Beautiful compositions enlivened with pleasing colors can’t distract from multihyphenate Praveen Morchhale’s tiresomely explanatory screenplay for “Widow of Silence.” No one can question the film’s excellent intentions, designed to shine light on the nightmarish situation of women in Kashmir whose husbands have been arrested or killed during decades of conflict but are in legal limbo because they’re unable to obtain a death certificate without a body. Known as half-widows, they’re in a Kafkaesque position that keeps them powerless and in penury, and drawing attention to their plight is commendable. Yet “Widow of Silence” is a classic example of festival filler, the sort of issue-driven art-house film that masks a plodding obviousness of intent beneath a thick varnish of righteousness and attractive visuals.
The opening shot sets the tone and immediately situates the film within a particular kind of global cinema: an elderly woman sits mutely in a chair, sunlight illuminating her wrinkles and the color of her shawl, all handsomely set off against the pea-green wall. Then granny (Zaba Banoo) is tied to a chair and Aasia Jilani (Shilpi Marwaha) leaves, padlocking the door of their two-story mud-clad structure. Morchhale plays with this dichotomy throughout, setting Kashmir’s multi-colored beauty against the squalor of impoverished villages and hardscrabble lives. After school, Aasia’s friendless 11-year-old daughter Inaya (Noorjahan Mohmmad Younus) unties her mute granny and looks after her until her mother returns, suffering in silence from the taunts of her classmates for having an absent father.
Each day Aasia takes a taxi from her village to Pulwama, a city south of Srinagar, where she works as a trainee nurse. The ride is enlivened by the homespun philosophizing of the talkative driver (Bilal Ahmad), who makes light of the constant ID checks and roadblocks manned by humorless soldiers, but Aasia is too tired and stressed to appreciate the pseudo-poetic banter. For months she’s been dutifully going to the local government bureau every other day to ask for a death certificate for her husband Mustaq, who was arrested seven years earlier by the Indian military and hasn’t been heard from since. And for months she’s been given the same run-around by the registrar (Ajay Chourey) who conveniently (for the audience) explains the situation to Aasia as if he’s never said it before. He wants two things: for her to sell his friend the tiny parcel of land she can claim if her husband is legally declared dead — he’ll pocket 20% of the price — and he’s pressuring her to sleep with him.
Legally, Mustaq can be declared dead after four years, but the registrar, embodying a corrupt bureaucracy in which unchecked power sits is in the hands of bullies, treats the office as a personal fiefdom from which there’s no recourse. Aasia herself is torn: She feels in her heart that her husband is alive and rotting in jail, but the only way she can improve her life is to have him declared dead. She has a suitor (Ahsan Bismul) who’s waited three years for a change in her status, yet it’s unclear whether she has any feelings for him.
It’s tempting to say Morchhale denies Aasia the comfort of emotional companionship in order to critique a world in which women aren’t allowed to fall in love, but the script is too weak to make a statement of this sort one way or another. Determined to reveal the devastating consequences of an immoral and lethal patriarchy, it’s scrubbed of nuance and dimensionality, reducing every role to a stock figure designed to embody a generic experience gathered from “the many true stories of half-widows of Kashmir,” as the film announces at the start.
Audiences will want to know more about Aasia, thanks largely to Marwaha’s quiet, dignified performance — she’s one of only two professional actors in the film — yet no one is accorded psychological space outside very limited parameters. Her colleague (Tahmida Akter) is the only person with glimpses of complexity, but too often her lines are overburdened with platitudes. Although there’s a certain perverse satisfaction at the end, it’s too slight to make up for the feeling that while we might feel instructed by this glimpse into the nightmare bind faced by these half-widows, like countless other half-effective social problem films, the issues raised leave little residue.
Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah also shot Morchhale’s previous feature “Walking With the Wind,” and his widescreen lensing is the film’s chief drawing card, sensitive to splashes of color against earthen backgrounds and the ways tonalities set each other off. It’s too well-meaning to feel like poverty porn, but it’s a charge that may be hard to escape.