Being uprooted from your home is the biggest of all losses that the Partition came with for Umber Singh. Carrying the baggage of his past, he moves to a new city with his wife and three daughters. The birth of a son, believes Umber, would make up for all his losses. He could live a new life, a new beginning. But destiny fails him yet again by giving him a fourth daughter. Umber is not ready to accept this defeat and raises his daughter as a boy. He even goes to the extend of getting her married to a girl and then things go out of his hand.
Those who have seen the Punjabi film, Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost, say that it is one of Irrfan Khan’s best performances till date. Khan, who appears as the sometimes childish and sometimes maniacal Umber Singh, is supported by a talented cast that includes Tisca Chopra, Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal. The film, which won the Netpac (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award for the best Asian film at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival, 2013, however, is not an easy film to watch, agrees its maker Anup Singh. “It unfolds those secret and fragile aspects of our life that we are usually unable to share with others,” he says.
Born and raised in Tanzania, Anup Singh, a graduate of direction from Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, took 12 years to make this film.
When THE WEEK met him at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival, 2013, where his film was adjudged the second best in the India Gold category, Singh told us about his inspirations, why Irrfan Khan was not keen on being cast in Qissa and his upcoming projects.
Your childhood seems to be a storehouse of stories. Tell us about it.
I was born and raised in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and my memory of the African sky has always been very important for my feelings about cinema. There is a boundlessness about the African sky, it doesn’t seem to end in any horizon. And yet, somehow, it does not seem so far high above our head. The clouds hover in three-dimensions in that light, just overhead. The feeling is that one could stretch out a hand and pluck a feather from one of the clouds. The gods in the sky do not seem so far away.
Paradoxically, in this world that seemed to be open in all directions, my grandfather could only talk about the home that the partition of India had dispossessed him of. Qissa, then, grew in me from this paradox of a vastness all around me and my grandfather’s stories of loss. Throughout his life, my grandfather carried a bitter resentment about his loss of home. It tore him ap
art and often he could not help but turn on his own family with a despairing, remorseless violence. Somehow, any which way, he needed to avenge his loss. When you view Qissa, you’ll immediately see that this is the inspiration for the character of Umber (played by Irrfan Khan).
Qissa, then, is a journey into the immense, epic land of the Punjab, where landscape, history, memory and folklore meet. The story is about Umber Singh, a Sikh, who is uprooted by the partition in 1947 and attempts to forge a new life in the new India for himself and his family.
Twelve years is a long time to spend on making a movie. Was the quest for perfection that made it take so long?
I can’t say I believe in perfection, but I do believe in process. Each one of us lives time differently and I wanted this film of mine to take its own time growing. It did take me three years of intense writing to prepare the script and then, of course, the knocking at various doors in India to find a producer for the film—well, that took another five years and I still did not find one.
Some thought me certifiable for wanting to make such a film. Others, who liked the script, only wanted to make it in Hindi or English, with actors of their choice. Whereas I was determined to make the film in Punjabi and I knew by then that there was only Irrfan Khan that I wanted for the role of my grandfather. Just about then NFDC said that they wanted to make it. That was a very important moment for me because, though, NFDC could contribute only a part of the budget that the film needed, it gave me new strength to continue.
As luck would have it, another project of mine was invited to the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where filmmakers are helped to meet potential European producers. It is here that I met Bettina Brokemper and Johannes Rexin of Heimatfilm, Germany. Bettina listened to my narration of Qissa over a few cups of coffee and, at the end, stunned me by saying “Yes, we are going to do the film!” After that, it was Johannes Rexin’s belief in the project, his unrelenting drive for almost four years to gather other partners for the project – since each could only contribute a small amount for the film – that finally made Qissa possible.
What does your motherland Punjab mean to you, considering that you have never lived there?
I’ve never lived in Punjab, but visited relatives with my mother sometimes. Traveling in the Punjab, I understood my grandfather’s yearning, his sense of loss. There is a largesse about the land and the people that reminds you of old-world courtesies, generosity and hospitality which are becoming extremely rare in big cities. Other than that, what is so inspiring for me as a writer and filmmaker about the Punjab is that it’s a land and a consciousness formed by a vast experience of journeys—it ‘s through Punjab that India seems to open to the rest of Asia. I think of the journeys of Guru Nanak and the tradition of sharing with the world that he taught us. I think of the various Sufi traditions, spiritual as well as artistic, that have given Punjab it’s vitalistic music, its simultaneously sensuous as well as spiritual poetry and, of course, the great qissas – Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal, Mirza-Sahiba.
The title Qissa means fable. What are the qissas that influenced the making of the film?
Amongst all the stories I heard from my relatives who lived through the Partition, there is one that stayed with me and has a lot to do with Qissa. Many women, as you know, would jump into wells rather than risk rape when their village was attacked during the partition. A very old man told me that his daughter, hardly a teenager, had jumped into the well too and, now, sixty years later, he still dreams about her. He told me that in his dream he sees her in the well, looking up at the circle of sky above her, waiting for him, her father, to come for her.
This story was one of the starting points of Qissa. As you can see, the strange thing with many of these stories is that they start as very real tales, traumatic memories, but often veer off into the imaginary, as if to affirm that something else could have happened, that, perhaps, somehow their lost daughters, sisters, brothers were still living some other life. I really wanted this quality of a fable for Qissa, but without directly telling you that this is a fable. This film is personal on one level but it also deals with this wound in the memory of our nation that keeps on getting pricked and prodded by our politicians for their own purposes.
How important do you think is language to cinema, given that you made your first film in Bengali, your next in Punjabi and are getting ready to helm your next in Marathi?
I believe a film is a rhythm of nuances, light and shadow, tones and sonorities. Every language has its texture, lilt and dance. I choose every detail in a film because each choice is its own sensuous play as well as contributes to the resonance of the whole film. A film in Bengali, then, is bound to be very different in its evocations from a film in Punjabi or Marathi. The language I choose to make the film in is as important and integral to the film as the kind of lighting or movement or composition that I choose for the film.
Tell us about the casting of the film.
Initially, Irrfan did not really want to do the film. So I met a number of other actors suggested by my friends or my producers. The only other actor I was convinced could bring a vibrant imagination to the role was Ronit Roy. Just discussing the role with him was a joy. His insights and enthusiasm suggested a totally new way for me to approach the making of Qissa. However, I saw that I would have to recast everyone else and find a new family that would match his energy and rhythms. After a lot of thought, I decided that might not be the best for the film I wanted to make. I went back to Irrfan and told him that he simply had to do the film. Irrfan was hesitant because he thought the character I wanted him to play was too dark. I suggested to him that we together watch some recordings of Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan. I pointed out to him the agony and almost a kind of violence that we saw in Nusrat Saab’s face and body as he sang. But, finally, what came from that was a fragile and affirmative music that one but rarely hears. Irrfan understood immediately what I was trying to tell him and accepted to do the film.
Who are your cinematic inspirations?
Ritwik Ghatak, Kenzi Mizoguchi, Guru Dutt … ask me five minutes later and I’ll have another, totally different list simply because cinema for a filmmaker is life. And, like in life, every encounter, every moment, changes us.
What, other than films, do you enjoy the most?
What I enjoy and savour most is wandering aimlessly through streets in any part of the world with a friend and my wife, sharing a song, a poem, the light of some film, aimless chatter that, perhaps, brings us once again to the possibilities that we are as human beings.
I’m now trying to start Lasya, The Gentle Dance, a film set in the streets of Mumbai with 3 beggar women of different generations. The project has already won the Prins Claus award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and the CNC award at the Locarno International Film Festival. The film is to be in Marathi and is an homage to our grand and cruel city, Mumbai.