QISSA: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (Dir. Anup Singh, 2014, India) [Spoilers]

QISSA

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.

PAAN SINGH TOMAR (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2010, India) – From Hero to Bandit

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Although director Tigmanshu Dhulia has emerged as a key voice in the mainstream of Indian cinema, his last three films including Paan Singh Tomar were NOT released theatrically in the UK. Such a sorry state of affairs echoes real and immediate concerns to do with the way in which distribution is so narrow. Indian distributors based in the UK continue to select films on their commercial appeal rather than cinematic merits, which has led to many of the best Indian films never making it to cinema screens. Star power continues to be the defining criteria that distributors use to select Indian films. This has led to mediocre and pretty terrible films being exhibited in UK cinema screens – namely those starring Akshay Kumar. Shagird, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar are impressive genre films yet none of them feature an A list bankable star, thus their commerical prospects have suffered notably in foreign territories such as the UK. Thankfully, Paan Singh Tomar has been a sleeper hit in India. The film opened to a strong critical response with many praising Irfan Khan’s performance. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has slowly worked his way up through the film industry. He started as a casting director on Bandit Queen then worked as a scriptwriter on Dil Se. His career as a film director took off with his debut Haasil in 2003, followed by Charas in 2004. It is only recently that Dhulia has become more prolific and with this increase in output, he has proved himself to be a formidable genre director with real range. Dhulia’s most recent film is a historical biopic, retracing the varied life of a forgotten national athlete and hero Paan Singh Tomar, played brilliantly by Irfan Khan. (Strangely enough Paan Singh Tomar was made in 2010 before both Shagird and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster but suffered from a delayed release). Paan Singh’s trials are related to a journalist, triggering a series of flashbacks that cover his most famous exploits including his radical transformation from national hero to feared bandit.

The first half deals with Paan Singh’s time in the Indian army and his rise to fame as a medal winning steeple chase runner. Although Paan Singh is encouraged to become an athlete, his participation in many of the races points to a disinterest from the Indian government in supporting athletics as a worthwhile cause. The second half offers a radically different narrative with Paan Singh involved in a dispute over land, leading to violent conflict within the family. At first Paan Singh attempts to resolve the conflict by involving the local police but he is confronted with incompetence and corruption, ridiculing his status as a national hero. When his family is attacked, Paan Singh retaliates by attacking the despotic thugs who control the land and crops. It is not long before Paan Singh becomes an outlaw, forced to go on the run with his group of bandits. Dhulia’s experience of working on Bandit Queen is quite telling in these sequences and arguably the narrative develops into a full blown modern tragedy. What really holds all of this together is the towering performance by Irfan Khan who delivers a moving study of Paan Singh. Interestingly, Dhulia also worked as a casting director on Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, which also starred Irfan Khan, and he also employs the rural outlands of India, in this case the Chambal Valley, as a perfect aesthetic backdrop for the eventual marginalisation of Paan Singh and his bandits. This is close to perfect as grown up mainstream Indian cinema and is certainly one of the more memorable Indian films of the year.

SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER RETURNS (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2013, India) – A Royal Affair

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Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is an uninspiring title to what is one of writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s best films to date. Less of a sequel and more of a continuation, Dhulia reunites the main leads of Jimmy Shergill and Mahie Gill in a story that reaches back to the past. Unlike the first film which utilised more traditional noir narratives, with echoes of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, this seeks to frame a contemporary power struggle between Aditya Pratap Singh (Shergill) and his enemies (including his duplicitous wife) against a quest for revenge led by fallen prince Indarjeet Singh (Irfan Khan). This time round Dhulia adds a layer of political intrigue to the narrative but his thematic focus on the decadence of the royal families of India still remains a central concern. The role of Aditya Pratap Singh as a seemingly untouchable Nawab (prince) belonging to a once important Royal family based in the state of Uttar Pradesh and whose power and prestige has faded away a long time ago is a poetic, tragic and sinister figure. It is a role, which Jimmy Shergill performs with real assurance, offering a charismatic yet flawed symbol of India’s past. Pratap Singh’s faded power is rendered even more symbolically as his incapacitation in a wheelchair, as a result of the gunshot wound from the first film, becomes both an intertextual nod to masculine impairment in the noir universe and points to an incapacitation related to a deeper ancestral powerlessness. Estranged from Madhavi (Mahie Gill), Aditya has a desire to remarry and sets his eye on Ranjana, the daughter of a wealthy Nawab, played surprisingly well by Soha Ali Khan.

The first film drew its strength from the antagonism between Aditya and Madhavi, and this bitter rivalry between husband and wife provides the film with much of its narrative tensions. Dhulia is careful to never lose sight of the centrality of Madhavi’s character to the overall narrative and she is deadly as ever. Madhavi is a contemporary variation on the traditional femme fatale and unlike the first film in which sees uses his sexuality to cause havoc, Dhulia expands such predatory instincts by depicting her rise to power as a means of re-working the femme fatale vernacular. A new addition is Indarjeet Singh, a prince whose entire family was wiped out by the ruthless Pratap Singh family, now headed by Aditya. Indarjeet’s revenge quest is complicated by his relationship with Ranjana whom he intends to marry once he is avenged his family’s honour. If Indarjeet has any hope of ruining Aditya completely he has to woe Madhavi, which he does, and she becomes an ally in exchange for political power. However, it is not long before Indarjeet is embroiled in an affair with Madhavi. Ultimately, Indarjeet succumbs to the poisonous sexual manipulations of Madhavi, eventually taking up the position of the doomed noir protagonist. Yet such a doomed and fatalistic state gives the relationship between Indarjeet and Ranjana a genuinely tragic dimension.

Dhulia knows his cinema and pays homage to numerous classic Hindi films. The tragic love story, fraught relationships and decadent settings suggest this is a film in love with the past and could easily have been made in the 1950s. One striking connection to Hindi cinema of the past is the deployment of the title track ‘Lag Jaa Gale Ki…’ from the 1964 film Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?). The song, a notably haunting one and sung beautifully by Lata Mangeshkar, is about doomed love and is used sparingly by Dhulia in key moments of the narrative to underline a loneliness that afflicts the main characters. Although the film is set in Uttar Pradesh, the first film (and I am assuming this one too) was shot in Devgadh Baria, a small town in Gujarat with a royal past. Remarkably, the history of the town’s royal kings that were abolished after India gained independence may have in fact formed an inspiration for the film itself. A key ingredient in conjuring up a strong sense of the past is channelled through the architecture of the royal ancestral house in which much of the film takes place. The house is a disembodied place and the characters are made to seem uncomfortable, dwarfed by a faded grandeur in the empty rooms. Moreover, the ruined fort, once occupied by the ancestral family of Indarjeet, is another site of ghostly memories and tragedies inevitably consuming those who refuse to reconcile.

Only Indarjeet’s narrative is resolved, tragically though, while the other remaining dilemmas faced by the characters of Aditya, Madhavi and Ranjana are left open. Indarjeet succumbs to pride and commits suicide when he realises his sweetheart Ranjana has betrayed him. However, Indarjeet convinces Madhavi to smuggle Aditya’s gun out of the house and he uses the gun to commit suicide, thus directly implicating Aditya in the murder. As Aditya is arrested and taken away, Kanhaiya, his loyal bodyguard and shadow, is seen lurking in the background, hinting at Kanhaiya’s potentially decisive role in the final part of the trilogy. Like the first film in which men are the casualties and victims of Madhavi’s scheming, Dhulia ends on a similarly refreshing note, with the camera tracking a transformed Madhavi as a fashionable politician making her way to a meeting. Out of all the characters, Madhavi is the one character that manages to consolidate her power and Dhulia relishes transforming her into a proto-feminist icon, leaving the film open for a potentially fascinating third part in which arguably political power relations will be contested in a grand finale.