Thursday, October 24, 2013

MAMI diary: Partition and partitions in Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost

At the MAMI film festival in Mumbai earlier this week, an old dilemma raised its head: should I stick around for the Q&A sessions that follow some of the screenings? As a journalist, such discussions – with their back-stories and insights into the creative process – can be invigorating, or at least useful at the level of information-gathering; but as a critic who hasn’t yet had enough time to absorb the film and write honestly about what he saw and felt, it can be a little problematic hearing the director and crew speak about what they were trying to do. It can create white noise, or even sway one’s feelings. (In my early days in literary journalism, it sometimes happened that I read and disliked a book, then met the author and not only found him extremely likable but also, through conversation, came to understand and even empathise with what he had been trying to do. At the end of such a meeting, even if I retained my basic view of the book, I might easily feel guilty for having been over-harsh in the review.)

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that I had an unusually satisfying experience with Anup Singh’s Punjabi film Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost at MAMI. First, I loved the film itself, despite the physical discomfort of sitting in the second row and having to crane my neck and strain my eyes. Second, the post-screening chat – which featured the director as well as the actors Tilottama Shome (excellent in a pivotal role), Tisca Chopra and Rasika Dugal – was intelligent and engaging, and some of the things Singh spoke about (in response to audience questions) touched on and confirmed my own fragmented thoughts. 

For instance, I was unsurprised to learn that Ritwik Ghatak was one of his heroes, because I had wondered about this while watching the film. Like Ghatak’s entire body of work, Qissa is deeply invested not just in Partition – the sundering of a nation in 1947, creating paranoias, ghosts and demons that have haunted thousands of families over the decades – but in partitions more generally: the many levels on which we create boundaries, separating ourselves, defining various types of “others”. (As Singh pointed out, Ghatak once asked “Who is not a refugee?”)

[A very minor alert here. Strictly speaking, what follows isn’t a spoiler, since it is revealed within the first 15-20 minutes of the film – and if you’re attentive, you might guess it even during the opening credits, which have photos of the main characters. But part of the effect of the film for me was the subtle way in which things play out and come into clearer relief in these early scenes.]

The Qissa synopsis I had read beforehand was reticent about the plot, saying only that the film was about a Sikh man named Umber (Irrfan Khan) and his family, whose lives change when he marries his youngest child Kanwar to a lower-caste girl. But the story really hinges on the fact that Umber – dismayed by a proliferation of female children – decides to raise his fourth girl as a boy. 

“Decides” may be the wrong word, actually: it is more as if, by some mystical process, this simply happens: that Umber convinces himself the lie is true. His wife Meher (Chopra) is unhappy, but the family mostly carries on as if nothing is amiss. Other people – distant relatives, elders in the community, a teacher who instructs the “boy” in manly things like kasrat – seem either not to know about the child’s real sex, or turn a blind eye to what is going on. (One scene in particular, when the 12-year-old Kanwar tells her father that she is bleeding, and Umber responds by hugging her and exclaiming “My son is growing up so fast!”, is chilling.) Kanwar (Shome) grows up understandably confused but also eager to please, to be a good son – but when circumstances lead to her wedding to another girl and Umber’s patriarchal fervour takes an even uglier turn, the conflicts escalate.

Qissa begins with the spectre of Partition, but its canvas widens to encompass the gender divide, the line between the human and the spirit worlds, between sanity and insanity (I thought of Bishan in Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh”, lying under the barbed wire at the India-Pakistan border, and the question of whether he is madder than the world around him). This dilution of themes may be problematic for some viewers (an audience member told Anup Singh that he thought it was two different films in one) and the film undeniably has many balls in the air, but I think there are important links between these themes too. Many people who suffered the worst of Partition became living ghosts in the sense that they were petrified in the past, unable to let go or to look ahead. And for someone like Umber Singh – a proud alpha-male who sees himself as the king of his crumbling castle – this situation is made even more complicated because he can view the future only in terms of having a male child who can carry his line forward; each successive birth of a girl is like a slap on the face for a man who needs some sense of permanent identity and rootedness. As his frustrations and insecurities grow, the political becomes personal, and his family is affected in many overlapping ways.

This is a stately, well paced film, with lovely background music that draws on folk tunes (the lyrics are by Madan Gopal Singh, who also helped translate the original, English dialogues into Punjabi). There are many beautiful widescreen outdoor compositions, including some set in the desert (sitting with the screen just above me, I often had to turn my head a full 90 degrees to look at one thing, then another, and was reminded that even this awkward experience is preferable to the one of watching a good-looking film for the first time on a small YouTube screen) – but there are also claustrophobic nighttime scenes in Umber Singh’s house, where the very air is thick and oppressive; you can almost feel what might be going on in this man’s tormented, fixated mind and the effect his actions are having on his wife and daughters. 

For all the vividness of these images though, there is a pleasingly hazy quality to the narrative, a haziness that has the texture of myth and legend. As the director pointed out during the discussion, many stories we hear about Partition begin on a strictly factual note, with remembrances of things experienced by relatives or friends, but then veer off into the realm of speculation and imagination, which may be the only way to deal with such grim matters. Qissa has that ghostly quality, very appropriate to its subject, and for me its allegorical and magic realist elements worked just fine.

The lead performances are excellent too, and I thought there was something to be said about the casting; you might not think of Tisca Chopra and Tilottama Shome as being a convincing mother and daughter, but watching them here I couldn’t help seeing a distinct facial resemblance. In fact, Shome mentioned during the discussion that she thought Singh was making a big mistake by casting her, a short-statured Bengali woman, as a Punjabi girl who has to live her life as a man. “I came to the role with my usual stereotypes of what masculinity should be,” she said, “but Anup told me, don’t worry about being ‘a man’, just focus on being a good son to Umber.” She also said Singh had asked her to watch the old Dilip Kumar films Tarana and Aan for cues on how to play the role. It took her some time to figure out what her director wanted her to discover in those performances (“at first I thought it was because Dilip-saab had these very deliberate gestures, and I wondered if there was something specifically masculine about that”) but later she realised that Singh wanted her to “find” Kumar’s way of smiling – even in difficult situations – in those films. In the larger picture, Kanwar’s story may be a sad, grim one (when she is liberated from the pretence, she finds she doesn’t like wearing women’s clothes because they have become like “scorpions” for her), but that didn’t mean the actor playing her had to look sullen.


I found the Dilip Kumar anecdote interesting, because it suggested a director who could make unusual connections and leaps of imagination, draw inspiration from a variety of sources. When I spoke with Singh afterwards, he told me that he watched all kinds of films enthusiastically. “I am a big fan of Guru Dutt and Kenji Mizoguchi,” he said (and here I thought of the lonely ghosts in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu).

During the Q&A session, in defence of his film’s structure and its supernatural elements, he had mentioned that Indian storytelling had always adopted very different methods from the cool, psychological realism of contemporary Western narratives: in traditional Indian storytelling, there have been tales within tales, the idea of closure has not been very important, there is room for whimsy, for one mood blending into another. I asked him later if his interest in such narrative methods extended to the forms used in popular Indian cinema. “I love mainstream Hindi cinema, it has been so much a part of my growing up,” he replied. “But I have a caveat. I feel popular cinema has played with Indian storytelling traditions but also misused them at times. We have many hierarchies as a society – in terms of class, gender and so on – and transgressions have always been important in our storytelling, going back centuries. There have always been narratives that critique the prevailing traditions and assumptions. However, when storytelling is used simply to reaffirm the status quo – which is what popular cinema often does – I think that’s a problem.”

Examining the status quo – and how lives are affected when change occurs – is a central concern for him. “I have lived a life of fragments myself,” he said, “I felt much within me was scattered, and Ghatak’s cinema gave me an insight into my own scattering. I have also been interested in the making of new ‘refugees’ in our times, notions about nationhood, about families and genders: what is a man, what is a woman? And how our views of such things are proscribed and limited, leading to immense inner violence and unnecessary separations.

"When our old traditions are being challenged, we tend to hold on to the past and we take out our frustrations on those who are closest to us, as Umber does in the film. In the opening scene, his first words are 'Listen to my story'. And by the end, the man has realised his culpability, realised how his actions have ruined so many lives. It is very much a story about a changing world, where new ways of thinking and living exist, and where people who are set in the old ways have to deal with this."


[Qissa, which has been co-produced by NFDC, should get a commercial release next year, and will be out on DVD soon after that]

P.S. And returning to the question with which I began this post: this boy, with whom I saw Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, would have answered with a very firm “No”. As soon as the film ended and the director walked up on stage, our venerable critic gathered his notes, leapt out of his seat and made a mad scramble for the exit. That’s purity of purpose for you.


  1. Thanks, enjoyed reading about the director's inspirations!
    Its good that he got someone with genuine pedigree like Madan Gopal Singh to do the translation from English. Directors like Farhan Akhar do not take this aspect seriously.
    I did not get this part though -
    "However, when storytelling is used simply to reaffirm the status quo – which is what popular cinema often does – I think that’s a problem.”

    When he is talking about Indian storytelling he obviously is talking about technique, but then he ends up criticizing the popular cinema for its content? What does story telling technique has to do with that?

  2. Rahul: I probably made a leap myself in the post, without adequately clarifying it. What happened was that I asked him if he was a fan of popular Indian/Hindi cinema, which often employed the storytelling techniques he had earlier mentioned. (The question came up when he was talking about the filmmakers and films he was influenced by.) When he replied, he expressed his reservations about some of the content of popular films. The post probably makes it seem like it was all part of a linear conversation, but it wasn't. (You might say it was circular, disjointed and without closure, like the storytelling traditions he mentioned!)

  3. About his inspirations: he also told a nice little story about including a tribute to Mani Kaul in the original cut of the film (via a glimpse of a railway station called "Sarai ManKaul"), but that shot didn't find a place in the final cut.

  4. Oh, you've hit right by bringing it to discuss if one should wait for the Q&A after the screening. As in this case, Anup did try to be a bit defensive, as any other director would be. But this film is one that would be loved to discuss and debate about.

    I've read the film a bit differently, though... will write about it later (yet to transform my scribbled notes into a blogpost).

    If you saw this film at the Metro theatre screening, the audience member who thought that it is two different films into one, was me. :) (Only if I knew you were present there, I would have loved to meet you. :)) But, as I said there, when Umber puts towards the end, "I am not a man, neither a woman. Not a human, nor a ghost," the film stands explained and beautifully... and I guess, that also explains what you've been trying to say in this post about "dilution of themes."

  5. You make an excellent point about separating the creation and from its creator and not letting one influence the other while reviewing it.

    It is a dilemma that is frequently encountered and hard to fight.

    Mayank Chhaya

  6. Anup: good to see you here, and do send me the link if you write about the film. By the way, I have spoken with a couple of other viewers who were dissatisfied (more dissatisfied than you, probably) about the film's split personality.

    Mayank: thanks. And yes, the dilemma is particularly hard to fight if one is functioning both as a critic and as a journalist.

  7. “I love mainstream Hindi cinema, it has been so much a part of my growing up,” he replied. “But I have a caveat. I feel popular cinema has played with Indian storytelling traditions but also misused them at times. We have many hierarchies as a society – in terms of class, gender and so on – and transgressions have always been important in our storytelling, going back centuries. There have always been narratives that critique the prevailing traditions and assumptions. However, when storytelling is used simply to reaffirm the status quo – which is what popular cinema often does – I think that’s a problem.”

    Why is that a problem? The status-quo exists the way it does for a good reason. Art derives its strength by depicting the clash between the status-quo (let's call it conventional wisdom) and the challenge to this wisdom. This clash is not a simple "good vs evil" clash. It's a clash wherein nobody's right or wrong.

    It's important that art depicts both sides. That's what makes western art so very special. Because throughout its history, Western Art examines the clash between the conservative Judeo Christian assumptions and the liberal pagan culture that rebels against these assumptions.

    It's sad that people glorify art that challenges the status-quo while dismissing films that are more sympathetic to the status-quo as being "reactionary" or "evil". You need both sides to complete the story. For every Garam Hawa you need a Gadar.

    However while people rank Garam Hawa (a broad melodrama in its own way) as a classic, Gadar is dismissed as a trashy movie. Despite the fact that there are several grains of truth in both movies. Probably more grains of truth in the latter than in the former.