In Aamir Bashir’s incredibly unnerving film, Maagh (The Winter Within), Kashmir comes stingingly alive as a place haunted by the despair of its past, immobilizing the present and any advances into the future. Bashir’s gaze on the place is stark and wholly stripped of any falsely earned melodrama or aesthetic indulgences. DP Shanker Raman, who’s also co-written the film, evokes the forbidding desolation of the snow-blanketed valley. The visual desertion almost suggests it’s a place beyond human mercies, where men have impunity in enforcing their own rules on the inhabitants in complicity with the State.
Nargis (Zoya Hussain) works as a house help for an affluent family to support herself as she looks for her missing husband, Manzoor, who had been detained by the security forces and since forth hasn’t returned home. Nor is there any news of his whereabouts. She wheedles the money out of her savings culled from her embroidery work on the cops for sharing any possible leads, who only further fleece her. Her relentless, desperate queries lead her only to dead ends. She has the devoted attention of a local, Yaseen, who helps her around and whose own romantic interest in her is barely disguised. Nargis loses her job when her employers allege and question her dubious links with the armed resistance struggle. When all hope seems lost, she moves back to her village, Yaseen tailing her there as well.
Murmurs start in her village, insinuating the nature of her relationship with Yaseen while she is still a married woman. Yaseen asks for her hand, but suddenly, one night, Manzoor turns up at her doorstep. He is all of twenty-nine, but his entire build has eroded into extreme haggardness, his very spirit utterly crushed. He remains dissociated and mute on all her queries, smoking away for hours on end. Slowly, the screenplay unfurls the many horrors that had been visited upon Manzoor when he was away under detention.
Bashir expertly digs into the knots of acute unease, building the throwaway nuggets of peeks into his past with terrifying suggestions. The full force of Manzoor’s trauma and the torture he may have endured comes gradually into startling plain view. There’s a chilling, effective section as Nargis learns of what might have been inflicted on Manzoor. Hussain is unforgettable as she processes it all.
The Winter Within is compelling but could have done with etching Nargis’s character beyond the slot of a ‘half widow.’ The excavation of the husband’s trauma becomes the film’s most glaring pursuit, which provokes thorny questions about the lens on Kashmiris that is fixated on only a singular, stubborn re-victimization circling their miseries and grief. However, a quietly bristling Zoya Hussain makes the film consistently watchable- superb as the distraught woman who finds herself cornered with barely any recourse to escape her situation.
There’s something indelibly striking about her presence and the weight of the anguish she draws out from Nargis’s complete, consuming, emotional, individual abandonment. Although her character feels underwritten in several places, wholly undergirded by the men surrounding her, Hussain charges this unforgiving, bleak drama with a powerful, probing gravity and dynamism.
In her piercing gaze directed at us, The Winter Within summons with scalding ferocity its punishing interrogation into the powers that predate each other in Kashmir. This is an undeniably potent film that dares to engage with the region’s crisscrossing fault lines and the casualties with uncompromising intensity and a measured, cutting rage.