The Song of Scorpions: Irrfan, Golshifteh Farahani bring alive a daunting tale
Anup Singh is back with yet another cinematic folk tale -- The Song of Scorpions -- which had its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival on August 9. With two features to his credit, Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River) and Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, Singh is an extraordinarily perceptive auteur. And he has always had exceptional actors to bring his dreamy stories to life. Irffan Khan, for instance, could not have been a more ideal protagonist for Qissa.
And now Singh -- who was born into a Sikh family in Dar-e-Salam and now lives on the Swiss Alps -- clinched a casting coup with his Locarno title. The Song of Scorpions has Khan and Golshifteh Farahani, one of the finest artistes I have ever seen. Her performances in Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (where she plays a matchmaker for a young man and a woman with tragic consequences) and The Patience Stone (where she is the wife of a comatose man shocked into consciousness after hearing about her salacious sexual escapades) were nothing short of magnetic.
The Song of Scorpions is a story set on the undulating golden sands of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, the sights and sounds of the mesmeric atmosphere caught most imaginatively by cinematographer Pietro Zuercher. I was bowled over by the light and shade contrasts he presents - the harshness of the daytime desert rubbing shoulders with the darkness of a night illuminated by the light of a million stars, twinkling away and guiding Singh’s folktale narrated through pain, pathos, love, humiliation, revenge, pardon and forgiveness. I think Singh has this unique ability to fathom the human mind, and in a way, his plot resembles a Shakespearean drama - sans the drama.
Both Khan’s Aadam, a camel dealer, and Farahani’s Nooran display a kind of gentleness that will put to shame the loud histrionics of many Indian actors. And, in a quiet sort of way, they push Singh’s story of a poisonous scorpion whose venom can be drawn out of a person only through a song that Nooran learnt to sing from her grandmother (essayed with superb finesse by Waheeda Rehman of Guide).
Aadam admires Nooran from a distance, the shimmering sandy hillocks often standing formidably in the way of his love, and when he finally gathers the courage to profess his affection, a series of unfortunate incidents plays spoilsport. He gets beaten up, his camels are stolen and his own anger turns into an Othello-like retributory reaction. Nooran is bewildered and shattered, and these emotions spur her on to the path of destruction. But not before long, the realisation of the divinity of love dawns on her. She discovers her song all over again, and the melody of her voice regains its magic. Farahani is a fantastic singer.
The Song of Scorpions is full of such contradictory ideas and imagery that enrich the delight of movie-viewing. We see crowded cities against the solitude of the vast expanse of sand. We see camels racing with motorbikes. We see the ancient vis-a-vis the modern in Singh’s sojourn of a story, where mysteriously dark ways of men and women twist and turn, playing hide-and seek among the desert dunes.
In a long email interview with this writer from Locarno, Singh reveals the inspiration behind the deadly arachnid’s tale.
Your earlier Qissa had a fantasy/folklore element. Also, The Song of Scorpions is strongly based on folklore. What is your fixation with folklore?
Well, we see everywhere in the world today that our sense of religion, reason and the idea of what it is to be tolerant and humane has been grossly violated. What’s worse, almost every day, we are forced to recognise our secular culture’s inability to provide us with a value with which to forcefully resist this violation. Cinema, of course, offers many ways to do so. But, generally speaking, cinema has often chosen ‘realism’ to question the demagoguery of our time. To me, firstly, that realism solely represents or points out appearances. Secondly, it does not question itself as a generator of appearances. It sees itself as a guardian of truth, but is that not what all demagogues presume? What attracts me to this folktale is that, from the very beginning, it insists on being a tale. It accepts itself as a generator of appearances. It accepts itself as fiction. Therefore, even if it proposes a truth, we’re encouraged to imagine it, fantasise about it, quiz it without ever needing to accept it. A folktale accepts every kind of reality, be it a dream, a myth, an anecdote, a news-item ... Open to all kinds of realities, it is open to all people who live in our world and experience reality different from the one we would like to call truth. Traditionally, folktales have always attempted to question certitudes. With my films I hope to use that tradition to continue questioning our certainties about ourselves and our community, besides our prejudices about our neighbours and the rest of the world.
How did you think up this folklore?
Like so many others, I believe that my spirit was poisoned for life when we heard about the rape of that young woman in a moving bus in Delhi in 2012. I was haunted by it, and it was about a year later, while still completing Qissa, that The Song of Scorpions - from the first image to the last - came to me in a nightmare. What I still remember are flickering images of light so bright and dry that it stung like salt in my eyes. Rippling vistas of burning sand and, strangely, a shawl made of tattered rags of purple and green and blood-red wavering in the wind. And within all that rage and glare of fire and sand, a singing voice as gentle and calming as the first drizzle in a desert. I awoke breathless with the whole story of the movie racing through me. Because of imagery and the clash of different realities in my nightmare, the story naturally started unfolding as a folktale when I started writing it.
How easy or difficult was it to weave a love story into this folklore of scorpions and songs?
I didn’t have to weave in a love story. As I started writing the tale, I realised that my nightmare was actually about our deepest relationships. Not just of those between men and women but all of us and our world. Though I was disturbed initially, I soon realised that the tale was not about bitterness or revenge. A feeling that was seeking to say something to me while I was making Qissa now came blazing to the fore. A film, I realised, gets our breath racing. It can convulse and choke us, but it can also, simultaneously, open the breath of all of us to the vast universe around us. I learnt from my nightmare that we let in a poison of some kind with every breath we take in the world today. The poison of bigoted politics, ignorance, indifference and violent reprisals. In response, we can choose to breathe back out into the universe the poison we take within us or we can choose to breathe out a song. That’s our critical choice today -- to breathe back into our world a poison or a song. I hope my movie turns out to be a love story between all of us, and the universe we live in.
You must have been comfortable with Irrfan Khan, having worked with him in Qissa. Did you have him in mind when you wrote the story and the script?
Yes, when I first started writing the male character, I even named him ‘Irrfan’! That’s how I saw the character. There’s the spirit of a musician in Irrfan. Though we don’t really say much to each other, we listen to each other’s timbre, modulation, tone of voice, and improvise dialogues like two musical instruments would! We have a deep understanding and respect for each other’s creative inspiration. Therefore, when we work together, it’s not just comfortably but also with the joy of opening to each other our creative best.
Would you call Irrfan a favourite of yours, like what Soumitra Chatterjee was to Satyajit Ray?
There are many actors in India who enchant me, and one such person is Mohanlal from Kerala. But yes, I do hope I’ll make many more movies with Irrfan. I already have a script for when he is 80 years old!
And how did you come upon Golshifteh Farahani?
Actually, it was Irrfan Khan who suggested her name for Nooran’s character. We met her when she came to see Qissa at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. All three of us immediately took to each other. Golshifteh is a person living in exile. She’s an outsider wherever she goes. And as a woman and an actress attempting to make a career in the West (she settled in Paris after fleeing her native Tehran), she knows another kind of exile - the one that separates her from stereotyped roles. What heightened my admiration and respect for her was that while she lives in the pain of separation from her country and family every moment of her life, she has never allowed that to embitter or make her vindictive in any way. Instead, she has learnt to allow her sense of separation to open herself to other possibilities. She has learned to celebrate the insight that we are all truly and finally strangers to ourselves, and this very acceptance makes her the soul-stirring and versatile actress that she is. Anyway, I soon realised that Golshifteh’s journey as a person and artiste in many ways mirrored that of Nooran, who also exiled herself from her body and identity, fought her primal instinct to seek vengeance and, finally, learnt to celebrate life. Irrfan said he understood The Song of Scorpions through the face of Golshifteh. There’s no doubt that she was ideal for the movie.
Casting these two along with Waheeda Rehman must have got you halfway through your film.
Waheedaji brought us all together. Her dedication, charm and graciousness had the entire movie unit - be it Indian, Swiss or French - in awe. We all wanted to be worthy of her. Her enthusiasm and resoluteness encouraged each one of us to push way beyond what we thought was our best and keep seeking what might be even better.
After Locarno, where are the Scorpions planning to go?
There are numerous exciting invitations, but it will be the movie’s producers and our world sales agents - The Match Factory - who chart the film’s next journey.
What about India? It should be seen in Rajasthan and elsewhere.
Of course! We have ambitious plans for the movie’s release in India. Let’s see!
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