'Qissa' is the tale of Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan), a Punjabi man displaced from his home during the India-Pakistan partition. The patriarch of his household, Umber has faced the brunt of shame as he has only bore three daughters. He wishes his next to be a boy and when it is another girl, he brands her a boy in his depressing madness. His wife and children follow along with this hoax as Kanwar is raised as his only son.
Now older, Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) falls for a gypsy girl Neeli (Rasika Dugal) and their marriage is set. But the dark truths of the family threaten to destroy the existence of poor Kanwar's identity. What will happen to Kanwar once she discovers the truth? And what is the ghost that haunts her and how far is it willing to go? Is what forms the crux of the film.
Riveting and thought provoking, 'Qissa' is a worthy watch if only to understand the dynamics of gender relationships and the ideas of gender crisis during a time of patriarchal dominance. It is the tale of refugees and a probing feature on Post-Partition Punjab and India.
Having luckily seen this gem of a Punjabi language film at Whistling Woods International School of film making, I was put into a complicated situation. The film acts as can be best described as somebody twisting a knife into your gut and finally pulling it out violently.
Critically it takes hefty concentration to dissect and also avoid the pitfalls of understanding and conforming to director Anup Singh's own attention to his film. He along with his three actors (Shome, Tisca Chopra and Rasika Duggal) took to a lively Q&A session after the screening. Thus possibly forming some of my opinions on the confounding bits of the film. Not a good thing, when you want to objectively criticize a film.
Still let me try.
For much of its runtime, 'Qissa' becomes a chilling story about gender identity. The opening scene establishes our lead characters stance, a man forced to fend off and eventually run off from his ancestral home due to the acts of violence perpetrated by partition of religions. His third child is born to his wife in the midst of the violence, another daughter. A mark of shame and indication that he may never have a fruitful lineage after him.
Next he is in Punjab, India, now awaiting his fourth child whom he is sure is his boy. When its not, his madness takes over and he declares it so. Raising his fourth daughter as a boy in chilling fashion. One particular scene comes to mind as the growing Kanwar awakens his father in the night and declares that he is bleeding from below, his father joyously says that finally his son is a man.
Yet despite all this, it isn't gender identity in its conventional definition that underlines the film but rather the divide that creates the idea of partition. As director Anup Singh put it forth in his interview later on, his film is necessarily about the divisions between a country and religions and then between a family and genders but eventually about reality and fantasy.
It's a powerful theme that is constantly reoccurring through the narrative as each character carries the burden of Umber's lies especially the somewhat confounded Kanwar (Shome) at a later stage. Her own identity crisis prevails at the heart of the story for much of the run-time and takes off once he falls for a gypsy girl Neeli (Duggal).
There's great parallels and dichotomy to the situation at hand. Here is a persona thrust upon another gender association and sexual orientation altogether due to the misconstruction of truth and the idea of falsehood that has become her living. It makes Kanwar especially hard to identify.
It of course becomes a vicious cycle for the immensely unlikeable Umber, who realizes that even though his lie worked, it will not continue his legacy for any longer. A constant symbolism of circles prevailing, with wells and Umber continuously reiterating this tale to his dead daughter in law as a ghost stuck in limbo.
Such that he finally deals with this disassociation and cyclical issue, by physically doing what he has mentally done to Kanwar, attempting to rape his daughters wife.
Harsh scenes that give you the idea of the kind of gender dynamics that are in play within the household, that reflect as a microcosm of period India and sadly today's India in some parts. A particular scene between Meher (Tisca Chopra as Umber's wife) and Neeli, where she puts it as 'If you are happy, then Kanwar (her son) will remain so'. The sadly ideal image of a woman's role in life.
Once Umber is gone the film may feel a bit wayward and without direction but all it is, is a red herring and that is when the title comes to effect. Now burdened with having killed the man she loved and aware of her true identity, Kanwar is forced to move away from home. She is tormented by the truth and now finds it poisonous living as any piece of herself. It causes the partition that oft becomes the symbol for Anup Singh's film.
Kanwar thrust into living an existence against all that she has been indoctrinated too. To be a "man" and now move toward a freedom of choice, creating harsh and dueling ideology.
It's when she returns home one day that she finds a darker fate awaits her. Kanwar is pushed to the edge by the death of her remaining family and the presence of her father's ghost. Supernatural elements like Singh explained to me personally, are a symbolism of the old folk tales he used to hear. The 'Qissa' as he puts it.
Allowing the director to flow through on another sensory level to engage the audience and break through the barriers of any identification Kanwar might have. Eventually devastated by the haunted specter, Kanwar is voluntarily taken over by it to save her own wife Neeli. Umber now having ripped out anything she resembled, essentially finally completing his heinous act of raping his daughter in a metaphorical sense.
It's where the film can really throw you off balance. The inclusion of supernatural felt initially a bit unwarranted, considering that till that point the film felt like a deconstruction of gender dynamics and focused on Kanwar's tribulations. Yet whether it be because of the directors say so, or my long pondering and dissection of the film, there's not other justifiable way the film would make sense.
Especially since I'm a firm believer of the ideology that the director's intentions should form the foundation of a films criticism. It's a hooky concept when in relation to Qissa, as I don't believe in the judgment of including the supernatural. Though it works because justifiably it once again juxtaposes two ends of a partition between reality and fantasy, while becoming a powerful metaphor for the idea of ones stolen existence by an act of violence. The kind that ironically Umber goes through by the way of partition and ends up committing on his daughter.
The supernatural element at hand is hard to swallow, but just know this that not everything need be logically explained. Sure it may be a lazy viewpoint, but considering the kind of lazy illogical cinema produced in mainstream Hindi/Indian cinema and worldwide, this one's worth hanging onto just for the greater message it deflects.
This element is however wonderfully supported by the vast canvas the cinematography works across. Capturing not only the stunning beauty of Punjab's greenery as well as harsh terrains but also a sense of myth and darkness to its characters. The lighting reveals a lot of the situations including one of the most wonderfully composed shots as Kanwar now aware of her gender lies in a woman's dress beside Neeli. The duo being possibly the closest we have seen them, but Kanwar tortured and shrouded by shadows perfectly feeling all alone.
Not to forget a score that is aptly matched to the tones of a horror film. Pulsating underneath the tension that the film builds upon and electrifying within the household of this family that just like in a horror movie buries some dangerous secrets.
Coming to the performances, what can one say that hasn't already been said about the immense screen presence of Irrfan Khan. The lauded actor is again on top notch form. He is the perfect foil to the tale and he is in essence its eyes, covering gaps to his character conveniently. He deftly peels a layer of a man you come to hate but somewhat frustratingly understand. He's just a bigger part of the gender issue that pervades through the sub-text of the feature.
His eyes speak haunting volumes of a man burdened by shame, eventual madness and a stark harsh endless cycle of violence and despair. Even by the end of the film he never leaves his audiences mind like a ghost (pun intended).
Tisca Chopra is fantastic as the mother, who is thrust into a situation she sadly has no control off. Cowering like a docile mother, her most emotionally ripping scene when her own daughter Kanwar questions where her love went for her. It's a harsh scene that probably lets her convey the last fate her character would put herself through.
Rasika Dugal is fantastic as Neeli, bringing some great dynamics to the family household and sharing a feisty chemistry with Irrfan and some dreary yet oddly happy sexual tension with Shome.
Off Tillotama Shome there's nothing else to say than that she literally deconstructs herself to identifiably become a confused man in a distraught woman's body. Then she deconstructs herself once the truth comes to the fore. Her body language is there for necessarily faulty but always natural and free flowing. Her delivery of the Punjabi dialogue impeccable for the diminutive Bengali actress. The smile (as she mentioned in the post-film interview came from the legendary Dilip Kumar) is a powerful tool that contrasts much of the emotions the character goes through.
Her shining moment when she bares it all to her father's ghost, ashamed of who she is and the pain she feels of conflicting realities.
If anything, the films execution hinges on its actors as they are the ones who truly carry the features most difficult bits through. This is commendable as from my perception each of the viewers in our little auditorium were engaged and the film never faltered or became unintentionally funny as it could have in the hands of a lesser director and team.
It's the true definition of an art film, abstract to its core.
'Qissa' is another example of how fine India's regional cinema has become, oft eclipsing the kind of work Hindi cinema (or as it is popularly known as Bollywood) doles out on a regular basis. It's a fine triumph that the film got a great jam packed limited release in India.
The ghosts are a little hard to swallow, but once you really understand its symbolic resemblance then the film takes off into another dimension altogether. This one's not for everyone, but be sure to catch it if you can. Even once, it won’t be a disappointment, at least you'll go out with a lot of thought put in.