressed emotional, social and financial conditions. Within a fortnight, I made a trip to Kashmir. I met a few half widows and, when one such lady told me "nobody considers us alive", it was shocking to me: at that moment I decided to make a film on them, a deeply personal and emotional story without being judgmental. Thus I wrote a story based on the collective experience of many such women, many news articles and some written documents and books on their plight.
How real is the situation of being caught in a bureaucracy like this?
Quite real, I can say. What is shown in the film is almost the collective reality of many women's experiences. The whole film depicts the present day reality in Kashmir faced by the general public. Bureaucracy in India is quite famous for doing many absurd things and they really make people's life miserable. The film's absurdist climax is based on a real incident that happened with a farmer In India. The farmer was declared dead on land records by an officer, who took bribes from someone to do so. The farmer fought with the judicial and bureaucratic system for two decades to prove that he was alive. There are many such absurd cases that have happened where officers have declared people dead on the record. In fact many bureaucratic decisions taken during corona pandemic time have made many workers' lives miserable who walked on feet 1000s of kilometres from city to their villages.
How common is the half-widow situation?
Half widows are found in certain districts of Kashmir which have seen militancy and conflict for more than 3 decades.
For the last couple of years, due to social media and mainstream media focus, incidences have come down. However this is still happening in significant numbers, but, at present, the number of half-widows remains unconfirmed. Irrespective of a confirmed number, these half widows are living a painful hellish life which would make any heart melt. There are many women who lost their husbands and their children's fathers. So, once the husband disappears, half widows are exposed to all kinds of social, emotional, financial, physical and psychological exploitation and their family suffers at many levels. Despite a few efforts by NGOs, not much has been done for these women.
The valley seems very peaceful and beautiful - is it?
We Indians believe that Kashmir valley is the home of God and heaven on the earth. It's very beautiful and the landscape is mesmerising. But beneath this beauty and apparent peace, there is an uneasiness which can be felt when we visit the area. They have been in conflict with the government for many decades and that has weakened the social and financial fabric and emotional connection. I have been to Kashmir many times and found people so kind and beautiful at heart that it's almost too difficult to believe that it is having any such issues. Mountains, artistic nature, the people and natural beauty make Kashmir a unique place.
How was it shooting there?
It was quite peaceful as we got very supportive local people. We were staying in a small town which had hardly any places to stay or food facilities but these challenges provoked us to make the film more powerful. The temperature was around 0-3 dec C during the shooting days. In fact, such hardship could bring up the feelings of the crew about the tough life of the local residents and it also it brought realism in the characters of the two professional actors. This hardship and tough terrain were problems we could bring into the film. It was important to go through the physical pain of the local people.
How did you go about casting the film - are all the actors professional, are some locals?
I generally travel to a location where I feel I can set the story. Soon after I get the basic idea. This happens well before the screenplay writing. I stay with local people and spend a lot of time understanding them, their culture, their issues. During this stay I met many interesting people and I included those characters in the script. If I meet someone interesting, I create the character for him or her in the film.
Barring the lead actress in the role of Aasia and the actor in the role of the Registrar, the rest of the roles were done by local villagers and non-professional actors.
In fact these non-professionals had never faced cameras so they were not performance conscious. This helped me to capture their real emotions as per the understanding of the situations. This brought a lot of reality into their performance and this made the film special as well. Working with non-actors not only makes my films special but also brings the very feeling of suffering and pain, which, in reality, they pass through every day in life. And that comes on screen also.
For the lead female character, I was inclined to cast someone who has a very expressive face and eyes who could depict the pain and inner suffering without words. She hardly has dialogue in the film. So I zeroed in on Shilpi Marwaha who is a theatre artist from Delhi. In fact I just saw one video clip of her performance on youtube and decided to meet her personally to know more about her. There was no audition. We just had a chat over a cup of coffee. That is the way I decide the artists in my films. All other actors were selected in a similar way. The taxi driver role done by Bilal Ahmad is a taxi driver in real life. He drives tourists all around Kashmir. We met while he was dropping us to the location from Srinagar airport in his mini-bus. I liked his mannerisms and very funny way of talking and requested that he act. And he performed really very nicely that so that no-one felt he was acting.
The child artist in the character of Inaya was from the same village where we shot the film as was the grandmother and all other supporting cast.
What is the significance of the song you name?
We used "Maalena ho", a very famous song by Habba Khatoon, also known as Nightingale of Kashmir (1554–1609). She was an eminent Kashmiri Muslim poet.
I found this particular song mournful and full of the sorrow of separation. In the song the daughter complains to her mother as she is unhappy in her mother-in-law's house. Though she wrote it when her husband was separated from her, I felt this song very much expresses our pain and love for motherland. Suffering for the motherland inflicts feelings and deep sorrow, which any sensitive person would feel. In the film, this song is sung by the taxi driver who has a very satirical outlook in his talk: it added a deeply felt pain to his character. At the same time, the song depicts, indirectly, the feelings of the half-widows who yearn for a respectful, decent living in society. I found this song a poetic gem and very beautiful which allows us to connect differently with the different characters and with their situations.