Director Danish Renzu, who comes from Kashmir, in a collaborative project with a fellow Kashmiri pandit, Sunayana Kachroo, tells the story of Neela, a half widow, whose husband disappears after being picked up by armed forces in the dark of night from their home in Srinagar in 1999. Returning to Kashmir after a decade and taking inspiration from the life of activist Parveena Ahangar, Renzu creates the character of Neela. Before embarking on his passion of filmmaking, Renzu studied electrical engineering from the University of California and then worked for a short period of time at the telecom industry. Driven by his desire for telling stories, Renzu decided to take up filmmaking as a career.
Neela, the central character in the film, spends years searching for her husband only to discover that he is dead. She yearns to tell her story, but she confronts her reality – she is illiterate. But the desire to narrate her own story outweighs her literary disability. What and how will Neela overcome this challenge that lies in her way to tell her story to the world?
Even as he is preparing for a world première of Half Widow this October, the US-based Renzu is busy giving final touches to The Illegal with Suraj Sharma and Adil Hussain.
The Kashmir conflict is very complex and has several serious issues. Why did you choose half widow as the subject?
There have been several films made in the past on Kashmir conflict, but hardly any of them have done justice to the sentiments of the common people. Even though conflict will always be in the backdrop, I choose to tell stories of the common man and their plight – of living in hardships and difficult circumstances – as well their spirit to survive with hope for a better future.
Half Widow is a story of a Kashmiri woman, showing the challenges that she has to live with, after her husband’s disappearance. . The narrative of the film is told from her point of view, the choices she makes while living this personal tragedy. I love working on character driven narratives and stories surrounding the lives of common people.
There has been a lot of work on half widows, which includes extensive journalism and fiction writings. How will your movie contribute to the narrative that has already been there?
True. Of course, there are several forms of narration of the Kashmir conflict. My cinematic endeavour attempts to substantiate those writings and adds depth to the existing literature on the issue. I chose cinema because it has a wide and powerful reach unlike non-fiction writing, which caters to a particular section/class of the society. It is through cinema that a larger audience can be sensitised on such issues that are an everyday reality for a Kashmiri.
What is the larger message that the film aims at giving to the audience?
The larger message is that of survival and moving on with life, irrespective of the tragedy and the conflict. I want to give the larger message of hope to my audience, both in Kashmir and in all conflict zones across the world. The story revolves around the character of Neela and her rebirth, following her husband’s sudden disappearance. Neela sets out on a journey to find her soul and emancipation.
How do you see Kashmir as a society and its future in world cinema, given that the culture of cinema has almost vanished in the Valley?
Kashmir has a lot of talent as we see an increasing number of Kashmiris pursuing their dreams – from acting, singing, to direction, among others. In the last few years, we see Kashmir has been opening to filmmaking. A lot of movies are being shot there and interestingly, local talent is showing interest in getting involved. Of the several Kashmiris who have joined Bollywood, I am proud of Zaira Waseem for her performance in the film Dangal , as well as Abrar Zahoor who was marvellous in Neerja .
In fact, the protagonist in my film, Neelofar Hamid, who is also based in Kashmir, is a very talented female artist. So things are definitely changing as more and more people are interested in film industry. The contribution and participation of the female Kashmiri leads in Bollywood is certainly noteworthy.
However, there are challenges at the societal level. We still do not have cinema halls. I seriously hope that perception towards cinema will change in the Valley. I wanted to have a local release of Half Widow in the valley but, unfortunately, there was no theatre where I could screen it. My dream is to revive cinema in the Valley and reopen cinema halls. I believe the solution to these challenges at the level of the society actually lie in the politics there. I hope, without any political correctness, cinema in the Valley becomes a reality and this can be achieved only when the conditions in Kashmir are back to normal. However, in the meantime, I am still planning a local release of Half Widow in the Valley.
The cast of the film is Kashmiri. Was it a conscious choice to choose locals as the characters in the film?
We wanted the film to be as authentic as possible and only local artists can do justice to tell a story from Kashmir. In fact, a major part of the film is also in Kashmiri. The film has Kashmiri songs as well. So yes, it was a conscious choice and helped me do justice to the story.
It seems that you chose local Kashmiri music. How do you think this choice helped it narrating the story of Neela?
Noor Mohammad, a local rebab (a bowed string instrument) player is one of the featured actors in the film and reflects Neela’s inner soul through his songs and music. And it’s something very special and beautiful to tell this story. Initially, it was just a random idea but then we got serious about it and pursued it. I’m very happy with this decision. Music plays an integral part in the film.
Did you face any challenges in pursuing this project?
The last schedule was very challenging, especially because of the gruelling political situation in the Valley last summer. It was because of the summer of 2016 that the project got delayed.
The film is a joint effort of you and Sunayna Kachroo . Given the political current climate, do you think the movie will help strengthen the spirit ofKashmiriyat?
Certainly, our joint venture can be seen as a larger message to the divisive forces. Sunayana Kachroo is an integral part of my production and we love working with each other. It’s never about Kashmiri Muslim/ Pandit and all the stupid/irrelevant religious biases; for us it’s always about work and the passion we share in telling stories. We are both Kashmiris and that’s about it. Religion and politics are tools created to divide people and create hatred. We never ever discuss this because there is no difference at all. Both of us love filmmaking and will continue to do the best together.
Do you intend to engage with Kashmir in your future cinematic endeavours?
We’re working on two projects in Kashmir. One of them is a musical one, inspired by the life of Raj Begum and we will be recreating some classical songs from the valley composed by Bhajan Sopori. It will feature Neelofar Hamid again as the protagonist. It’s something very special. Then there is Pashmina , which is currently in pre-production stage.
Source: The Hindu