23 February 2015

Through a glass, darkly: a view of Qissa

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday: 

Yes, it's in Punjabi and you'll probably need the English subtitles, but Anup Singh's striking, stately film might just be the most original thing you'll see in Indian cinemas this year.

Kanwar's father teaches him all the important things about being a boy: how to shoot wild bears, how to drive a truck, how to look away when your sisters are being beaten up. 

Except Kanwar isn't a boy. She's a girl. 

After having sired three daughters, Umber Singh decides that his fourth child will be a son. And so when the baby is born, he refuses to countenance the truth. Kanwar's truth will henceforth be what Umber Singh says it is. And yet, can fate be so simply undone? 

Anup Singh's Qissa, which finally releases in theatres, online and on DVD this week after having been completed in 2013, is a brilliant, haunting film: one that will continue to unfurl in your mind's eye long after it has finished playing out on the screen. For one, it contains images of startling beauty -- a group of women delivering a baby out in the open, in the otherworldly glow of several small fires; a child being hoisted down into the depths of a well; a village gathered in clapping, raucous joy round a Lohri bonfire; a child watching a mother bathe, spellbound by the loveliness of her long hair descending wetly down her naked back. (For these we should thank the film's German cinematographer, Sebastian Edschmid). 

But the film also stays with you because of unforgettable performances from its actors (Irffan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Rasika Dugal and Tilottama Shome), who bring many layers to the tragic predicament of its characters: a whole family of women embalmed in a web of deceit by the chilling, desperate desire of a single man. 

While placing itself squarely in the historic setting of Partition, Qissa staunchly refuses a prosaic realism for something vaster and more affecting, something mythic. And even as a Partition tale, the film has none of the frenetic pace we have come to expect from the genre: even as the whole village hides out in the fields at night, or piles into bullock carts with makeshift gathris of their belongings, there is a slow, dreamlike deliberation to the proceedings. 

The most celebrated depictions of sub-continental 1947 violence have tended to make the madness seem nasty, brutish and short, a la Manto. There is, of course, something to be said for that view of things, but what Qissa is interested in is a longue duree view of Partition. In Anup Singh's haunting, oblique vision, Partition is not so much an eventful upheaval in people's physical lives as it is a terrible, long-term process of mental attrition. 

But what, you might ask, is the connection between Partition and Umber Singh's strange, dreadful decision to bring up his youngest daughter as his "put"? Is there one? This is too subtle a film to state anything overtly, and while some viewers might prefer their arguments to be hammered home, for me the film's power lay (at least partially) in its open-endedness. It is a quality that only a story can have; because a tale can feel true in ways that an argument could never manage to. 

Yet there are hints of the paths along which the film's makers might wish us to walk. Uprooted from everything he knew by an accident of history, a man makes up his mind that he will be the master of the rest of his fate. But what he wants from fate is a son to continue his line. So when fate deals him what he thinks is the wrong hand, he decides to try and cheat fate. He takes the poor child from the embrace of her mother (Tisca Chopra in a heartbreaking role), makes her bind her chest and do kasrat, and believe herself superior to her sisters. 

The film pits one man's indomitable will against the collective strength of his wife and daughters and daughter-in-law, and it would seem that the women come out the losers. But neither does Umber Singh win. 

What afflicts Umber Singh is a desire that most men in the subcontinent have been brought up to consider quite normal. By presenting that 'normal' desperation for a son as the madness it is, Qissa does something powerful to our sense of normality. The film challenges the normal in other ways, too: by setting up a convincing teenage flirtation between the tightly-coiled Kanwar (Shome) and the carefree gypsy girl Neeli (Dugal). The initial frisson between them has at least something to do with Neeli's 'low-caste' status as a kanjar, which would make her an 'inappropriate' mate for Umbar Singh's son - but it is what happens after Neeli discovers the truth that makes Qissa so remarkable. 

This is a film full of portents and symbols, objects that seem to suggest more than what they are. The poisoned well, the smoky mirror, the abandoned house and the newly-inhabited one, these are all lenses through which to view the tragedy that Qissa wishes us to see. But what refuses to be laid to rest is the ghost of our unfulfilled desires. Perhaps what we need is to dream new dreams.

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