Dir.: Anup SIngh
Punjabi with English Subtitles.
The title of this film is evocative of a time gone by, of tales (Qissa/Kahania) being told in settings uninterrupted by technology, where the spoken words of the storyteller had a paralysing hold on us. To watch Qissa is to sink into that time and space again. Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost tells the tragic tale of a man named Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan), who is uprooted from his ancestral village in Pakistan and becomes a refugee across the border in India, when a line is drawn on a map by politicians and bureaucrats, carving out two countries from the living flesh of millions of human beings.
As the Sikh village of Umber Singh fights the muslims, the women and children are sent away into the woods and amidst this mayhem his wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) brings a life into the world, a girl child. Umber poisons the well in the village that night with a dead body and shrugs at the prospect of a curse which the village elders warn him about. The curse does fall upon him and it manifests itself in his obsessive compulsion to father a male child. Umber Singh becomes a prosperous lumber trader in India – an inherently destructive vocation and which thematically dovetails with the notion of a man torn apart by his rootlessness. He is forever uprooting trees, wrecking revenge on nature for the cruelty of its randomness.
Umber’s most destructive act however is to raise his fourth daughter as a boy, Kanwar (played by Danish Akhtar as a child and Tillotama Shome as adult), born in independent India.The scene of the birth of Kanwar is filmed with a fluid grace that epitomises the beauty of tragedy in the dramatic arts. As his daughter grows up Umber continues to live the lie with consequences for his entire family. The material destruction that his family escaped during partition comes back to subsume them much later. Anup Singh handles a complex subject with a lightness of touch, crafting a film that gently and firmly permeates our consciousness. The film touched a cord in me with the same history of a misogynistic society that I have encountered in my own Rajasthani ethnic milieu, with a long history of female infanticide.
Tilotamma Shome as Kanwar delivers a performance that is nuanced, brave and heart wrenching, it’s the birth of an extraordinary talent which can perhaps fill in the immense void of Smita Patil, which still handicaps a lot of good Indian films. Irrfan Khan delivers a performance that is haunting to say the least, this is another “finest” outing from him and a firm rebuttal of the criticism that he is a “one note” actor. The casting of Tisca Chopra as Umber’s wife is intriguing because her regal presence and the light of intelligence in her eyes is at odds with the passivity of her character as her husband pursues a path of madness.
The concept of ardhnarishwara or half male half female form of Shiva in Hinduism, who is a figure of destruction, torment and sacrifice, is embodied by the twin characters of Umber and Kanwar. The metaphysical and the iconography of Indian mythology in the film come together to create a portrait of Kanwar with a forced androgyny and severely conflicted emotions. When Kanwar flirts with a vivacious gypsy girl Neeli(Rasika Dugal) she is channeling a false machismo recently acquired while driving a truck under her fathers tutelage. Kanwar is seeking refuge in a male shell and when that shell cracks under the pressure of forced wedlock with Neeli, she is forced to confront issues greater than her sexuality.
The idea of an existential angst beyond the grave is framed beautifully with Kanwar saying the same words that the ghost of Umber utters at the beginning of the film. This lament of “Who am I, what am I”, applies equally to the question of whether Umber is Indian or Pakistani or later man or ghost, as much as it applies to the question of Kanwar’s gender and her sexuality. Anup Singh had the option of getting this film financed much earlier if he made it in Hindi, but this simple dialogue itself is proof that it was worth the wait and pain to make it in Punjabi.
Anup Singh deals with the theme of the destruction that fails to end long after people have been uprooted and reduced to being refugees but never foregrounds the physical violence of the times. In this regard he carries forward the legacy of his teacher, the legendary filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak whose life and work were singularly influenced by the pain of the Partition of Bengal. His previous film in Bengali, The Name of a River(2002), is a poetic essay about the artistry of Ghatak and one of the best homage to a filmmaker I have ever seen.
The film effectively uses a colour palette of scarlet and rust, which evokes the running rivers of blood at the time of partition, like a wound that has not healed and a passion that continues to burn like stubborn embers (note how this fits with the name of Umber).The two orifices that we see in the crane shot when Kanwar is lying motionless after falling off a small cliff and its highly symbolic meaning is no doubt the kind of accident that happens when a great work of art is being created. The technical excellence of this film which was made possible by an international crew is among the best I have seen in Indian art house cinema. The superb music in Qissa complements the folk tale feel of the film and remains firmly rooted in its Punjabi Sikh world.
Qissa deserves to be seen on the big screen in a very dark room with great sound and then again to soak in its rich detail and perfect pacing. I saw it on it’s Indian DVD at home, which had the censors blurring out the honesty of Tillotama Some’s performance and Anup Singh’s difficult artistic choices. Qissa took 12 years to make but ultimately it is a fully realised work, there is no department in which the viewer can find it lacking.
Anup Singh has created a work of art that should stand the test of time. It is good enough to beg the question “So how was it between Umber and Kanwar, when they met in the other world?”