Cast: Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shone, Rasika Dugal, Tisca Chopra, Danish Akhtar, Sonia Bindra, Faezeh Jalali
Director: Anup Singh
Rating: ****

Suparna Sharma
Feb 21, 2015

Writer-director Anup Singh’s Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost tells a qissa in the true tradition of the Persian original which fathered the Punjabi variety. It’s a qissa that straddles two worlds — the earthly and the spectral; two lands — this land on this side of the border and that one across; two eras — the present and the past; and two genders.

The film’s screenplay, direction, camerawork, art direction, dialogue, music, costumes and, above all, sharp and stunning performances come together to ensure that this qissa gets told with the “peculiar vagrancy of the imagination” intrinsic to qissas. Singh’s film, an Indian-German production in Punjabi with English subtitles, achieves exactly what a good qissa aims to: It leaves you haunted — feeling a bit hallucinatory, uneasy, even disturbed.

A long time after the film is over, Qissa will lurk behind you, murmuring. And you’ll find yourself grappling with the stuff it’s whispering, the questions it’s asking of you. You’ll find yourself seeking some answers.

Last year India recognised the third gender — transgenders. It acknowledged their existence and gave them sanction to exist. Singh’s Qissa acknowledges another being — the transgender in spirit, made so by a father’s obsession for a son.

Beginning in Pakistan and returning there in the end, Qissa is the story of Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan), a husband, a father, a man rendered homeless by marauding hordes during Partition. Displaced, hurting, angry, Umber decides to twist life according to his wish, even if that means living with some self-loathing. He replies in kind to what fate throws at him and plots revenge. First on the Muslims who’ll take over his house and, later, on his destiny, his child. He dodged fate once, cocked a snook at it. And he’ll do it again.

Umber, a refugee who has three daughters, begins life again in Punjab, India, where his wife, Mehr (Tisca Chopra) is pregnant for the fourth time. Umber didn’t look at his third daughter when she was born, but now he’s determined to have a son, a resolve shaped by the patriarchal world he lives in and traumatic memories of Partition. It’s not like he doesn’t likes his daughters. He does. But only a son will connect him to his land, only a son will carry forward his name, his legacy.

It’s an apocalyptic moment when the dai is goading Mehr to push, and Mehr says this child doesn’t want to come into this world. Umber is by her side and so she pushes. Mehr tries to look to confirm whether it’s a son or a daughter, but Umber brushes her hand away. He’s celebrating the birth of his son. The child is named Kanwar, prince.

We jump several years, often, years when Kanwar’s (Danish Akhtar) three elder sisters Kulbir, Soni and Bali may have watched their brother bathing, playing, sleeping and realised Kanwar isn’t their brother. We skip the years when the very same world that drove Umber insane with the desire for a son may have intervened to check.

Those moments are not allowed to intrude. Only a few telling milestones are allowed, events that don’t just take the story forward but shape characters, change them. That’s the writer, director’s conceit and it demands, if a qissa is to be enjoyed, suspension of disbelief.

Growing up in a world that resounds with Umber’s cheerful refrain “mera munda, mera put” (my son, my son) Kanwar grows up away and aloof from the world the four women live in the same house. He lives the life his father wants him to and grows up a boy who is slightly lesser, is drawn in. Reality does sometimes stare Umber in the face. But it only further cements his resolve that he’s the father of a son.

Kanwar is married off to Neeli (Rashika Duggal), a gypsy (Naqal), and Umber desires a grandson. The story now coils and doesn’t so much as move but skulk forward, to a cursed man who is forced to stand witness to the heart-rendering howls of his own daughter and have no answers.

Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost is a complicated film based on a complicated idea. Its screenplay, by Singh and Madhuja Mukherjee, is woven with powerful motifs and themes that we are constantly in dialogue with. It’s that kind of  film where inanimate objects come to life, acquire meaning and a haunting story of their own. There’s a reech (bear), revenge, Partition, gender, gender identity, homosexuality, and patriarchy pivoting on the all-encompassing conspiracy required to keep it intact. It’s the kind of film that we hardly get to see on our screens. Don’t miss it.

Qissa’s superb dialogue, again by Singh and Madan Gopal Singh are in old-world Punjabi, a language that grew up playing with Urdu. It’s gentle and sweet, gur like.
Qissa will be watched, rewatched and cherished for many things, especially career-defining performances by its entire ensemble. That all the actors get Punjabi diction right doesn’t even begin to tell of their brilliant, measured, nuanced performances.

Rarely do we get to watch films where we are constantly reading faces minutely, searching for answers, for clues. We do so here and they all remain dazzlingly ambiguous. None more so than the ever fabulous Irrfan Khan who inhabits the persona of a Sikh, a father, a husband, a soul with incredibly lyrical sagacity.  Traumatised and desperate, he possesses and exudes spookiness that’s fundamental to connecting with this qissa.

As a human being lost in the two identities of male and female, Kanwar’s role played first by young Danish and later Tillotama is extremely challenging. Tillotama’s finest hour is not the beginning where, to play a man, she overdoes and projects maleness with a firm jaw and an unwillingness to smile. She’s rather self-conscious, forced and remains constrained, especially in comparison with Rashika Duggal’s Neeli, who is luminous, much more natural. Duggal runs wild with her role.

But then comes a scene towards the end that will physically jolt you, and tell you that there is, indeed, something worse than the crime of murdering your own child. It’s to hold your child hostage to an identity of your making.