One of the earlier passages of Walter Benjamin’s elegiac meditation on the art of storytelling captures the essence of the cherished art form. The fourth “stanza” of that piece begins with an observation: “An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers.” The pragmatic dimension of narrative is not reduced to providing explanation, Benjamin remarks, but to move it from “living speech” to think of possible transformations, to explore “epic truth.” Mainly known for its lament about the loss of story-telling in the age of fragmented information, Benjamin’s essay reminds the reader that a story awakens the truth through its imaginative trajectories, inviting the listeners to explore new thresholds, to see “a new beauty” in the forgotten past and to be open to new forms of truth. The gift of crafting imagination without trapping it in given forms sets storytelling apart from the succeeding forms including the novel and the media.
In the traditions of North Indian cultures, from the Pathans to Punjabis, the art of storytelling acquired a unique etymology in qissa. For the Punjabi culture, qisse became the oars for navigating the complex waters of life. Many a family gatherings or a yaaro’s ki mehfils were enlivened with the qisse pumping through the veins. Qisse contain the potency invested by Benjamin in storytelling. They evolve, mold, and follow uncharted paths, from the everyday to the profound. They adapt to the practical contingencies of life. Qisse grow and transform with the pulse of their times and their imaginative powers. Qisse can draw margins but they can also open up and expand thoughts. In their essential spirit, they keep thinking alive.
Anup Singh’s Qissa is draped simultaneously in a tale of a Punjabi man, the social realities of gender issues, and in the figure of a ghost that moves the narrative to a realm of new thoughts. He forges the spirits of Benjamin’s faith in storytelling, the dynamic traditions of qisse, the cinematic powers of imagination, and the necessity of social critique of the struggle between orthodoxy of tradition and gender issues.
Anup Singh’s Qissa is one of the most challenging and eloquent films I have seen from India in recent years. It defies taboos and shocks the spectator. It leaves you uneasy, shaken and displaced from comfort. At times, it leaves you confused. It is a mature film framed in complex narrative motifs, perhaps difficult for an audience who struggles with cinematic abstraction. But it is a formidable cinematic treat. As the reviews so far make it evident, the film is dismissed as an artistic indulgence with little consequences either for cinema or for the rigidity of mores that it challenges. But the film comes from a different world, from new thresholds of image and narrative, from a time of qisse and storytelling defined by nimble and potent narratives that draw their own limits and expand their own horizons. In this process, qisse kept the cultures alive, breathing and ready for change.
Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan) leaves his home in Pakistan, full of bitterness and vengeance at his loss, but determined to make it back in India after the trauma of the partition in 1947. As he leaves, he poisons the well in his house with a dead body so the new occupants, the Muslims, may be poisoned. When his wife gives birth on the “battlefield” of displaced migrants, the father of two girls refuses to step forward to see the new child. “I have seen enough girls,” he says. Umber establishes himself as a successful businessman in the Indian part of Punjab. As he waits for his next child, Umber is stubborn and steadfast in his faith that it will be a son. His sense of manhood depends on having a son. When his wife Meher (Tisca Chopra) gives birth to their fourth child, Umber refuses to admit that it is a girl. He names the child Kanwar (Prince). Meher’s words are drowned in his vain pronouncement that for him, he has a son.
So intense is Umber’s desire to have a son that he forces that gender on Kanwar. His wife, his daughters, the family and the community are commanded to follow suit. He ignores the physical signs in Kanwar’s body and all that matters to him is her outward appearance. When a grown up Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) plays with a gypsy girl, traps her in a shed overnight and is found with her next morning, Umber jumps at the opportunity to marry him off to the girl, Neeli (Rasika Dugal). He even insists that the couple “produce an offspring” to make believers out of everyone. His single-minded devotion to insisting on his daughter’s male sexuality drives him to a shocking transgression, one that finally drives Kanwar to stop her father in his violence. After saving Neeli from her father’s unspeakable indiscretion, the two break away from the family to survive on their own.
Away from Umber’s clutches, Kanwar and Neeli are free to discover the dilemmas of their gender identities. The uncharted territory of their sexualities cracks open the tense reservoir of emotions that find a range of feelings in their minds, on their faces and bodies. It is in this scene that Anup Singh presents the most complex and patiently ambiguous visual and aural tapestry of cinematic richness. Here, the narrative rests delicately in that intermediate space where the two women, their sexualities silenced, explore a new language for their relationship. Neeli says, “We are two women. Friends. Sisters.” But there is no name for their relationship. To name it is to limit it. It is to fall for another form of orthodoxy. The prison of language circumscribes the limits of being.
The scene is no less a reminder of another one of Benjamin’s thoughts voiced in the mystical context of his essay, “On Language as Such and the Language of Man.” There, he reflects that the language of thought, a mystical notion for Benjamin, loses its power once it enters the social being; the responsibility, then, is to recognize it and to keep it alive. Naming this relationship between two women, as some reviewers have done (it isn’t ‘androgynous,’ or ‘odd,’ or ‘shocking,’ or ‘queer’ ) or, as many a liberal minded filmmakers have done elsewhere, falls short of the wisdom of the ambiguity in Anup Singh’s film. Such gestures foreclose the fluidity and the possibilities of transformation in the realm of social discourse. These two women, sensually finding comfort in each other’s presence but surrounded by trauma, are discovering the poetry of the moment. Kanwar and Neeli are not entirely at ease. Kanwar’s gestures are tense, shifting between anxiety and liberation. Neeli steps forward to provoke joy in Kanwar, her gestures seeking a response. Neeli, already a woman, enters another state of being in the presence of her groom/bride. Her body projects a sensual, joyous comfort while also inviting Kanwar to know herself the way she hasn’t known herself before. Kanwar is on the outer margins of that realm where she can discover her sexuality, but is contained by the limits placed her father. Anup Singh brings Qissa to the realm of a new language, but entirely mindful that it is yet to be written or rather, that it shouldn’t, and cannot be written. For a society so trapped in the strict polarities of gender, it is a thoughtful gesture, not a prescriptive one. In their performances, Tillotama Shome (Kanwar) and Rasika Dugal (Neeli) deploy that as-yet-unknown thought with the nuanced fecundity of their bodies. It is a truly precious scene, holding within it the soul of a qissa and also of cinema that speaks without speaking, and shows without showing.
From the lyricism of this scene, the narrative of Qissa takes a turn. The film moves to a meditative realm not found in the narrative of Umber’s life. The troubled daughter raised as a son, now discovering herself with a woman meant to be her wife, must now confront the forces that brought her here. Singh adapts the device of a ghost that works simultaneously as a narrative element firm in the beliefs of the community, and a cinematic screen that brings contrition and reflection to the cultural and family crises.
Kanwar returns to her family home to see her mother, only to find the house burnt to ashes, and her sister Baali traumatized and haunted by the family’s tragedy. Here, Kanwar encounters Umber Singh’s ghost. Her confrontation with her father makes for the second scene of poignancy. Kanwar’s sexuality, now disclosed, troubles Neeli’s family and the villagers, while it puts Umber’s ghost on a path to seek his own complex redemptive discovery. The Tale of a Lonely Ghost lingers on as a cinematic voice to appeal to Neeli’s soul: “Grief ages even a creature like me,” he says. The ghost can bring the past and the present together; it mediates between the events and the cause, between the seen and the unseen, and between oppression and liberation. The figure of the ghost, as everything else in this film, demands a cinematic sensibility outside of preconceived, realist norms and expectations. The ghostly qualities of the ghost are visibly mortal, while his space and time are well beyond his corporeal existence. It certainly isn’t a ghost of popular imagination. In his address to Neeli, the ghost says, “How many times do I have to live to tell this tale? Neither a man, nor a woman. Neither a human, nor a ghost.” The ghost is a transferrable figure, a permeable screen that moves between one point in the narrative to the other. Not attached to a particular time or character, the ghost instead functions as a figure of tradition that looms large over all the characters and indeed the culture.
Umber’s contrition-tinged soliloquy is addressed to Neeli and not to Kanwar. His superstition for preferring a son to a daughter brought injuries to a woman, abusing her in a forced marriage, in the violent transgression on her body, and for suffocating her only relationship in a marriage. He could have been contrite to his own daughter who was made into a son. But his contrition to Neeli is addressed to the gender of women against whom the injustice of gender preference is directed. It includes contrition to Kanwar, his wife, and his three daughters. By placing the qissa of a Punjabi man caught in the pain of partition; by his abilities to inflict harm in displacing others from their zones of comfort; and by using the figure of the ghost to bring together the threads of the past and the present, Anup Singh’s film holds a mirror to a culture that still suffers from the trauma, though the mirror is held at a distance. The trajectory of this qissa remains open to its narrators. It is either to think of a distant tale from a forgotten and ghost-ridden past or as an allegory that speaks to the present.
The stunning chilliness with which Irrfan Khan portrays Umber makes the tyrannical oppression of his positions that much more fearsome. He is steely, graceful and majestic in his carnal self, burdened and vulnerable in his ghostly role. Watching Irrfan Khan has become an exercise akin to reading a book; there is a wealth of discoveries to be made between the covers and in the pages. His familiar face is fully capable of causing shocks as it is in registering them. He uses his voice as an instrument of multiple registers. When Umber tells Meher that he will have a son, he is a soldier of patriarchy. When he returns to his old house in Punjab, his voice comes from a deep slumber of anguish. Irrfan Khan’s acting fortitude is complemented by a very capable cast, led by Tillotama Shome as Kanwar and Rasika Dugal as Neeli. Tisca Chopra’s Meher is luminous as a mother and honest in her portrayal of a compliant and troubled wife of a stubbornly oppressive but loving father to her children.
Cinematographer Sabastian Edschmid’s light and color palette for the film seems to adapt the “Storaro principle” that light makes sculptures in space out of the objects, characters, and bodies. Crafted in meticulous frames, with objects lit on surfaces and contours, with darker tones in depths of spaces of frames, Qissa is filmed to create a lasting impression of color and figures. Cinematographer’s scrupulous control over light gives life to objects on the screen, while also painting the film with depth and time. Singh’s vision and Edschmid’s eyes make Qissa into a treasured cinematographic document. The script, written on silent but deeper wounds of an unspeakable but living injustice is committed to its economy and its focus. There is no wasted line, and no wasted scene in its unraveling. Voiced in euphonious Punjabi, the script layers the image for cinephile’s admiration.
A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Anup Singh is known for his earlier film, a tribute to the great Indian director, Ritwik Ghatak. This documentary, Ekti Nadir Naam/The Name of a River, appears to be available online. Constructed imaginatively on a central conflict of the partition that preoccupied “Ritwickda,” it is a rare breed of a fictional documentary that allows Singh to traverse between the films of Ghatak and the literary, mythological and cultures figures of India. The film positions a crucial motif in Ghatak’s work, the river that witnessed the partition as a spatial and allegorical device to understand the traumas of history. In his nod to the events of the partition and in the image that speaks well beyond its narrative logic, Qissa acknowledges Singh’s debt to Ghatak.
In the images of the film, he appears to invoke preoccupations of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. The near-permeable layers between the real and the imagined structured around the presence of the ghost allow Singh to seek an image different from that of narrative realism. This is an impressive and bold experiment in constructing an image on two levels. First, it moves the ontology of the image away from its realist precepts, yet withholding it from its outer-worldly dimensions. The ghost of Umber is not in the realm of the supernatural; it isn’t experimental or abstract. It is a cinematic figure; it cuts across time and space, its situated-ness in one pointing to a different dimension. Second, by anchoring this image in a narrative, a living qissa, Anup Singh, negotiates new spectatorial spaces. The image of the film does not assume a pre-given position of the spectator (as in realist, narrative cinema). The validity of the image does not depend on the spectator’s perception. There is something in between, a mysterious space for cinema where we can find new images and new spectators. This intermediate space between the image and spectator animated the practical and conceptual worlds of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. They both sought a cinematic aesthetic grounded in something other than the dualities of Western perception (In the West, such pursuit preoccupies philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for whom overcoming this dualism leads to the intermediate space between the subject and the object–the flesh). Anup Singh has taken a big step in moving these pursuits to a different kind of cinema, finding a new image while also seeking a new spectator. This, in part, may explain the admiring yet puzzled reception of the film that cannot find it as accessible as mainstream narrative cinema. That, in addition to its many distinct achievements, may be the lasting legacy of the film.
The film premiered in TIFF in 2013, at IFFR in 2014, IFFLA in 2014.
It is streaming on NFDC website
The film is not yet released on DVD in the U.S.