Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Notes on Qissa – A Tale Of A Lonely Ghost by Anup Singh, India/Germany: 2013

For Thérese and Anamika

I am sure if we once have to try to understand the recent film history of this still young century, we probably could  to do this as well with the help of Adrian Martin´s wonderful essay Great Events and Ordinary People. Actually meant as a laudatio for Terrence Malick´s masterpiece The Tree of Life, it is also a thought provoking and refreshing essay on the dynamic between the extraordinary and ordinary events which influence the life of the people.

Anup Singh´s Qissa is on one level an epic period drama, on the other hand as well a very intimate play. Among so much other things, it is as well a paradigm of excellent cinema scope photography which reminds be in the ground breaking use of this format in Max Ophüls´ Lola Montez. In the film by Ophüls and in the film by Singh, the Cinemas scope frame can open our view to the eternity of the world and in the next moment and especially in interior scenes, it makes us to prisoners and all the glory of the world is temporally out of our sight. 

Qissa is also a film about landscapes, the geographical one of the Pakistani and Indian part of the Punjab but as well the landscape of the faces, especially the face of actress Tillotama Shome who appears in this film as an Indian pendant to Maria Renée Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer´s La Passion de Jeanne d´Arc. In Qissa these faces are as impressing than the desert-like landsapes, the villages with destroyed and burnt houses houses.

Thematically Qissa consists also of variations of identity, the identity which is given to us by global and national history but as well the more intimate identity given to us by the families we come from. One can see this film as one single circular movement. But this circular movement includes also the centrifugal force which throw the protagonists literal from the center of their home and identity  to the No Man´s Land where they have to define themselves again.
As the film begins with the partition of India we are introduced to a Sikh family which escapes from the Pakistan-territory of the Punjab to the Indian part, the film turns into a very private drama about this family , father, mother and three daughters. The father is longing for a son because in the ideolgy of a patriarchal society only a son can safe the heritage of a family. But the fourth child is also a girl. Now something very strange happens, the father ignores this fact and raises his youngest daughter like a son. The father´s (Irrfan Khan) loss of reality does not even stop when his youngest daughter Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) gets her first menstruation.
Later the father marries her to a girl called Neeli from a lower caste. The wrong gender identity the father forced on her daughter is finally blown up.
But the narration gets now a very remarkable twist. The loss of identity caused by historic circumstances has now its pendant in the loss of gender identity. Like I mentioned, Tillotama Shome´s appearance as Kanwar emphasized a likely androgynous aspect like Falconettis Jeanne d´Arc in Dreyers film, a deeply human aspect but often hidden behind the conditioned definition of gender roles.

It is probably as well a cinematic aspect, because cinema does not only tell very often about things which once were but also about things which could have been. Cinema can also question what we define as our identity and in the case of Qissa – there are moments we are really not always sure if we are boy or girl. Actually as the patriarchal dominated society which caused the father´s insanity, Neeli and Kanvar finally become a lesbian love couple. But as soon as they found their own sexual identity the community again turns against them.
The father killed by Kanwar appears later as a ghost. I remember that I once wrote on Buddhadeb Dasgupta s film Kaalpurush “that to love cinema means we have to believe sometimes in ghosts”.
Finally we realize that Qissa is told from a perspective of a ghost, a soul which will be lost forever. The failures of what we call history but as well the mistakes made in the personal history of a family are close relatives.

In another kind than Anup Singh´s homage to Ritwik Ghatak, Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of A River, 2002) Qissa has as well a dreamlike quality. Ekti Nadir Naam is neither a bio pic nor a documentary on Ghatak but Anup Singh really dreams himself through all the richness of the cinematic realm of one of India´s finest filmmaker and the film could be also named "Poem for Ritwik Ghatak". If you own the brilliant DVD released by the British Film Institute, it is worth to see the film once again with the director´s commentary soundtrack., one of the most interesting, moving and honest commentaries of this kind I ever heard.

Qissa might be a different approach by director Anup Singh than this incredible Ekti Nadir Naam, but it is made with the likely dreamlike beauty the same wisdom in history (and history of cinema) and with the same delicateness.
The faces of Irrfan Khan, Tillotama Shome or Rasika Dugal are still hunting me. As there is nothing I can do about, I at least now from past experiences that this is exactly a sign when a film becomes to be a part of my heart.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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