Director Anup Singh’s intriguingly-titled ‘Qissa: Story of a Lonely Ghost’ arrived in London this week, screening at the London Indian Film Festival, nearly a year after its world premier at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The film has won a slew of awards and won praise for its director and star Irrfan Khan.
Twelve years in the making, ‘Qissa’ finally happened following the backing of Match Factory, a Germany-based financier and distributor of Art House films and whose previous projects include such acclaimed fare as ‘Waltz with Bashir’ and the Palm d’Or-winner ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives’. Match Factory’s involvement is then said to have attracted the likes of India’s National Film Development Corporation and Cine Sud. Sangeeta Datta went to find out more.
‘Qissa’ compels, disturbs, haunts and leaves a residual experience as few contemporary films can.
With its infallible pace which strikes an epic note, director Anup Singh tells a formidable tale which is grand, sombre, tragic and surreal.
Drawing from collective family tales of the Punjab partition and displacement in 1947, the prequel opens with dark premonitory shades as communal violence erupts and Sikh families prepare to leave their villages.
Men guard their homes from the hills as women and children hide in the valleys. Umber Singh’s wife Mehar gives birth to their third child, a daughter, in the open. The next day the family must lock up their ancestral home and leave. The camera views the departure scene through a series of bare, thorny trees, a stream of humanity leave their homeland – womenfolk on bullock carts, men on foot, an eerie silence settles as the village empties out.
Four years later, Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan) is settled in India with his wife (Tisca Chopra) and three children. Umber is obsessed about a male child and when his wife delivers her fourth girl-child, he flies against nature and announces he has a son.
Umber is scarred with the drama of partition, in denial of truth and obsessive about his fantasy. Kanwar (Tilottama Shome) is raised as a boy and taught wrestling and truck driving.
Kanwar grows with repressed truth and stifles under his father’s love.
Umber beats his daughters mercilessly when Kanwar falls and breaks his leg. Kanwar is married off to a low caste girl, Neeli, who is soon told that her husband is impotent. When threatened violence reaches monstrous scales, Kanwar shoots his beloved father.
Thereafter the narrative shifts into a nebulous realm of truth/fantasy, real/ dream, death/life, male/female. When Neeli learns Kanwar is a girl she offers to give her love and protection. Kanwar’s fractured identity leads to a supernatural end when father seemingly devours the son and becomes him.
Under the full moon bathing the village fields, the ghost lurks around Umber’s house, his ancestral village home, seeking forgiveness and salvation.
With its deep unsaturated images, lingering music, rhythmic performances, Qissa offers a narrative both sublime and grotesque. The male narrative of patriarchal authority is subverted by the androgynous Kanwar. For the latter there is no salvation as the creature floats in a strange no-man’s land, between male and female selfhoods, between time zones and physical spaces.
Compelling cinematography (Sebastian Edschmid), striking light and set design (Tim Pannen) create spaces which the characters inhabit, sometimes like portraits in which glances and gestures speak volumes.
Beatrice Thiriet’s stirring score never overwhelms but throbs like heartbeats in a dream.
Irrfan Khan creates complex emotions and carries the viewer with him. The women are amazingly real, Tilottama Shome (whom director Anup Singh describes as “ the most courageous and the most fearful at the same time”) plays out the repressed and fractured Kanwar.
Rasika Dugal as Neeli sears the screen and Tisca Chopra (Mehar) delivers a powerful performance. Most striking is the consistent pacing of the film, a narrative treatment that prefers the image without any superficial manipulations.
Hailing from a family displaced by the Punjab partition, Anup Singh’s epic narrative powerfully underlines the destructive intolerance of patriarchy. The 1947 partition and displacement left its collective scars, it is this scarred psyche that Manto explored in his fiction and Ritwik Ghatak exposed in his films. Patriarchy is such a powerful system that it forces others to collude and in this narrative we see the women cave in to Umber’s ferocious obsession and delusion.
While discussing the film over tea in London, Anup Singh told me: “The film actually grew out of exchanging stories. With the cast and crew we told each other our stories. So the film should also compel the audience to tell their stories, release their ghosts”.
Screenings in Toronto and Bombay have elicited overwhelmingly emotional responses from viewers as it did with the diverse London audience.
What of his own views about androgyny?
“Growing up as a young Sikh boy (with long hair) amidst many sisters often made me feel physically unsure of what this concept of maleness was. Later of course there is the turban ceremony and a sort of formal initiation into manhood. In a male world sadly there is no tolerance or space for androgyny or otherness”, he told the audience following the London screening.
Towards the end of the film, when we suspend belief, and from the lake in the desert father returns as son, the nature of ‘Qissa’ or folklore takes over.
The director explains, “I had to struggle with my European producers to retain the end. I believe in the power of the image which can tell its own story, it needs no logic to explain it. I wanted to blur the borders between physical and psychological spaces, between gender divides, the probable and improbable.”
As the surreal takes over and buried ghosts rise, ‘Qissa’ points from the past to multiple atrocities of intolerance in the world we live in.
The haunting images, as from a dreamlike fable, are still in my head. ‘Qissa’ will stay with me for a long time.