If the header of the post seems loaded, you will be surprised more when you watch the film. Yes, there’s gender-bending, it’s genre-bending, and a ghostly tale. Add partition, identity crisis, sexuality, female foeticide, sibling rivalry. It’s a baffling cocktail that you have never tasted before.
The ghostly part might be considered a spoiler, but since the film’s title already tells you that, am not sure if it should be counted as one. The film is titled “Qissa – The Tale Of A Lonely Ghost”. I think that’s a smart choice to let the audience know what they are getting into, and be prepared for it. On a similar tangent, it was a mistake which Talaash makers did by not getting the spoiler out.
Varun Grover saw the film at TIFF where it premiered, and reccoed it in a post here – “A film based on partition, in Punjabi, starring Irrfan and Tillotama Shome and Rasika Duggal and Tisca Chopra! I was already sold. And though it deals with partition in a more symbolic, metaphoric, allegorical way – I was moved immensely by it. Many friends had issues with the logic and amount of suspension of disbelief it demands (basic premise of a father who brings up his daughter as a son without letting anybody else know is a bit of a stretch, yes) – but it still managed to disturb and involve me probably because of the magic realism zone it enters in the 2nd half. And also because of Rasika and Tillotama’s terrific performances. Probably it’s only me but I think the film gives a solid theory on why Punjab has the maximum cases of female foeticide/infanticide. (Qissa won the NETPAC Award at TIFF)”
So i was already prepared for it. But i had no clue that it will be such a fascinating ride. The film starts with a voice-over that feels like a folktale. But it soon jumps into the reality of partition and ethnic cleansing which forms its backdrop. In the aftermath of partition, Umber Singh (Irrfan Khan) is forced to move to Punjab with his family. A loss of identity, roots and that place you call home. Do you ever get that back?
And from the politics of the land the film moves to gender politics. Having already three daughters, Irrfan forces the forth daughter to grow up like a son. The gender identity part is strange and you might question its believability factor. But i have always felt that never let the truth (or logic/reason/whatever you call it) come in the way of a great story telling. Let the filmmaker be your guiding torch in this new dark room that you have never entered. Just hold his hand tightly and enjoy the ride. Leave him only if he trips over something. In that dark room, the only thing that matters is the conviction with which the filmmaker guides you, and how much are you willing to trust him. I live to enjoy this cheap thrill, and trust me, most of the times the experience has been rewarding. It’s easy to spot the ones who know their craft and can direct. Qissa is one such dark room which you have never entered. It’s strange, it’s weird, it’s unique. You need that torch and that trust. So as you buy into the premise of its gender politics, you realise that this strange tale is becoming weird, and you keep wondering where it will end up.
Then comes the magic realism bit which wraps up the story and completes the circle. The sudden tonal shift feels slightly jerky but it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise brilliant film. Anup Singh captures the sights and sounds of the land beautifully. The arid landscape, the rustic rituals, the folksy sound, and the dialect of the region, there’s not a single false note in Qissa. Backed by strong acting talents – Irrfan Khan, Tilottama Shome, Rasika Dugal and Tisca Chopra, they manage to pull off this difficult film with much ease. Describing anything more of the film will spoil the fun for you.
Qissa is an audacious film, and all credit must go to Anup Singh for stepping into this rare territory which we hardly explore, and for delivering such a brilliant film. This is the reason why it might alienate some audience too. You are not sure how to tackle this film. So remember the dark room and hold that torch. You will be fine. Don’t miss this one. It’s rare to find such a gem. Because it’s rare to find a desi filmmaker who takes such an untrodden path.
So far I have seen only two films in India Gold section of Mumbai Film Festival, but i wouldn’t be surprised if Qissa walks away with the top prize.
(ps – It also reminded me of a strong Peruvian film, Undertow which was a strange mix of a ghostly tale and gay love story. Do watch this one too if you haven’t seen)