I had the pleasure of watching Qissa —The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (Punjabi with English sub-titles) at its North America premier at The Sikh Lens Arts & Film Festival in Orange County, CA on Nov 22nd, 2014. This is an intricate, heart-wrenching tale powerfully etched by the dexterous hands of Anup Singh.
The movie starts with the backdrop of the 1947 Partition of India and the theme of loss runs right through it. The film then goes on to mercilessly expose the ridiculous limits a patriarchy must go to, in order to preserve itself.
Umber Singh, played by the incomparable Irrfan Khan, is a Sikh man uprooted (along with his wife and three young daughters) from his village in West Punjab, and forced to flee eastward to the new India formed as a result of Partition. Soon after he is somewhat re-established in India, his wife delivers a fourth daughter, Kanwar. At this point, Umber declares they have had a son and brushing aside all objections, proceeds to raise Kanwar as a boy. This charade continues unchecked even up to the point when Umber marries Kanwar off as a man!
The absolutism of the patriarchy, accompanied by the threat of violence, runs as menacing undercurrents throughout the film. When she is giving birth for the fourth time, Umber’s wife, who somehow expects the newborn to be female, asks Umber if he plans to kill her if she does not produce the elusive son.
In a later scene when young Kanwar is injured accidentally in a scuffle with one of her sisters, Umber unleashes his wrath at the older siblings by beating the sisters in a locked room. As the drama of Kanwar’s misplaced gender identity unfolds, the women mostly watch on helplessly. That is until Umber’s daughter-in-law, a lower caste girl expected to gratefully comply with this charade, surprises everyone by questioning this status quo. But by then it is too late and the story unfolds inexorably into a disaster for all concerned.
Thematically, Partition as the starting point for the film is a powerful and relevant one. The patriarchy that so cherished the concept of “honor” built off the backs of its helpless women, then greatly exploited it during Partition—women, girls on all sides and as a matter of priority, were raped, mutilated, and devastated in ways unimaginable. That same patriarchy so bound to its feudal origins, the land it owned and a limited imagination, could only consider sons bearing its name. And this notion was so embedded in that reality that not having a male heir became as much a matter of economic devastation as of social shame.
As the director and screenplay writer, Anup Singh displays admirable restraint with minimal dialog, nuanced performances elicited from his cast, and the straightforward telling of an explosive tale. A metaphorical twist in the story leaves you stunned yet believing.
I would be remiss if I did not call out the three women actors—Tilottama Shome, Tisca Chopra and Rasika Dugal—who were perfect in their respective roles, each holding her own vis-a-vis Irrfan Khan. Tisca Chopra is perfectly cast as the mother, Umber’s wife, who is at once strong in somehow bearing through this farce and yet infuriatingly aware of her own powerlessness and place. Tilottama Shome, who plays Kanwar during the teenage years and as a young adult, does an incredible job providing a window into Kanwar’s deep suffering. Her fundamental crisis of identity shifting between her desire to be true to herself yet unable to divorce herself from her father’s sculpting, is heart wrenching to watch. Rasika Dugal plays Neeli – the young, spirited daughter-in-law who shocks everyone by refusing to comply with the status quo. However she does care for Kanwar and tries in vain to help her overcome her crisis. There is a lovely, delicate scene between the two women when they laugh in tears about how each of them fell in love with another woman!
All in all this film is a rare treat. It took Anup Singh 13 years to make this. And you can see why—it’s a carefully crafted tale that deserves the most discerning and appreciative of audience. I for one had been rooting for it as India’s entry for “Best Foreign Film” at the 2015 Oscars. It was that good, Mr. Singh!
Reena Kapoor graduated with a B.Tech in Engineering from IIT Delhi followed by an MS from Northwestern University, USA. Reena lives and works in Silicon Valley, and has been a founding donor, and a Citizen Historian collecting stories for The 1947 Partition Archive since 2011.