Completed ten years after it received a seed grant from the Hubert Bals Fund, Qissa finally comes home to Rotterdam in its European premiere. An Indo-German co-production, ‘Qissa’ is a richly-realized tour-de-force that treats India’s partition of 1947 as a metaphor to explore its tragic consequences on a particular family, its displacement in physical space and within a larger moral universe. Umber Singh (magnificently played by Irrfan Khan) is forced to flee his lands when Sikh-Muslim riots break out in western Punjab. Fires consume the countryside in Sebastien Edschmidt’s hypnotic cinematography as Umber gathers his wife and daughters and prepares to leave the cherished homeland. In parting, he dumps the corpse of a dead Muslim into the family well. “Let them poison their own,” he mutters darkly. But a single drop fills the ocean and the poisoned well will corrupt the sea of time. There is no salvation in ‘Qissa’. Forced to wander the earth as the “lonely ghost” of the film’s title, India’s traumatic fissure lives on in Umber’s fractured consciousness.
Anup Singh traces his artistic lineage from his inventively maverick teacher Mani Kaul to the visionary poet of cinema, Ritwick Ghatak. These influences coalesce in Singh along with a broader, more European sensibility. Imagine the emotional wrenching of ‘Subarnarekha’ with the unpredictable bewitchment of ‘Duvidha’ and the wider painterly canvas of perhaps an Angelopoulos, and we have a taste of what awaits us in ‘Qissa’.
Irrfan Khan with consummate chameleon-like skill transforms himself into a feudal Punjabi-speaking Sardar as he did into a Bengali bhadrolok in Mira Nair’s ‘Namesake.’ His remarkable performance encapsules both gentleness and rage, quickfire whimsy and deep melancholy. He is sudden, magnetic, incendiary. It is the sureness of Anup Singh’s writing and direction that there are no easily typecast characters in ‘Qissa’, no simply served-up good or bad. While we may wish for Umber’s end so his women finally have their release, we never lose understanding of his inner demons. Umber Singh’s violence is emblematic both of the injustices of partition and the intolerance it breeds.
Umber’s wife is played with delicate grace by Tisca Chopra. A racing pulse in her cheek speaks volumes when she is denied words. In her agonizing cries at child birth- we become aware that she screams not just from physical pain, but in protest at the destiny of her unborn child- yet another daughter it will be, she knows, deep in her bones, and certain to be killed. For her husband has decreed that another daughter will not be tolerated. Umber Singh, in having lost everything he prizes, needs a male heir to justify his existence, indeed to renew it.
Instead of female infanticide which we expect and dread, Singh’s
screenplay fetches a breath-taking reversal. Umber does not examine the infant’s genetalia in the time-honored tradition of Indian fatherhood. Instead he swiftly swaddles his child and proclaims his jubilation at the birth of a son.
And so “Kanwar” is born. Played to the depths of her boy-girl soul in an extraordinarily textured performance from Tillotama Shome. Kanwar’s narrow and unquestionably feminine frame wilts with discouragement in one frame, blooms in determination in the next. Hers is the bright-eyed exultant excitement of learning to drive a truck (oh the empowerment!) and the shame and confusion of a girl’s first menstruation. It’s not the mother who is there for Kanwar at times like this, nor the older sisters. It’s her larger-than-life father, Umber, both terrifying and protective. Kanwar quickly realizes that interacting with her mother and sisters will only bring trouble. This is her sacrifice, the forsaking of an identity for the sake of family honour.
We watch Kanwar straining to be a young man, the daily dose of
callisthenics to which she submits without protest, which adds not the slightest sinew to her inevitably tender arms. Tillotama Shome develops a character gesture for her portrayal of Kanwar- a peculiar twist of the mouth that draws us into her inner states. That twist says it all- her dissonance with self, her deep rejection, her inner determination. Nothing at all is over-stated here. In this carefully cadenced screenplay a few deft strokes pull us along in a masterly sweep.
At the film’s premiere in New York at the South Asian International Film Festival, Tilottama Shome said, “I kept trying to be a man. I strode about and smoked lots of cigarettes. It didn’t feel right. Then Anup said,‘You’re not a man. You’re just someone trying very hard to please your father.’ I knew then what to do.”
It is exactly Kanwar’s difference, the boy’s femininity that draws the interest of the ‘gypsy girl’, Neeli, played by Rasika Dugal in another complex, multi-layered performance.
Rasika’s Neeli is playful, free-spirited and alluring. Hers is that mysterious principle of womanliness that Kanwar has been kept away since birth, the lilt of kajolled eyes, the teasing laughter, the gossip and giggles he’s seen in his sisters and longed for.
In the playful tussle that develops between Neeli and Kanwar it is the “woman” who is seductive and the “man” who is seduced. It is Neeli who challenges Kanwar, almost willing her kidnapping. An example of Singh’s complex characterization is the stroke of sudden cruelty he introduces in his protagonist. Kanwar, when he has Neeli in his power becomes an oppressor himself- he twists her arm with seeming impotent rage and locks her in the outhouse. For an instant we see the father in the son. If this were Bollywood we would have witnessed a passionate coming-together or perhaps a rape! But in the strange no-man/no-woman’s land of the film’s canvas we’re plunged instead to the depths of Kanwar’s physical and emotional confusion.
Sensing the gypsy girl’s attraction for his son, Umber forces their hand in marriage. This will be the final corroboration of his progeny’s manhood. Shakespearian in his obsession, and fatal in his flaw, Umber does not so much plot, as fall into committing a monstrous deed that will spiral the film to its inevitable and tragic denouement.
A word about lesbian love in ‘Qissa’: it’s quite unlike anything in international cinema. It’s as simple and as unquestioned as a natural occurrence. Neeli exclaims giggling, “To think I fell in love with a woman!” And Kanwar responds in kind, repeating the sentence. “To think I too fell in love with a woman!” We’ve become accustomed in the film to seeing Kanwar as the valiant girl-boy wearing over-sized shirts and a turban. It’s with shock we see her bare back, naked and trembling. That single image of the bare torso speaks with eloquent force of the sheer injustice that’s been done her all her years. We don’t need to see love-making to feel the eroticism. Kanwar with her hair down, long and free, is enough of an erotic shock: a beautiful young woman finally laying claim to her body.
If I have a quibble with ‘Qissa’ it is with the director’s decision to make this a supernatural tale. Ghost stories are common enough in Indian lore and that itself isn’t out of place. It’s well fabled that when there’s an untimely or violent death, the soul haunts the earth seeking vengeance and redemption. While the film opts for this supernatural trope, it would have been the stronger for remaining in the realm of the real in its quest for identity and love. For the ‘real’ in ‘Qissa’ is magically realized in any case. Robert Bresson said that a film’s beauty
lies not in its images but in the ineffable that they discharge. Qissa has no need for spectres. The ghost of a tragic Hamlet could well have been laid to rest. That Umber Singh will haunt his son Kanwar as long as he/she lives is a given.
Sebastien Edschmid’s sensuous cinematography and Beatrice Thiriet’s haunting musical score enhance the film’s ineffability. When the camera pans with Umber as he walks away from the lifeless female form and comes to rest on a shimmering nightscape the full moon reflected in the water, this shot which both begins and ends the film brings us full circle. Violence begets violence, and the ghosts of partition will never be laid to rest.