Anup Singh on Qissa and the Mystic Strains of Culture

Anup Singh (right), director and co-writer of Qissa, and Irfan Khan (left), who plays Umber Singh at the premier of the film in Munich, Germany. Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images for Filmfest Muenchen
05 March, 2015

Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost is among the most striking films to have released in India in a long time. It is a film of multiple ideas, but essentially tells its story by following the family of Umber Singh, a Sikh man who lost all he had during Partition. The trauma of Partition plays out in Singh’s life in a strange manner and with tragic consequences when he decides to raise his fourth and last-born daughter as a son. Apart from an intense exploration of the deadly legacy of Partition, it is also a searing critique of patriarchy. Qissa earns its place alongside cinematic masterpieces such as Meghe Dhaka Tara, and Anup Singh is a true successor of the mantle of Ritwik Ghatak.

Basharat Peer spoke to filmmaker and co-writer Anup Singh, who was 13 in 1972 when he had to leave his home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after Idi Amin began forcing Indians out of Uganda, a process that affected Indians in several African countries.

Basharat Peer: You grew up in Tanzania. The journey from Dar es Salaam to Qissa has been a long one. How did Africa shape you?

Anup Singh: I was born and grew up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and my memory of the African sky has always been very important for my feelings about cinema. There is a boundlessness about the African sky; it doesn’t seem to end in any horizon. And yet, somehow, it does not seem so far high above our head. The clouds hover in three-dimensions in that light, just overhead. The feeling is one could stretch out a hand and pluck a feather from one of the clouds. The gods in the sky do not seem so far away. My experience of the African sky is one of the reasons, I’m sure, that I make the films that I do.

BP: What led to Qissa?

AS: Perhaps the real source of Qissa is that last journey I took with my parents from Dar es Salaam to Bombay when we were forced to leave the land of my birth. [In 1972, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled most Indians living in the country. The xenophobia of the time forced Indian families living in neigbouring Tanzania to leave as well.] That was my first harrowing journey into homelessness, what has now become a life-long journey of a refugee.

However, what gave me some hope then and continues to nourish me even today is what I experienced after a few nights on the vast ocean between Africa and India. One night, a huge screen was raised on the deck of the ship, and a film flared bright between the starry sky above and the boundless sea below. And I knew at that moment that as long as I could invoke this experience of cinema, where it pulsed as a part of the larger cosmos, I would never be homeless.

BP: A new life began in Bombay. Did you get involved with the film and theatre culture in the city?

AS: I started writing and painting very early in my adolescence, perhaps because of the forced exile of my family from Africa. When in Bombay, as it was then called, I wrote poems, many published, and my first novel when I was 16, which I hope is never published! And then, while at the university, I managed to put together a small theatre group. We worked very hard training ourselves as actors, very influenced as so many others at the time, by the poor theatre of Jerzy Grotowski. I attended workshops in Kathakali as well as Japanese Kabuki. I was writing small theatre scripts now for my group of actors, and I think I must have been about 17 when I wrote my first film script. It just seemed a natural development from what I had been doing to then decide to join the Film & Television Institute of India, in Pune.

BP: The FTII experience?

AS: The Film & Television Institute of India, in Pune, is for me essentially a forest, which has a few buildings scattered within it. When I entered and lived in it for three years, I felt I was back in the Africa of my childhood. There were trees all around me, a hill crouching at the border of the institute and open sky above.

What made all this nature, the classes, studios and cinema within FTII almost sacred to me is that some of the most revered filmmakers of India had studied there, grown there, thought about their first films there. So anywhere you stepped within FTII carried a story about one filmmaker or another. You could not help but become a part of that history and initiate a ceaseless dialogue with all the filmmakers who had been there before me and all the other masters of world cinema we watched and studied. This dialogue with the history of cinema, all kinds of cinema, from various corners of the world, was very important to me.

BP: How important was your formal training in the cinematic techniques?

AS: To me, the formal education in filmmaking was momentous to my thinking. What it really taught me is this: more than the mastery of skill or technique, which is undoubtedly important, cinema demands an impassioned and ceaseless questioning of our existence on this earth, the vital relationship we share with our fellow human-beings and, not the least, a never-ending quest to celebrate uncertainty. Uncertainty not only about our beliefs, but also our ideals, including our deepest convictions about our own creation.

I really believe that theory and practice go together. One without the other is like a body without a soul. All these lessons that I learned at FTII make me the filmmaker I am today. I believe it is my time at FTII that has made my cinema a cinema of questions, a cinema that seeks to challenge all kinds of borders, a cinema that seeks to keep itself open to the multiple possibilities of the human spirit and our world.

My experience at FTII led me to think about cinema in terms of two images: one, we are familiar with the image that encloses our world within the logic of a predetermining story. Almost all mainstream films are built on such images. And there is an image that opens all stories to a ceaseless encounter within and between themselves and leads them to unpredictable encounters with our world. The second image we find in the cinema of filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak. I do think of Ritwik Ghatak as my teacher. Qissa brings together innumerable journeys. For instance, the form that we’re familiar with in the Punjab (Heer Ranjha, Mirza Sahiba) celebrates the exuberant meeting of Sufi mysticism and local spiritual traditions. Journeys, meetings, partings are at the heart of these qissas (stories).

BP: Apart from your ideas of cinema, how did personal history inform Qissa?

AS: Qissa also emerges from journeys, especially the one necessitated by the partition of India. Bereft of land, home, country, my grandfather lived a bitter life of loss as a refugee. His tales of the 1947 Partition of India scarred my imagination in childhood. Throughout his life, my grandfather carried a burning resentment about his loss of home. It tore him apart, and often he could not help but turn on his own family violently. Somehow, any which way, he needed to avenge his loss. When you view Qissa, you’ll immediately see that this is the inspiration for the character of Umber (played by Irrfan Khan).

I grew up surrounded by my grandfather’s tales, but also of relatives and family friends who had lived through the Partition. Amongst all the stories I heard from them, there is one that stayed with me and has a lot to do with Qissa.

Many women, as you know, would jump into wells rather than risk rape when their village was attacked during the Partition. A very old man told me that his daughter, hardly a teenager, had jumped into the well too, and now, sixty years later, he still dreams about her. He told me that in his dream he sees her ghost in the well, looking up at the circle of sky above her, waiting for him, her father, to come for her.

This story was one of the starting points of Qissa. As you can see, the strange thing with many of these stories is that they start as very real tales, traumatic memories, but often veer off into the imaginary, as if to affirm that something else could have happened, that, perhaps, somehow their lost daughters, sisters, brothers were still living some other life.

I really wanted this quality of a fable for Qissa. This film is personal on one level but it also deals with this wound in the memory of our nation that keeps on getting pricked and prodded by our politicians for their own purposes.

BP: Your protagonist is a man destroyed by the Partition, who raises a daughter as a son. He is a victim who is also a perpetrator. Qissa is quite involved with a critique of the hyper masculinity.

AS: The violence of our time has violated some of the most cherished and celebrated beliefs that we share as a nation. I was convinced that Qissa, in some ways, spoke directly to this sense of helplessness that we all carry surrounded by this violence. What the film hopes we’ll share again as we watch the film together is our deep-rooted bonds with each other, bonds that lie outside whatever fixed identity we like to define ourselves by. When I look at how we treat our women and minorities, I often hear, not only in India but in other countries where, for whatever reason there is a sudden explosion of violence, this lament that, “Oh, it is terrible what is happening to our country? It is terrible what is happening to our women.” But it always seems to be a question of looking at things outside us, as though it is happening outside you. And my attempt in Qissa is to see that the violence that we visit upon our dear ones, on our own family is, in fact, not very different from the violence that then reappears in our history.

BP. How easy was it to make a film like this, especially in Punjabi?

AS: It took twelve years to raise the money to make Qissa. I knocked at many doors in India for five years. The National Film Development Corporation was the only production house that stood with me from almost the beginning. But we needed more money. Everyone else was interested in the script, but they wanted to do the film in Hindi. And, of course, we could never come to an agreement on casting. Finally, a fateful meeting with the German producers of Heimatfilm, Bettina Brokemper and Johannes Rexin, initiated Qissa’s adventures into the world of co-production. Very quickly, then, Thierry Lenouvel of Cine-Sud, France, joined us, and then Bero Beyer of Augustus Films, Netherlands. With Nina Lath Gupta of NFDC, that makes four co-producers.

BP: How did the distributors react to Qissa?

AS: It has been very difficult to release the film in India. It’s not only that it’s in Punjabi—the audience that has supported the film’s limited release have, in fact, enjoyed and appreciated that the film is rooted in the rhythms of its cultural language. But such films face a wall of prejudices and the main problem is: it’s not entertainment! I find that laughable. Mainstream cinema has created a singular, formulaic notion of “entertaining,” and they use that term to batter down anything different and this helps them to assert their own value. I don’t deny that value, but I think I would like to propose another concept to our audiences. How about a cinema that brings back a sense of wonder to our being and our world? A cinema that celebrates the wonder of our existence. That’s what Qissa, I believe, offers.

BP: How necessary was its being in Punjabi to becoming the film Qissa became? Would the film change in a different language?

AS: I believe a film is a rhythm of nuances, light and shadow, tones and sonorities. Every language has its texture, lilt and dance. I choose every detail in a film because each choice is its own sensuous play as well as contributes to the resonance of the whole film. A film in Bengali, then, is bound to be very different in its evocations from a film in Punjabi or Hindi. The language I choose to make the film in is as important and integral to the film as the kind of lighting or movement or composition that I choose for the film.

BP: Although the film deals with a violent subject, it is almost filmed like a painting in many places. The camera would freeze for long moments on a landscape, on a face, on a body and create a sense of watching a painting. How did you choose that technique? What was the idea behind that?

AS: To begin with, I wanted the light and the darkness in this film not to be antagonistic to each other. I didn’t want the light to separate the characters from the dark background, as happens in most popular cinema or television. I wanted the human figures and nature to have an equal power. I wanted a sense of flux between them, one appearing out of the other—the character appearing out of the dark into light, the landscape unfolding all around the character. In the Western tradition, generally speaking, a young painter learns the play of rhythms in a composition by studying the human figure. In the East, the tradition is more often to learn the about the pulse and changeability of rhythms from the landscape. These kinds of varying rhythmic nuances modulate and suggest insights into the evolving narrative as well as in the psychology of the characters. And if we see the film as a film and not simply as a story, we’ll then see that all its elements carry some tone and ambience for the larger implications of the story.

I believe this creates a deep desire in the audience to go further into the space, to probe deeper into the characters. Suddenly the audience is no longer simply watching, but begins to travel with their senses and imagination further than what is seen. And the flux of light and dark in the film makes them realize again and again that, just like themselves, no thing or human can be fully seen, known, or completely defined.

BP: At the crucial point late in the film, the treatment moves from realism to magical realism. Your boy/girl protagonist Kanwar, played brilliantly by Tillotama Shome, merges with the father’s (Irrfan Khan) ghost. How did non-Indian audiences unused to qissas, djinns react to that?

AS: Strangely, I never worried about that because I’ve seen that almost every culture has some mystic strain that celebrates all kinds of crossings. It’s true that a contemporary audience in the West, in fact even in the East, might be startled initially by the scene of Kanwar being devoured by her father, but, slowly, various stories from their childhood often return to them. And that was very exciting for me to see. After all, what more can a filmmaker ask but that his story initiate even more stories in the audiences’ imagination!

BP: How did you prepare Tillotama Shome and Rasika Duggal for their unorthodox roles, ways of portraying gender? Kanwar's confusion is most striking for me the way he/she smiles at Neeli (Rasika Duggal) when she sits in the truck for the first time. And it is heartbreaking when, towards the end, he wears women's clothes and feels naked in them. 

AS: As for Tillotama, she disappears into her character. She vanishes, and this strange and familiar figure, which was just words on paper, is suddenly before you. Without you knowing, she draws you into her story, her yearning, her exhilaration. As an actress she gives you her inner universe with such ease and generosity that you realize only much later what a profound gift you’ve been given. When performing, she’s like a young tree that does not seem to be moving, and yet, look again and you’ll see all the leaves astir and glimmering.

What I noticed immediately in my auditions with Rasika is that in her every move there is no evasion of life. She does not close herself and build a character with familiar expressions, tics and gestures. She opens herself like the wind and takes all in her path. She accepts everything that comes in her way—the dupatta caught on a thorn, the unforeseen violence of a co-actor’s look, an off-screen disturbance—and thus till the end she remains free and continues to surprise. She brings us the experience of the mystery that we eternally remain to ourselves.

For a long time, Tillotama kept trying to find a way to play a man in the film. She joined a class of Kalaripayattu, for instance, to harden her body. I let her follow her process. However, it was obvious to her very soon that that was not what I was looking for. Finally, I told her that what she should consider is to play the best son her father could have. She needn’t become a man, just try and become the best son for her father.

I did not want Tillotama to perform the anguish and loss of Kanwar. That would be like telling us, for instance, what a knife is by showing us the blade and the handle. But what she understood, and that is the exhilaration of her performance in Qissa, is that her performance became what a knife really is—its quality of cutting. In Qissa, Tillotama’s performance cuts into the audience. Not something you really see. It’s something you feel wounding your soul.

My assistant, Pushpendra Singh, suggested Rasika Duggal to me. What is immediately exciting about her entry into a scene is that she never builds a character with familiar expressions, tics or gestures. Like a cat, she remains unexpected. As an actress, Rasika disorients everyone. She changes everything. With her, even her stillness is a dance.

But what I wanted from her was that she be more than an uncritical force. That she become aware that to move is to create ceaselessly new relationships, new rhythms with other characters and objects. Rasika slowly became more and more alert to everything that could happen in the space she was performing within—the unforeseen violence of a co-actor’s look, the dupatta caught on a thorn, an off-screen disturbance—her reactions are exhilarating. And thus till the end in Qissa, she remains irrepressibly effortless and continues to surprise.

I remember I asked them to take a few days and improvise a scene together. This was for the hardly two-minute song sequence, where Rasika’s character, Neeli, tries to help Tillotama’s character, Kanwar, find her femininity again. One evening, when we had started the shoot in the Punjab, I asked them to show me what they had discovered together.

It was winter. The room was freezing. They started performing. They started with a distance between them. They found unpredictable ways to reach each other. They came close, the colors of their costumes, their bodies, faces attracting, merging and, then, with harrowing sense of loss, parted again.

This went on for 45 minutes, and I felt it could go on forever. It was like the dance of fire and water; it was Parvati’s lasya, the Gentle Dance, against Shiva’s tandava. These two had found a source of creativity in each other, and each could trust the other and depend on the other to continue their dialogue of meeting and parting. It was like some primal ritual of life was taking place there, and I was bestowed the gift of watching it.

I rue to this day that I did not have the camera then. My whole film was there in that improvised performance, and I’ll be eternally grateful to these extraordinary actors for conjuring before my eyes the rhythm of my film that I had only imagined till then.

Basharat Peer is a Contributing Editor at The Caravan. He is the author of Curfewed Night.