The 28th Kolkata International Film Festival is full of surprises, both in feature films and short films including documentaries. One of these is a significant documentary titled Nybreum – The Unsettled Shade directed by the young and beautiful Neha Bhavini Sharma. The film deals with the unknown and untouched subject of bride-trafficking of young girls all the way from West Bengal to Kashmir.

"For me, it dispelled the reality of Kashmir being beautiful, regal and romantic forever when I chanced upon this subject during a family trip through a woman I met who spoke in Bengali, was dark-skinned and did not know much of the local Kashmiri language," says Neha, a techie turned independent filmmaker, with an extensive career in Content Management. She has worked with various IT majors in India and EU. Homeschooled in Libya in her childhood, she is based in Chandigarh where she majored in English from Panjab University.

Bride trafficking is essentially a form of forced slavery for women. According to the renowned jurist Andrea Dworkin: "The Genesis of any slave system is found in the dynamics, which isolate slaves from each other, obscure the reality of a common condition and make united rebellion against the oppressor inconceivable".

According to Niteesh Kumar Upadhyay's paper Bride Trafficking in India – Aspects, Causes and Potential Solutions, (Brics Law Journal, Volume VIII (2021) Issue 3) "Bride Trafficking is a long-standing evil in society that can be classified as a crime against humanity because it violates the rights, dignity and the liberty of the victims involved. Bride trafficking is so deep rooted in society that providing accurate figures is extremely difficult since it is often impossible to track down and trace individual incidents of bride trafficking."

According to Sharma, "Nybreum - The Unsettled Shade explores the dark side of human trafficking, a niche segment within the industry called bride-trafficking (based solely on religion) between Kashmir and Kolkata taking place over the last three decades in the Valley. This lesser-known practice is something we do not associate with Kashmir considering the romanticism that revolves around the Valley owing to its nature's bounty."

However, while bride-trafficking is a flourishing trade in other parts of India which functions as a chain where the same girl is trafficked again and again, in Kashmir, it is different. Sharma says that in other states, bride trafficking is mainly caused because the skewed sex-ratio is heavily tilted against women and men who cannot afford to marry traditionally, buy "temporary brides" at "affordable prices" like Rs.10,000. Marrying a Kashmiri woman would cost the local Kashmiri man much more in terms of mehr.

"This also suggests a 'de-classing of the men' who 'marry' women brought from other states. In Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the girls, usually very young, are sold by the husband himself or by his family again to another buyer. But in Kashmir, the situation is different.

Agents from distant Bengal simply abduct or kidnap the very young girls at a price fixed by the parents. But the parents are often not paid the mutually agreed upon price money by these agents," she said.

The women interviewed in the film now have Muslim names like Haseena, Fehmida, Ruby and Mashquoora as they are married to Kashmiri Muslims. Most of them say that they were kidnapped and abducted as teenagers and had no idea what was happening to them.

They are hardly ever included within the larger community of Kashmiri Muslim men and women because "we do not know their language, they do not know our language, we are dark skinned and plain looking unlike them who are very fair-skinned and beautiful." But when the interviewing local journalist asks them whether, given the choice, they would go back home to West Bengal, they say "no" because they now have children and are settled in their new homes and have no idea whether to begin afresh. The camera keeps focusing on their sad, plain faces.

One of them smiles and says that her husband loves her very much and brings in whatever she asks for and the husband, seated beside her, smiles widely into the camera. We can see small children running around and the women busy in their chores but not hesitant in facing the camera.

The problem is that the entire State is in a position of denial, indicating that the problem of bride-trafficking just does not exist. Left in a no-exit situation, the women have also tried to adjust but some of them feel miserable separated from their original families in West Bengal with no hope of seeing their near ones again.

When some of the women are asked why they did not go to the local police, they say that the police do not understand the language they speak, and they do not understand the language the police communicate in. The saddest part of the story that the women are not even aware that their lives have been reduced to lifelong slavery, and that they are forced migrants with no one to turn to in difficult times and have no clue of having been trafficked.

Sharma makes no attempt to dramatise the sad stories of these women and tells her story as-is, inviting the audience to draw its own conclusion. The technical aspects are covered just so because the new director has tried her best to stick to facts and nothing more, nothing less.

"Being trafficked is not the only issue but episodes such as these are only the beginning of a victim's woes that last a lifetime. Racial discrimination, strong social condemnation, a questionable sense of belonging despite inhabiting the Valley over several years, and the sheer injustice of being brought to an alien land without much choice but only via various modes of deception are matters that have been overlooked way too long," said Sharma.