The title of the film comes from the arabic word ‘Qissa’ which means folk tale. The Punjabi Qissa has a strong oral tradition and families from the Punjab can recite Qisse or tales that are both specific to genre and a family history. Anup Singh draws widely on such a cultural tradition, narrating a tragic family tale by mixing melodrama with a decisive supernatural accent that borrows iconographically from horror tropes. However, the folk-tale form is complicated by the direct references to the partition of India, mixing past and present histories. This is director Anup Singh’s first film after 12 years and he has described the struggle to finance Qissa in many interviews. Singh trained at the Institute of Film and Television at Pune and his teachers included Ritwik Ghatak, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. His first film Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River, 2003), partly funded by the BFI and NFDC, is a tribute to Ritwik Ghatak. Qissa is the first film of the newly formed co-production treaty between Germany and India, and the cast and crew is an international one.
The story follows a lower middle class Sikh family who are displaced and sees them rebuild a new life in a new India after partition. Umber and his wife have three daughters and the birth of a fourth child, another girl, makes Umber, desperate to replicate ignoble traditions and prove his virility as a man, declare the child a boy. Gender confusion ensues with Kanwar. As she gets older, her gender identity is questioned internally, until one day they decide to marry Kanwar to Neeli, a feisty Sikh girl who has no idea what secrets and lies plague the family. Kanwar’s marriage creates a desperate crisis, enslaving Neeli to a terrible reality, leading to the sad destruction of the family. Although it becomes apparent that Umber is a self-destructive figure, his patriarchal anxieties consuming him, the real tragedy of this tale is Kanwar. In many ways, Singh uses Kanwar’s gender crisis as a wider metonym for the trauma of partition, suggesting the blurring of gender identities mirrors the crises of family and national identity families were forced to undertake as a result of partition. Nonetheless, the attempt to erase Kanwar’s femininity by her father and in effect the family who remain complicit in such oppression criticizes patriarchal culture in a post partition context.
Perhaps it is only as a ghost that borders become invisible. Umber Singh (Irfan Khan), an exile and victim of partition, is displaced from Pakistan to India, and reconciliation with such a cataclysmic disturbance never emerges and in fact never can. Umber, already a ghost of partition, is shot dead when he tries to rape his daughter in law. He is damned and doomed to live in a permanent state of exile, drifting as a form of punishment for his sins, haunting the memories of his daughter. In the living, Umber already is a patriarchal monster, but when he is killed, his transformation into a symbolic monster predicated on historical and patriarchal lines makes him altogether more potent. Umber’s inability to reconcile with his status as an exile and refugee of partition is one of the most unequivocal links to Ghatak’s work, a key influence on Singh as a filmmaker, since the trauma of partition affected Ghatak personally. Irfan Khan’s moving and complex portrayal of Umber Singh (a career defining role), a man burdened with the memories of partition, is equally matched by Tillotama Shome’s memorably anguished performance as Kanwar. Qissa is due for release later this year in India. The film has already had its UK premiere this year at the London Indian Film Festival. Given the strong buzz around the film and its continuing presence at film festivals Qissa has the potential to do well commercially.