Umber Singh, a Sikh man (Irrfan) is forced to flee his village due to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ during the Partition of 1947. He is a man poisoned by his loss, determined to avenge his fate. When he does fight his fate, he builds a new home for his family, raises his youngest daughter, Kanwar, as his son and goes to the extent of marrying Kanwar to Neeli, a girl of a lower caste.
Then, the family faces the truth of their identities, as individual ambitions and destinies collide in a struggle with eternity. This is the story of Anup Singh’s Qissa. How often do we come across such films? Not very, right? But, when we do, such a story sees the light of the day, as it easily manages to bag the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award for World or International Asian Film Premiere at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival on September 15. HT City introduces you to Bollywood actors Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal who play the two pivotal roles in the movie.
Tillotama Shome (Kanwar)
It won’t come as a surprise if her debut role, of a maid named Alice in Oscar-nominated Monsoon Wedding, is still fresh is your mind. If anything, it speaks of her impressive talent. She doesn’t leave any doubts as she describes her role in Qissa: “Kanwar is born a woman, but raised to be a man by her father. She tries hard to be a good son to a father, whom she deeply loves. The father-son relationship in the film is heartbreaking.”
But, how did this Qissa happen? “Ruchi Bhimani (executive producer of Ship of Theseus) suggested that I meet Anup. The suggestion, however, came with a warning, that he was looking for someone younger and preferably Punjabi. So, I met him sans expectations and make-up. I have no idea why, but within a few minutes of meeting him, I was telling him about my life. He heard me out in a way very few had. Anup then narrated the story of Qissa and I was mesmerised. I then went for the most unique audition. When he offered me the part of Kanwar, I was not ready for this kind of responsibility. But, he told me that it was Kanwar or nothing. I knew Kanwar was a role that would happen just once in my life, and here it was, staring me in the face, and I was scared. But, Anup said he believed I could do it; that’s how it began and that’s how it ended. I am in Qissa because Anup Singh believed in me.”
The exhilarating part is that a Bengali girl managed to do a film in Punjabi. About which, she says, “I learnt Punjabi, driving, swimming and kalaripayattu for the film, for seven months. Jaswinder Singh, the most incredible teacher, patiently taught us much more than Punjabi. He taught us to love the language, the people and the music. Today, two years later, I still remember my dialogues from Qissa. It was like being in school again, and I loved every minute of it. I became an actor with the hope of learning new things, not to be a lazy version of me in every film I did. This film, however, gave me a canvas so large, that the learning was unending. Anup held my hand through the whole seven months by giving me questions to think about, Dilip Kumar’s films to watch, and time to figure out Kanwar’s walk, his gaze and his inner self. I would happily go through it all over again.”
Shome, In fact, has earlier been seen in English, Hindi, Bengali and Nepali films. “Language, looks, ability and personality would always be barriers. But, a great team can make a movie an actor’s paradise. Being from an air force background, I’ve hopped from one language to another very blissfully. When I saw Maggie Cheung in Olivier Assayas’s film, Irma Vep — shifting from Cantonese to French to English — I thought these are cosmopolitan times with people speaking multiple languages, and yet we sometimes oversimplify things in our portrayal of urban life in cinema. I would love to play a Gujrati raised in Kolkata or a waitress conversing in German in an Indian restaurant in Paris. Learning anything new — be it a language or a skill — is incredibly sexy; it makes me feel new and happy. So, I am comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Rasika Dugal (Neeli)
Born and brought up in Jamshedpur, studied at Lady Shri Ram college (LSR) Delhi, Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai and finally an acting course at FTII, Pune — Dugal has explored a lot from these cities, as she says, “LSR for its radicalism, SCM for its idealism and FTII for its anarchy — they were all special experiences, which are a huge part of me.”
She says she relates to the film’s subject due to her background. “My grandparents on both sides used to live in Burma. My father’s family went through a lot of displacement. During World War II, they moved from Rangoon to Rawalpindi. During Partition, they moved to India and shortly after that, they went back to Rangoon. Finally, military rule in Burma made them move to India in the early ’60s. There are so many stories associated with this displacement. So many memories — often distorted, often glorified. There is so much loss, so much longing, but through it all, a deep sense of pride.”
The Sikh girl then discloses her Chandigarh connection: “I have never really lived in Punjab, though I spent every summer holiday as a kid with my maternal grandparents in Chandigarh. I feel deeply connected to all things Punjabi. I felt truly connected to everything around me while shooting for Qissa.”
Post FTII, Dugal played character roles in over 10 films, before finally making her debut with a lead in independent film Kshay, which travelled to eight festivals and won the best film at IFFLA (International Film Festival of Los Angeles) and the Shanghai Film Festival. About the journey of Qissa, she says, “When things are just meant to work out, everything falls into place effortlessly. I met Anup at the right time, in the right spirit, at a last-minute unplanned meeting. We connected instantly and a few days later, he offered me this beautiful role.”
Her role of Neeli in Qissa belongs to a tribe called Naqals. “She is free spirited and earthy and unstoppable; the kind of person who would feel claustrophobic even in a large room. The events of the film and her relationship with Kanwar see this spirit transform — from being the nurtured to the nurturer. The carefree abandon taking the form of a gentle protector. Her spirit though is never crushed. Tillotama and I shared so much as Kanwar and Neeli. We shared a very special and enjoyable playfulness that would sometimes smoothly flow into Neeli and Kanwar, sharing a deep and often dark moment,” says she.
From making a debut with an independent film to being part of a first-ever Indo-German collaboration — Dugal diverts our attention towards a visible change in filmmaking today, saying, “I think because of everything going digital, filmmaking is now accessible. One no longer needs to wait for a big producer. One can write a great script, shoot on a 5D camera, edit on your laptop and publicise on social media. Kshay, for instance, was made like that. It is by no means easy to do this and not every script lends itself to such production value. But it can be done. Overall, I think it’s a very interesting phase in cinema and particularly in Indian cinema, where we slowly make this shift in the medium, and therefore in sensibilities.”