Weaving the Desi tale
Anup Singh’s Qissa revisits the days of the partition of India and his family history as well. He tells Manju Ramanan how ?
What is the Qissa behind Qissa?
The thing about a qissa is that it 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.
My film 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 with a despairing, remorseless violence. 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 my film, 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.
Did you write the film with Irrfan in mind? How did you arrive at the star cast?
Umber Singh, the character that Irrfan Khan plays, is to a large extent inspired by my grandfather. A man poisoned by his sense of loss, determined to avenge himself on history and his fate. And why Irrfan? Well, other than the shadows in his eyes, the tender rhythms with which he engages with the world and the gentleness at the heart of his ferocious masculinity, Irrfan, to me, is one of the rare actors after Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar who does not belittle our sense of the human spirit with empty emotions. Yes, very early in the writing stage of Qissa I started thinking of him.
There is a kind of acting that seems to have proven lucrative to many of our actors today, where packaged emotions presented with speeded-up tempo hurries the viewer into careless emotional commitments. In this world of flimflam, the inner truth of emotion and unruffled imagination that Irrfan brings to his performances makes me cherish him with an unembarrassed, personal trust as a director. And that’s what his audiences are feeling, more and more, that they can trust him not to swindle them with ready-made emotions.
The women of Qissa came as surprises, a blessing and a gift for the film.
Tillotama Shome (who just won the Best Actress award for Qissa at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival) came to me in an audition. Just a few minutes of working with her were enough for me to see that she was my Kanwar. The thing about Tillotama is that she disappears into her character. She’s 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.
Rasika Dugal was suggested to me by my assistant director, Pushpendra Singh. As an actress, Rasika disorients everyone. She changes everything. With her, even her stillness is a dance. She knows that to move is to create new rhythms within space and other characters and objects. To stand still is to expand like a tree unfurling in a wind. She knows how to be immobile and yet still make us feel she’s dancing. Because she’s alert to everything that could happen in the space she inhabits – the dupatta caught on a thorn, the unforeseen violence of a co-actor’s look, an off-screen disturbance – her reactions are always exhilarating. And thus till the end she remains irrepressibly effortless and continues to surprise.
Tisca Chopra was suggested to me by a friend. Her role in Qissa complements Irrfan. If he’s Tandava, she’s Lasya (the gentle dance of Parvati). Tisca is like a very delicate musical instrument. She needs just a fragile breeze to bring an almost unearthly beauty and resonance to a space. She can suggest an emotion simply by a shift in her breath. You can’t always see what she’s doing, but you can feel and sense it. As an actress, she’s pure music.
How did you weave your family’s history to the story line ?
I believe I answered this earlier above!
Did you revisit your roots through aspects of the film? How was the experience ?
Qissa is an enemy’s tribute and homage that I offer my grandfather. It is an attempt to put his ghost to rest and, with him, the vengeful state of mind that has traumatized us as a nation since the 1947 partition of India. Thus journeying through Punjab for the film was simultaneously a traumatic and a tranquil experience. Much of the time I felt I was looking at the landscape, homes and faces through my grandfather’s eyes. And, perhaps for the first time, I really understood the depths of his loss. And then, when I came to Ghadka, a village near the Wagah border, my heart started beating with such excitement that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Entering that village was like going back a hundred years. The village hovers on a sandy cliff above a tranquil body of water and suddenly I could see my grandfather’s childhood. When we started shooting there, the hospitality and generosity of the people, the contours of the landscape, the familiar-looking faces made me feel I had returned home.
What are the shocking aspects of such a story that needed fine treatment? There is pain in the story but it is soothed poetically – was it a conscious effort to soften the blow?
My answer to this question of yours is going to provoke some laughter in this, our very commercialized world, but so be it! A filmmaker, like any other artist, carries a certain vision of the world. The vision keeps getting nuanced and, often even changes, as he or she grows in the art. I seek to celebrate a certain way of living where time is allowed its own maturation within us. And, I call this dance of time within us — the gentle dance, Parvati’s Lasya as against Shiva’s dance of destruction, Tandava. For me, the story rises from within this sense of time, from within this gentle dance. I, therefore, never felt that the story needed fine treatment or that I had to soften the blow. The lilt and rhythms of the film create the story, not the other way around.
It is a bold film – how do you see the world of controversies taking to it?
Sure, Qissa is not an easy film. It unfolds those secret and fragile aspects of our life that we are usually unable to share with others in our daily living. I do believe, however, that an audience that remains vulnerable to its inner spirit and is fearless about celebrating life in all its complexity will find Qissa an experience that they will carry with them for the rest of their life.
Within the regressive aspects shown in the film, there is a big step of progressive thought expressed between its female characters – did you write it in a way to balance it out?
The women of Qissa are women of strength, resistant in their own way to the violence around them. They are compassionate and supportive of each other. And they understand that the violence of history has its source in the violence within our most intimate relations. Theirs is a brave and graceful attempt to stop the cycle of violence. I think this kind of balancing act of women is a part of our world’s history. My film simply reaffirms what we all know: without the forgiveness and compassion of women we would cease to exist.
What were the toughest scenes to shoot and why?
The curious thing is that while working with the actors I had not an iota of strain or struggle with myself or them. Working with them was the most loving and intense experience of my life. The absolute trust that they gave me, the sheer courage with which they dropped all their practiced techniques and fears, the tremendous openness with which they allowed me a free access into their deepest creative secrets and sources, is something that I’ll cherish and pay reverence to all my life. The toughest scenes to shoot were the ones where the film’s rhythm had to be allowed its own time, modulations, expansion or contraction. That was the toughest thing to do, to encourage the cinematographer to let the film find it’s own pace and cadence.
Indian cinema made across the world is celebrating the Indian regional story – comment?
That’s a very good question, but the answer is simple really. We see more and more that the dominant kind of filmmaking is leaving us dissatisfied. Worse, it affirms conventions and hierarchies that we now recognize are demeaning us and making us lesser human beings. What more and more films made by young filmmakers around the world are attempting is to return, in a questioning way, to some of our traditional forms of story-telling. The fables, the folk tales, the tale-telling traditions of the Mahabharata, Ramayan and, let’s say, Kathasaritsagara. In these traditions, all values are questioned, as are all characters, as is reality and the unreal. Finally, they lead us to a kind of story-telling that actually allows us to probe in greater depth the complexity of our world, our situation, our characters. I believe that the very notion of genre in cinema is limiting. And, actually, it’s simply an economic construct that, unfortunately, creates passive audiences, where the film is defined even before it’s seen. Our alternative cinema is an attempt to affirm the imagination as well as the dignity of our viewers.
Tell us about your next film?
My next film, “Mantra — The Song Of Scorpions” is a contemporary tale of twisted love, revenge and the redemptive power of a song, which unfurls like a folktale. Nooran is a singer, a scorpion healer, a mid-wife and a medicine woman for the Manganiar community of Rajasthan. When Irfan, a camel trader in the desert community, realizes that Nooran, the woman he passionately loves, does not care about him, he seeks redress by paying a young thug to sexually attack her. Feeling herself poisoned by the brutal violation, Nooran sets off on a mystical journey to seek and avenge herself on her unknown attacker through the power of her song.
Apart from the partition of India that has been a reservoir of heart wrenching stories, what are the other stories you would like to tell?
To me, stories are just one part of filmmaking. My interest is more in the expansion of cinema’s sensuous ability to open us fully to the wondrous celebration of ourselves, our world and our universe. Therefore, I seek stories that amaze, are unexpected and expand our sense of reality.
Smaller films are being picked up by UTV and other big production houses – how do you see this trend in Indian cinema?
I think it affirms what I was saying earlier that audiences all over the world want no longer to be seen as stupid and passive. They want a cinema that opens their boundaries, challenges their experience of the world, entertains them in the fullest sense of the word – by giving them an experience that speaks to them about their possibilities as both a sensual and a thinking human being. If the alternative filmmakers don’t give up, we will see a sea-change in the kind of cinema that people will want to see. I think the big production houses foresee this change and, as good business people, they want to be ready when that change finally comes.
What is your choice in cinema and what have you enjoyed watching?
I love cinema in all its varieties and forms. I watch everything, from Hindi cinema to African, small experimental films to works of masters, new as well as old. There are certain films and filmmakers I return to again and again, and I could mention, for instance, almost all the films of Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, the Japanese filmmaker Kenzi Mizoguchi …
Will script become king in mainstream HIndi cinema or will it always be the star?
Don’t you think the stars are already realizing today that they need a powerful script to keep them in currency for their viewers? I think there’s almost a panic among stars today to find the right script. I am sure that in the next few years the script will be as important as the star.