Irrfan, Rasika Dugal, Tilottama Shome, Tisca Chopra
Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision. - Salvador Dali
Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost is one of those films which unfolds on the screen with multiple meanings for different people. That it is open to many interpretations does not take away anything from its cinematic brilliance. It is also a first-of-its-kind Indian cinema, what with a Tanzania-born director and an almost all-foreign crew. Interestingly, Anup Singh had to struggle even to get this Punjabi film off the starting block, till foreign producers and NFDC came along to bail him out.
Umber Singh (Irrfan) is an alpha-male who is forced to flee Pakistan during partition with his wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra), pregnant with their third daughter. Political upheaval, or being uprooted in life, however, is the least of his worries: Umber is unhappy because of his wife's 'disability' to bear him a son. He builds a prosperous life for himself after crossing over to Punjab in India, but his yearning for a son continues becuase he wants to "die in peace".
Mehar is pregnant once again, and this time Umber insists that he be allowed to be present in the labour room... to ensure she gives birth to a boy. Fate, however, deceives him once again, and Mehar gives birth to Kanwar. A distraught Singh takes a vow that day to raise the kid as a boy.
The second part of the story is centred around Umber’s insatiable desire for a male heir, and Kanwar’s (Tilottama Shome) struggle with 'her' complicated sexuality. An unrepentant Umber, however, turns her life into a living hell when he marries her off to a gypsy girl Neeli (Rasika Dugal). This is just the beginning of a multi-layered narrative that oscillates between the real and the supernatural, a zone eerily close to a surrealist landscape.
In the past, not many Indian storytellers would have attempted such a plot. That is what makes makes Qissa an important film in terms of its thematic representation. It’s a secluded world which is hugely imprinted with Umber’s idea of masculinity, and how his choices affect the lives of people around him. In a way, it’s about partition within the partition. Women and children were the most gullible victims of the Indo-Pak division, but they suffered way beyond it. Mehar, for example, suffered in Pakistan as well as inside her family in India. Umber’s inbuilt masochism haunted her in the new life even more. However, Mehar was not alone in her fight for survival, her adolescent daughters joined her.
Meanwhile, Kanwar grows up and pretends to be a boy by hunting deer, driving trucks and sitting among men without speaking much. This is a time when she was exploring the coveted sides of her sexuality which is founded on the basis of gender-bias. Despite her hidden grief about menstruation cycle, Kanwar does whatever is needed to keep her ‘seat of power’ intact in her father’s eyes. It’s not exactly about a woman’s mind trapped inside a man’s body, but more like a woman’s suppressed tears in order to achieve the authority over fellow women and men. The short-lived joy fades once Neeli comes into her life as this doesn’t cause any unwanted sexual tension but launches a ruthless intra-personal conflict. On top of it, Umber now wants a grandson to carry the family legacy forward.
The intensely personalised story is mostly about the character-to-character variation of the same narrative. The effervescent Neeli is expected to accept Kanwar as her husband because she comes from a humble background and can fetch benefits from Umber in exchange of her silence. But, things take an unexpected turn when Neeli makes Kanwar aware of her sexuality. The two are neither lovers nor sisters, it’s something in between, probably a bond of two shades of womanhood.
I don’t want to kill your suspense by revealing the deal about the ghost, but I am tempted to say that the paraphernalia around Kanwar changes drastically with this cinematic masterstroke. There is a scene in the film where Kanwar breaks free of the shackles and rejects all the social norms by baring her heart and body. Tilottama has made this sequence so soulful and penetrating that you will be dumbfounded in the absence of the right reaction.
Similarly, when Neeli’s admiration changes into love and then to a caring attitude within 30 seconds is another example of fantastic acting skills. She is the cohesive force of the film despite it being someone else’s point of view.
The notion of displacement and how it impacts the nurturing of a young mind is very much visible in the entire film. Be it Kanwar, Neeli or Umber, everybody is trying to cope up with the fast winds of change, and thus giving birth to more doubts about their own existence.
The introduction of supernatural elements do not deviate the flow of the story; in fact, it makes it more streamlined. It crawls like the serpent of passion and takes command of your conscience before seizing your mind completely.
Irrfan controls the proceedings as one of the most difficult characters he has ever played. He had to justify his ‘brutal’ existence and yet had to generate sympathy for his deeds. He rises to the occasion and owns the film.
Qissa is technically brilliant as the frames take you to an inward journey which is more claustrophobic than the room where Umber Singh decides to forcefully transform his girl into a boy.
Qissa is ‘dastaangoi’, and much more than that. One of the best films in recent times, it’s an experience not to be forgotten easily. Your experiences in life will decide your views towards the film and vice-versa. We are going with 4.5 for Anup Singh’s idiosyncratic drama Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost.
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