Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Half Widow: A Whole New World . . .

More years ago than I care to count, I spent an unforgettable few days in Kashmir, Indian’s northernmost state. Based in Srinagar, I visited fabled gardens, stayed on a romantic houseboat docked on the local river, and gazed upward at towering mountain peaks. But the beauty of the region was offset by a sense of military wariness: Kashmir was and is disputed territory, claimed by both India and Pakistan. Both the beauty and the political tension of Kashmir are well displayed in a film directed and co-written by one of my former students, Danish Renzu.

Teaching Advanced Screenwriting workshops through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program has introduced me to a fascinating range of would-be writers. I teach online, so there’s an international flavor to many of my course rosters. I’ve had students from Australia, Greece, and Malaysia. I’ve read a sex scene set in Africa that bubbled up from  the imagination of a Jesuit priest who (after years of missionary work) now calls Dublin home.  I’ve encountered far-off places like Nepal from the perspective of aspiring writers who’ve lived and worked there. Through my students I’ve explored the world from many angles, and I feel enriched by what I’ve learned.

Danish Renzu comes from India. A native Kashmiri, he’s so determined to make his mark as a filmmaker that he has crossed land and sea to settle in Southern California. By the time I got to know him, he had acquired a full repertoire of cinematic skills. But he wanted to tune up one of his screenwriting projects, and I enjoyed giving my input on what was working and what was not. (That very timely project, called Illegal, deals with an immigrant from India who’s forced to live below the radar in California once his educational plans fall through. Danish plans to shoot this script in the near future.)

Meanwhile, after making several prize-winning short films, Danish has put forth his first feature, Half Widow. (It’s only fair to mention his producer and co-screenwriter Gaya Bhola, who like Danish has dedicated herself for years to this labor of love.)  Half Widow, apparently the first feature to be shot in Kashmir by Kashmiris, looks closely at the life of a young woman named Neela who suffers from a grim fate that was not uncommon at the time of Kashmir’s 1999 Kargil War. Neela is happily married and expecting her first child when the local militia swoop down and arrest her husband on no particular charges. From what we’ve seen of him, he’s apolitical and totally innocent, but Neela’s desperate efforts to find and free him are all in vain. Matters go from bad to worse: she loses her baby, her devoted younger brother is also jeopardized, and she can find no value in her own life. But when an international delegation of female journalists approaches her for an interview about what it’s like to be categorized as a half-widow, Neela realizes it’s up to her to resurrect her life and tell her husband’s story. So a film that deals in anguish ends with a genuine sense of hope, showing how someone can survive the unthinkable and move on.

Half Widow, shot in increments during several trips to Kashmir, has inspired a fan base that turned out in force at a recent Santa Monica screening. It has been featured at festivals both in India and the U.S., winning such prizes as the Audience Choice Award at the Seattle International Film Festival. I feel great pride that a former student of mine is turning into a filmmaker to reckon with.

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