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“Thinking I had just seen a moving Iranian film, I learnt that the film ‘Widow of Silence’ was from India!”

by Uma da Cunha

03-May-2019

This is what a well-known critic said at the Busan International Film Festival, about Praveen Morchhale’s ‘Widow of Silence’, possibly the most widely-travelled and prized festival film of the year. Made in Urdu and Hindi, the film has made an enviable impact on all who have seen it in India as well as far-flung international film festivals. This is Morchhale’s third and most successful film.

Uma da Cunha looks at this remarkably original, instinctive and talented writer-director-producer’s latest film.

Mumbai-based Praveen Morchhale is hailed by critics as an important filmmaker of the Indian new wave. After a few years of working as a film and theatre director, he made his feature debut with ‘Barefoot to Goa’ (2015). It is about a brother and sister (about six and ten years old respectively), who travel from Mumbai to Goa to visit their grandmother, abandoned by her uncaring son and daughter-in-law, and who is dying of cancer. His second feature, ‘Walking with the Wind’ (2017) screened internationally at several film festivals; winning the Best Film Award in Rome (Tertio Millennio Film Fest)  in 2017, and India’s National Film Award for Best Ladakhi Film, and for best sound design and sound mixing. The film is on Tsering, a 10-year-old living in the difficult Himalayan terrain. One day, he accidentally breaks his friend's school chair. He decides to bring the chair back to his village, but the seven-kilometre, mountainous journey on a donkey becomes dangerously arduous.

‘Widow of Silence’ is set in conflict-ridden Kashmir. It follows a Muslim ‘half-widow’, a woman whose husband has been missing indefinitely. She is in dire straits, at her wit’s end trying to obtain her husband’s death certificate from the authorities. Alongside this onerous task, she is solely responsible for her young daughter and ill mother-in-law and must find the strength to overcome her plight.

The film premiered at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival where Morchhale was nominated for the Kim Ji-seok Award. ‘Widow of Silence’ then screened in the International Competition section at the International Film Festival of Kerala and in 2019, Rotterdam’s ‘Voices’ segment. The film won the Best Film award both at Kolkata International Film Festival and the recent Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

“My script emerged after two location recces and living with Kashmiri locals for a week. Generally, I keep thinking about how various scenes will evolve, on which I make short notes. The final script falls in place by properly arranging these notes. Its natural flow comes when I write and arrange these scenes. Some might see this as a very odd way but it has worked for me for all of my three films”.

Morchhale likes to work in isolation and at lightning speed. From the initial concept to its final post-production, the film took just six months. He shot ‘Widow of Silence’ in 17 days. Morchhale writes his script and even its dialogue, first, in English and usually starts filming with his very first draft. Believing implicitly in on-set improvisation during the shoot itself, both script and dialogue develop naturally and smoothly on location.  The film’s dialogue stems naturally from the feelings which emanate from his characters. He adds, “Once I write dialogue in the language of the film like Urdu, the flavour and soul flow from the language itself”.


A still from ‘Widow of Silence’

He prefers his actors to be untrained locals from the region where his films are set. Except for his lead female actor, all others in ‘Widow of Silence’ were local villagers and workers of that region. For instance, the nurse featured in the film works at the local hospital, the driver was the man who drove the crew around in his van. Morchhale says, “I just spend a few minutes talking to the people whose face and manner I like. Based on that, I cast them as my actors. I look for the face that I have imagined for a particular role, and once I see it, I speak to them, and then make my decision”.

Morchhale never takes auditions or asks someone to enact a scene or say a few lines. For him, impromptu casting lends a certain freshness or lack of guile to the way he approaches his filmmaking. However, he realizes that this unrehearsed approach throws many an unexpected challenge, and also tests his patience. But finally, he feels that the performance given by non-actors trumps all else. He adds, “Take, for instance, the taxi driver in my film, Bilal who is a real-life taxi driver. He couldn’t deliver the role for two whole days and my entire team got increasingly nervous. However, I had deep faith in him. I liked his mannerisms, his eyes and personality, and kept goading him. From the third day, he started performing so smoothly that on a few occasions he needed just one take!”

Recently, Morchhale attended the Fajr International Film Festival in Iran, where ‘Widow of Silence’ played in International competition — the only film from India to compete in any category. From there, he travelled to Belgium to attend the MOOOV Film Fest.

Morchhale takes his fascination for the unknown forward in his next film, which is based on the life of a gravedigger he met in Kashmir. “Imagine, the gravedigger’s daughter was never told of what he did for a living”, shares Morchhale. “The father does the kind of work no one would ever think of doing. He lives in the shadows. From washing and cleaning up the dead to burying them, he does it all. He said something to me which has remained with me and is really the crux of my film. When I asked what his job means to him, he said, ‘I give dignity to the dead’”.

An edited version of this article originally appeared on the online daily newspaper thecitizen.in