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Qissa is a 2013 Indian-German drama film in Punjabi written and directed by Anup Singh. The film was released in Indian theaters on 20 February 2015 nationwide and simultaneously on DVD and VOD as well. The film was screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the Netpac Award for World or International Asian Film. The theme of the film focuses on desire of a Sikh man towards having a son to continue the family lineage.
The film received positive reviews from film critics as well as audience. It received a 7.3 out of 10 rating based on 16 reviews on ReviewMonk, an Indian film review aggregating site (similar to MetaCritic). The critics consensus was "A masterpiece that lovers of parallel cinema would thoroughly enjoy. This unconventional and heart-breaking folk tale captures human emotions unlike any other recent Indian film."
By Suhani Singh: It took writer-director Anup Singh 12 years to raise the money to get his sophomore film, Qissa, going and another year and a half to release it in Indian cinemas since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. If you can't make it to the select cinemas in Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh, Chennai and Kolkata in the coming week, then the film also sees a release on video-on-demand site (www.cinemasofindia.com) and DVD simultaneously on February 20.
An international co-production between India, Germany, Netherlands and France, the film follows a displaced family in the immediate aftermath of India-Pakistan partition. The crack in the family appears when its dominating Sikh patriarch (Irrfan Khan), desperate for a male child, raises his fourth newborn, also a girl, as a male child. With career-defining performances by Tillotama Shome (Monsoon Wedding) and Rasika Duggal (Kshay) and striking production design, the film is a sombre drama which will intrigue viewers with its flight of fancy towards the end.
In an interview with India Today, Geneva-based filmmaker Anup Singh, born in Tanzania to Indian parents, talks about how a relative's tale about the Partition germinated the idea for the film. A graduate of literature and philosophy from University of Mumbai, Singh later studied direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, and then spent two decades in UK before moving to Geneva, Switzerland, where he teaches in the cinema department of the Ecole Superieure Des Beaux Arts. Below is an edited transcript.
The film comes out of secrets and fragile things that we carry within ourselves. Who is amongst us doesn't think of our childhood as a ghost? Who hasn't sacrificed something for our family? Now these ghosts are a way of looking. Every writer or director brings his or her way of looking into the tiniest hint of a story. A relative told me a simple story. He had a 14-year-old daughter who, like many back then, had jumped into the well when the village was attacked. He said he dreamed about her every night - that she is in the well looking up and waiting for him to come and save her.
Every filmmaker wants his film to be seen by as many people as possible. Is that what drove the decision for a simultaneous release in three formats? The decision is not only mine but also of the Indian producers, the National Film Development Corporation, who are more experienced than I am. What they had in mind was that this is a Punjabi film which has managed to create an interest in a range of audience. Now how is it possible to reach this audience? We knew we wouldn't get that many cinemas in non-Punjabi speaking areas. That we get any cinemas at all is already a blessing.
The idea behind doing VOD and DVD release simultaneously is that people who don't feel the need to see it in cinemas but want to see it nonetheless have an opportunity to see it. From a filmmaker's point of view it is a little sad because we make the film with such hard work, precision and delicacy and we make it for the big screen. I'd really, really want viewers to make the attempt to see it on a large screen. We have put a lot of blood into it.
You've had your share of struggle to get the film made. Was your decision to make it in Punjabi the main deterrent?There were two prongs to it. Firstly, as you said, it was a Punjabi film. A decade ago the Punjabi cinema wasn't doing well. I was looking at producers in Mumbai. They asked me to do it in Hindi or English, and said that they will decide the cast. These were two factors I simply couldn't agree with. I spent about five years in Mumbai trying to raise money for the film. Only support I got was from the NFDC, who could give only a minimum amount of money. So we needed a co-producer. That was what I was looking for her but it was in vain. Then gradually we got the international producers on board.
Tillotama Shome and Rasika Duggal in a still from QissaThere is a pivotal scene in the film involving the emotional breakdown of Tillotama Shome's character, Kanwar, a woman who is raised to be a man. Did the Central Board of Film Certification give you trouble with it?I was aware that we would have trouble. But I didn't want to give them a chance to cut anything as the film's rhythm would have been affected. What I did while I was shooting the film was I shot an alternative to the abovementioned scene. It was one of the saddest choices I had to make. What I wasn't aware of was that even the bare back shown while her bathing would be problematic. So they [CBFC] have blurred it.
Irrfan Khan in a still from QissaThere is a saturated feel to the film. The house always appears dark, highlighting the mood in the family. Tell us about the look you designed for the film. The film is about partition. It is not just the partition of history but more intimate partitions - ones we create within our families, between men and women and communities, what we think is real and what is false, between life and death. So if the theme is partition, then I was looking at the light to give us an alternative, to give us something else. While the light in its play of light and dark can give us a sense of separation, I didn't want that. There was a coming together of light and dark in the film.
It also comes through the choice of colours. I worked with quite saturated but deeply muted colours. The house itself is dark brown. Colours are used to indicate dramatic development in the film. We move from browns reds to yellow to purple at one point and then return to brown red.
The supernatural element in the story comes as a surprise. It also created divisive reactions among viewers.The film is called Qissa. Our qissa tradition is confrontation of the real with the unreal. The way we have been trained now to watch films is that they should stay within a certain expectation. But our storytelling and mythology has never done that. I was a bit taken aback with the reviews. Abroad I could understand, though many did celebrate the idea. I think every culture or nation has storytelling traditions. We have a tendency to follow Hollywood -a formula of how we should write a script and construct a film.
Each film has logic of dramatic progression but there is also one of thematic progression. This film, from the very beginning, actually gives you hints that it is seeing the story not in dramatic terms... So we don't have those huge fight sequences of the partition, people being cut into pieces or women jumping into wells. We have muted the whole drama, and made the whole thing in terms of camera movement and the choreography of the movement of the actors.
The film is also about redemption and forgiveness. By breaking the tone of the film if you like, I wanted the film to shock and I think it is important because it would leave the audience to ask the question 'Why?' Of course it would also lead them to never forget the film because it had disturbed them.
Irrfan is in command here but Tillotama and Rasika - also stand out. What made you pick the two for the roles of Kanwar and Neeli?Tillotama came to me through an audition. I must say as soon as she entered the room I knew she'd play Kanwar. Then when I started working with her in the audition, I saw a great struggle within her to try and convince me that she is a man. I let that be and didn't say anything to her. I asked her to see two films of Dilip Kumar - Aan and Tarana - and didn't tell her why. She watched it and understood quite a bit of what I was looking for but she was still unsure as to what. Much later in the shoot did she realise that even in the great torment there were moments that Kanwar could smile. I asked her what does that mean. She thought about it and came back to me and said, 'I have understood that I don't need to play a man; that I just have to be the best son for my father.' And that's exactly what she has done. She doesn't try to deceive us or caricature the character.
With Rasika, I had seen a FTII diploma film she had acted in. I was completely entranced by her performance. There was something about her as a performer that I liked very much. I saw that she was a true actress when I met her in real life. You know when you see the birds in the air, and when they open their wings there is an opening inside you? That's the feeling Rasika gave me. She disorients you. She always gives you the unexpected. She is so alive to every moment, she convinces you that she is living in the moment and not playing it. The joie de vivre and the bird-like quality of opening herself is exactly what shakes the family in the film which is tied down by the patriarch.
The film raises pertinent points on gender identity. Did you want to make a statement on the issue? Our tendency is always to look at things as definable concepts. I think human beings are much more. We are beyond social messages. My attempt in the film was never ever to talk about lesbianism. It was to see how two people when put in certain circumstances would find for themselves what they want to be in the circumstance, and not in how we project them or perceive them or like them to get together. I'd find that cheesy, belittling. I do not think that is what it means to be gay. I don't think you become gay simply because you don't have an opposite sex partner or been tormented. You can love a person but that doesn't mean you become gay. It is belittling of homosexuality, even more of friendship, that we immediately taint it with sexuality. That there is certain eroticism and sensuousness but that is part everything in life. I don't want to fit it into a category. 2b1af7f3a8